Just Say No

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

Cases of violence involving unmedicated people with psychotic diagnoses get a lot of media attention. In 2003, Elli Perkins of Buffalo was murdered by her son, who doctors later deemed schizophrenic. Perkins and her husband were Scientologists, opposed to psychiatric drugs and psychiatry in general. Last September, Virginia psychiatrist Wayne Fenton was killed by a young patient who was off medication after being diagnosed bipolar.

Dr. Josh Israel is very concerned on a daily basis about the possibility of these kinds of incidents. His office at the San Francisco VA Medical Center is adjacent to the locked psychiatric intensive care unit he directs. Veterans come in hallucinating or paranoid; they may have just assaulted a police officer, or been found wandering naked at the airport. He tries to get them on or back on medication. Usually they agree; sometimes it takes a court order. Electro-convulsive therapy is a voluntary treatment he offers the more severe sufferers, and many try it.

There are a lot of thick psychiatry books on his office shelves, and Israel wistfully gestures toward them when acknowledging how little we still know about how the brain works. "Looking at those, you'd think we'd know a lot more than we really do," he says. How psychosis affects the brain long-term, and even how treatments like medication, ECT, therapy, or alternative medicine ultimately alter brain structure for better or worse — these realms are still quite mysterious. The short-term is easier to understand, Israel says.

Psychologist Alexander Bingham believes the brain's own healing capacity far outweighs that of psychiatric medications.
Paolo Vescia
Psychologist Alexander Bingham believes the brain's own healing capacity far outweighs that of psychiatric medications.
Brooklynne Michelle is bipolar and has been living psych-medfree for more than five years.
Paolo Vescia
Brooklynne Michelle is bipolar and has been living psych-medfree for more than five years.

Dr. Israel has seen people who've done destructive things to themselves. "They've cut off digits, or testicles. There are people who have literally burned down their own homes. Things like that are not the inevitable result of not taking psychiatric medications, but no one — well, maybe not no one, but I would say it would be extremely rare to do those kinds of things on medication."

UCSF psychiatrist Sophia Vinogradov also works at the VA campus. She sees severely disturbed individuals unable to get help from other doctors. About 85 percent of her patients use prescribed medication in combination with behavioral therapy.

"With a very severe psychiatric illness, it's like having a cancer in your brain," Vinogradov says. "So sometimes you have to think about the medications a little bit like chemotherapy. They're crappy to take, but at least they're going to stop things from getting worse."

To those who study and work with the brain in mainstream psychiatry, it's not that Morrissey's diagram is far-fetched or nonsensical. It's just that more of the conventionally accepted science shows that meds are a better bet for alleviating psychosis than therapies alone.

Psychiatric drugs contain molecules that fix onto specific receptors in the brain and either block or enhance the actions of certain brain chemicals, thereby modifying how affected neuronal pathways work. For many, this reduces symptoms like hallucination and delusion. Vinogradov says non-medication-based approaches — psychotherapy, exercise, spending time with friends and family, meditation, learning new skills — can all alter brain pathways as well. But far less is known about how this occurs, she says, other than that it is somehow related to the brain's plasticity — its ability to constantly remodel itself as it collects new information and experience.

Vinogradov notes that psychiatrists who work on an insurance reimbursement basis often only get paid for 15 minutes with a patient, and must relieve their symptoms in the span of something like 12 such appointments or risk not getting paid for additional visits. She says this incentivizes treatment by quick-fix prescription rather than costly psychotherapy or other alternative approaches.

She has her own questions about the long-term viability of psychiatric medications, especially as a stand-alone treatment, and is researching behavioral methods for alleviating symptoms of schizophrenia. But with a lack of sufficient resources for mental health, Vinogradov says medications are still a very important part of treatment.

Israel puts a finer point on it; he believes medication is an absolute necessity for anyone diagnosed bipolar or schizophrenic, as there is no scientific evidence that self-care or therapy alone, or in combination with other alternative approaches, helps people with those diagnoses reduce their risk for potentially dangerous psychotic episodes.

He says encouraging them to think they can and should manage med-free goes against his profession's idea of informed consent — patients or clients having a full understanding of the choices they're making. "Nobody should be encouraging them to think they're in treatment, because they're not," Israel says. "They're getting a placebo."

To Bingham, it's the anti-psychotics that are the placebos — more expensive and dangerous crutches than pot or alcohol. He's spent years combing through psychiatric journals, becoming ever more convinced that the science behind the clinical studies is too biased and flawed to justify widespread use of anti-psychotics.

Bingham's used to hearing people say they couldn't live without their drugs, or that they have a relative whose life has been saved by them. Blunt by nature, he's changed how he converses with those people.

"I used to say, "Well, you can believe what you want, but I can just tell you that in my experience, with the right therapy and support, the drugs are unnecessary. They're only necessary if you'd like to cut yourself off from whatever feelings and emotions got you to the point of overwhelm where someone thought you needed the medication,'" Bingham says.

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