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Just Say No 

Conventional wisdom says psychiatric drugs save lives, but for some San Franciscans the pills are a prescription for disaster

Wednesday, May 23 2007
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Brooklynne Michelle has some regrets about having watched The Matrix. She says it's one of the worst movie-viewing choices a bipolar person like herself could ever make.

While riding BART one night, Michelle suddenly noticed that all the ads in the car were exactly the same — two unbroken, repeating rows of Tommy Hilfiger pimpage. In the sci-fi film, life as we think we know it is revealed to be a farce — a computer-generated program that humans watch subconsciously while robots sap our sleeping brains and bodies for power. In a literal manic state, she decided the ad pattern was no accident. It was a glitch in the program, proof of the existence of the enemy.

"At the point when I thought maybe I should jump in front of the train and kill myself so I could fight against the matrix," Michelle says, "that was when I was like, 'I need to go to the hospital.'"

It was three years ago when she took the 9 bus to San Francisco General, where she told a clerk what was going on in her mind. Her attempt to get admitted is called a 5150, after the "danger to self or others" police code. They put her in a room with a doctor and she had to explain why she wanted to stay overnight. She remembers it being a hard sell, since she hadn't yet done anything self-mutilating."I finally said, 'Look, if I don't get in here, there's a good chance I'll walk out the door and right in front of the bus.'"

A psychiatrist admitted her and prescribed a sleeping pill, which she took. In the morning she felt calmer, and a psychiatric intern signed for her release. As had happened on the couple of other occasions when she 5150-ed herself, the staff gave her a list of referrals to clinics and information about psychiatric medications.

She tossed both in the trash. Instead she called friends to spend time with for support.

The whole episode might not have happened if she'd still been on medication, but that's a risk she'd come to terms with two years before when she stopped taking lithium and moved to San Francisco from her native Michigan.

Mental health is an enormous issue in San Francisco. Last year, the city's Community Behavioral Health Services office saw more than 24,000 people and a significant majority walked away with a prescription. That number doesn't include those in treatment through private insurance.

For many people with severe mental health diagnoses like manic depression or schizophrenia, taking medication is a key aspect of daily life. Michelle's decision to live without it, was and is, a radical one.

But there's a long history around the world of individual and organized resistance to mental health pharmaceuticals. In the U.S. it's always been something of a fringe movement, and remains an object of scorn for many psychiatrists. It's centered primarily in politically liberal regions, and often led by people who have had negative experiences with the mental health system. The infamous involvement of Tom Cruise and other celebrities has familiarized the masses with the Church of Scientology's work in this area, but much of the movement is unaffiliated with the L. Ron Hubbard group. Two prominent points of activism are MindFreedom International in Eugene, Ore., and Freedom Center in Northampton, Mass. Nationally, there has been a scattering of more localized med-free experiments — houses, clinics, support groups, community centers, advocacy networks — that have had varying degrees of luck surviving.

Support for alternative lifestyles is famous here, but it's still tough to promote the idea that it might be acceptable — preferable, even — for some severely mentally distressed folks to just say no to drugs. Michelle's trying, so she knows. And she's not the only one.


In a studio at San Francisco's Quake Radio, Alexander Bingham and nutrition coach Jon Sarlin are hosting the Saturday afternoon Organic Psychology Hour. Sarlin talks about the benefits of healthy eating, and then Bingham — a licensed clinical psychologist — talks about prescription drugs.

Bingham is bright-eyed and his curly dark-blond hair is pulled back into a short ponytail. His torso inclines intently toward the microphone as he vehemently likens psychiatric drugs to pesticides.

"They're very toxic, very dangerous to the body," Bingham says. "If there is a healthier way to achieve emotional balance and growth, wouldn't you want to do that?"

Bingham, 39, is heir to a paper company fortune. He says he's grateful for the "intelligence and rapaciousness" of his progenitors — it's given him the freedom to build his own life, even on ideas they might detest. During a severe depression in high school, Bingham discovered the Ram Dass book Be Here Now. Its eastern concept of human interconnectedness appealed to him much more than the rugged-individualistic, hard-work-and-money-equals-success notions he'd been raised with. In college he discovered an affinity for counseling friends in distress, and he took these dual interests and began building a career in psychology.

During his graduate internships here at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Bingham became convinced that psychotropic drugs were doing his patients more harm than good. Voicing this idea, and trying to convince his supervisors to reduce patients' drug loads, got him fired a couple of times. He called Fresno-based psychologist Kevin McCready, who had been running a med-free mental health clinic there since 1990.

"We worked with some incredibly damaged people there," Bingham says. "It helped me see that once you separate out the meds from the distress, only then can you really see what's going on with people. It gave me a really positive perspective on healing and a belief that with the right support, people didn't need the medications."

Once he got his license, Bingham split from McCready's clinic. He respected his mentor, but felt McCready and his staff ignored the link between physical and mental health. Long involved with yoga and meditation, Bingham wanted to open his own clinic in San Francisco, promoting the med-free approach while offering services like nutrition counseling and movement awareness alongside traditional psychotherapy and a day program for the severely distressed.

About The Author

Amy Goldwitz

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