I was glancing at the Huffington Post today when I ran into yet another piece of what I wish was absurdist health reporting. Unfortunately, it’s meant to be taken seriously.
What’s even worse is that there is a real problem hidden in the hyperbole, but the author’s over-the-top rant does more to obscure than expose the issue.
In this country, we’ve never known how to deal with psychiatric disease. From the mass institutionalization present for much of our history, to the massive de-institutionalization of the mid-1960’s, from forced lobotomies and sterilizations, to the development of helpful medications and their use, and perhaps overuse, we have lived with a chaotic mental health care system. This system is somehow divorced from the rest of the health care system, despite the fact that the brains is an organ like any other. Mental health care is expensive and spotty, and compared to health care involving every other organ, is nearly completely uncovered by insurance.
All that being said, we’ve made huge strides in treating disorders of the mind. Lobotomy, a crude, but occasionally effective technique was replaced by anti-psychotic drugs in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Forced sterilizations were finally abandoned by the early 70’s. Advances in psychotherapy and psychopharmacology continued, and the last 20 years have seen the introduction of very effective anti-depressants, and of anti-psychotics that largely lack the devastating side-effects of the earlier drugs. In addition, newer forms of electroconvulsive therapy have been studied that, while still largely a last resort, are much more effective and much safer.
One of the controversies in modern child psychiatry is the role of diagnosis and of medication in children, especially regarding attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There are a number of legitimate controversies regarding possible overdiagnosis and overmedication, and these issues are subjects of active study.
For example, Breggin starts his essay with a seductive statement that is based on a questionable premise:
In this highly politicized season, is there something we can all agree upon? I think so. From the political left or right, we should be able to come together around the idea that it’s bad to use psychiatric drugs to control children.
Well, duh! But is there really a widespread problem such as the one he assumes? Certainly he gives no evidence other than emotional appeals and hyperbolic language.
The same issues arise in regard to the massive drugging of millions of American children. The threat of social control is now an actuality. In almost every classroom in the nation, at least a few children are being subdued by psychiatric drugs to make it easier to manage their behavior. In many public schools, 10%-15% or more of children are being drugged with stimulants, mood stabilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs. Meanwhile, in special education, foster care and public institutions, nearly all the children will be drugged, often with multiple chemical agents at once.
We are literally subduing our children instead of reforming our schools and family life. And since every child knows that many children are being drugged, every child, for better or worse, knows that certain kinds of behavior will lead to being medicated.
He apparently believes that there is an active conspiracy to subdue and control most children pharmacologically, and terrorize the rest.
Who is this guy?
Breggin has been around for a while. In the early 70s he was associated with the Scientology cult’s anti-psychiatry CCHR. He reportedly left the organization because the Scientologists creeped him out, although he does admit to sharing some of their goals.
At his website, Breggin takes aim at the entire psychiatric profession, attacking every tool available to modern psychiatry. From reading his website, it’s not clear what alternative he proposes, other than “compassion and empathy”, which certainly is a requirement, but hardly sufficient.
When Jack Kennedy initiated the mass deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients, he had very good intentions. Unfortunately, there was no societal mechanism available to help the now-homeless patients.
Similarly, Breggin would appear to toss out any beneficial treatments that involve pharmacology on principle, without a clear, evidence-based alternative. This not only does a disservice to those suffering from illnesses of the mind, but it detracts from real criticisms of over-medication and medicalization.
This guy is a classic crank, so it’s no surprise to seem him being hosted by HuffPo. It’s too bad they can’t use their influence to help inspire actual change in our broken system. If Breggin and Huffington actually care about the mentally ill, perhaps they could lobby for increased access to care, increased research funding, and a social support system. Perhaps they could provide solutions rather than conspiracy theories. Or maybe that’s too much to hope for.