Mental Health Care in America: A Shakespearean Tragedy?
October 26, 2016
According to NIMH, approximately 16 million adults in the United States experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2012. Major Depressive Disorder is defined as “Depressed mood and/or loss of interest or pleasure in life activities for at least two weeks and symptoms that cause clinically significant impairment in social, work, or other important areas of functioning almost every day.” Social factors, environmental triggers, and increased stress in modern life all influence mental health, including the onset of depression. With healthcare expenditures approaching $3 trillion, our disorders and diseases are helping to keep the US economy rolling.
How Western medicine, especially in the United States, currently approaches mental health is well deserving of scrutiny. As this article puts it, “Overall, nowhere across the human health spectrum is Western medicine more unknowledgeable than in the realm of mental health.” Hippocrates, the founding father of modern medicine, was himself reluctant to administer drugs and engage in specialized treatment that might prove to be wrongly chosen. So how has Hippocratic medicine, once humble and passive, now become Hippo-critical medicine? Call me an allopathic apprehensive but my personal experience swimming (or sinking) in the swamps of SSRI-dominated waters leads me to question the overall ethics of Western medicine.
Here’s part of my personal story: For years I argued with my psychiatrist to help me wean off my antidepressants, which I felt were worsening my condition. Instead of hearing my plea, I was given another diagnosis: paranoia. My trusted professional, an Ivy league-educated physician, went from advocate to adversary in one pen stroke.
Et tu Brute?
The tragedy of our current mental health system is that we’ve handed over our greatest asset–our health–to uninformed authority figures. The “ill patient” is treated by the “healthy practitioner,” placing all the power in the practitioner’s lap, along with the patient’s hopes that the trusted expert will support the patient’s healing. In my case, this was no small feat, considering the 15-year battle with drug addiction that surely contributed to my dreary state of mind.
Through sheer determination and a bit of rebellion, I took matters into my own hands. I began researching alternative, natural methods. The years of fear-constructed pathological labels were powerfully engrained in my psyche but my new-found success with alternative medicine including yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism, was evident, allowing me to abandon the use of medication entirely. Indeed, the proof was in the (non-psychotropic) pudding.
More than ever, clinicians and practitioners are witnessing the limitations of psychotropic medications in the treatment of mental health and are embracing alternative methods. One clinical review showed that many widely prescribed medications have been known to have adverse side effects, which are then extinguished by more medication, resulting in the reliance upon a psychotropic cocktail of multiple drugs to maintain homeostasis. In Toxic Psychiatry, Harvard-trained psychiatrist Peter Breggin, M.D. writes, “We have seen that during the first two decades (1954 to 1973) of wide-spread neuroleptic use, psychiatry in general failed to notice that half or more of chronic state hospital patients were trembling, twitching, and displaying other bizarre drug-induced symptoms….while psychiatry continues to find it convenient to ignore the tragedy of destroying the brains and minds of the very people it is supposed to be helping.”
Whereas the contemporary Western view places emphasis on acute care or symptom resolution, the new paradigm of Integrative Mental Health (IMH) relies on a more proactive, holistic approach to wellness. There is an apparent shift in how practitioners and patients understand and relate to mental health treatment. According to Lake, Helgason, & Sarris, “The more ‘inclusive’ paradigm of IMH may more adequately address each patient’s unique needs, including physical and psychological well-being, social relationships, and spiritual values.” It only seems logical that as we discover advances in the different facets of human existence and the psyche, we apply those findings to mental health treatment, similar to how advances in industrial science lead to upgrades in technology.
One significant shift in this arena is the merging of contemporary allopathic medicine with complementary and alternative medicine in mental health treatment. Lake, Helgason, & Sarris note, “We believe that an integrative paradigm that reconciles non-allopathic systems of medicine with contemporary biomedicine will result in significant improvements in mental health care.” Finally, the authors emphasize, “The integrative practitioner of the 21st century will rely on their clinical skills in combination with conventional psychological and biological assessment findings, together with information describing the patient’s unique biological and energetic state to plan individualized multilevel treatment strategies.”
Today, if the DSM-5 were a character in a Shakespearean play, she would undoubtedly be Lady Macbeth….“Thou’rt mad to say it.”
Anjali Talcherkar, M.A. is a writer, recovered alcoholic/addict, and an addictions researcher. She holds a Master’s degree in Psychology and Addiction Studies from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Integrative Medicine/Integrative Mental Health from Saybrook University. Anjali has collaborated with neuroscientist researchers at UCLA’s Center for Addictive Behavior Harvard’s Division on Addiction. She is a nationally certified yoga instructor. Her forthcoming book is a personal memoir and Eastern interpretation of addiction and the 12 steps.