Last week I went along to a conference in London given by New York based health psychiatrist, Kelly Brogan. I was invited there by my house guest, David Carmichael, who was over from Canada to attend my book launch and for the filming of the Panorama programme I am co-producing about antidepressants and violence.
David's story is featured in my book and is a tragic reminder of what can happen to the 1 % of people who have severe adverse side effects to antidepressants. Twelve years ago he became psychotic after taking Seroxat and believed his 11 year old son would be in a better place if he took his life. He was so convinced that he strangled him, then rang the police to explain calmly what he had done. When he came off the drugs two weeks later and realised what he had done he cried so much he became dehydrated . The drug manufacturer, Glaxo, deny his psychosis was caused by their drug but David is taking legal action against them because he thinks otherwise. I have first hand experience of how mind altering these drugs can be (I took escitalopram and became so psychotic I attacked myself with a knife and believed I had killed my kids). So, when I hear stories like David's, its not hard for me to imagine that antidepressants can cause a psychosis which leads people to commit extreme acts of violence.
I already knew about Kelly's work because I had read one of her articles on the Mad in America website. It was posted on May 18 2016 and the title is In Honor of Fear and Pain.
I was captivated by this article because it mirrors my own journey. My nemesis began when I sought to escape the pain of losing my marital home while going through a divorce by taking antidepressants. My attempts to short circuit the natural grieving process of losing something that was important to me, led first to a psychotic incident, and then when doctors prescribed more antidepressants, led to a year long medication induced nightmare which nearly ended in me losing my life.
Kelly Brogan was brought up in the traditional mould of psychiatry and used to hand out medication to patients who, like me, were probably just distressed rather than depressed. She then realised a significant proportion of her patients were suffering severe side effects and also that once they were on them, they were incredibly hard to get off. The turning point came when Kelly read Robert Whitaker's groundbreaking book "Anatomy of an Epidemic", and realised that "antidepressants have turned single episode struggles that recovered 85% of the time within one year, never to recur, into chronic and debilitating disorders that hold patients hostage in their own arrested development."
She now helps her patients withdraw and has developed alternative methods for dealing with depression and anxiety. My own journey has led me to believe that, paradoxically, we may be better of embracing negative rather than numbing them with medication or anything else for that matter. I've come to learn that these feelings are symptoms and may be the keys to our happiness. If we are depressed, maybe thats a clue to know we are in the wrong job, or the wrong marriage. If we are anxious or having sleepless nights, its usually because there is something we haven't done or a problem we haven't addressed. Kelly writes beautifully about the acceptance of difficult feelings:
"When I sit with pain, I know it is transforming me inside. It is refining and reconfiguring and upgrading all that needs to be. What emerges will be closer to truth ,more resilient, and more real.... The thing is we don't know how to do this. No one teaches us anymore. ...And thats why we feel stuck, detached, confused, dead inside. Many of us walk through life asleep because we have architected an entire existence around avoidance of pain and discomfort. We are buying into the fantasy that this is possible and so the pain becomes a chronic dull existential ache instead. We try to ease it with medication, with drugs, with sex, with work. We punch the clock instead of letting it fall apart."
So, going along to her talk at the South Bank in London, I was excited about meeting Kelly. I wasn't disappointed. After David and I introduced ourselves, we attended her talk in which she spoke articulately about many of the issues that I have now become familiar with but she told me things I didn't know about. She spoke about the fact that science has known for a long time that antidepressants are no more effective than a placebo, yet doctors still prescribe them liberally. This is apparently because it takes 17 years on average for new data to influence your doctors practice. Another fact Kelly came up with that was new to me with was that for every 23 people that are treated with an antidepressant, one additional person with bipolar is created. Kelly is familiar with the agonising process of withdrawal. It is generally accepted that that patients taper at 1 per cent per month and she rightly points out that these must surely be some of the most addictive chemicals on the planet given that we have to come off them so gradually.
When Kelly came to talk about the more serious side effects of antidepressants, David came up to the stage to talk for the second time publicly about the tragic circumstances he believes led to his son's death. The first time was at my book launch a few days earlier. The audience, many of whom are medics, were shocked by the possibility that a prescription drug that 5 million people take in the UK could cause this.
I'm pleased to have heard Kelly's inspirational and educational talk, and to hear of her work on the other side of the pond in publicising the dangers of antidepressants and finding alternatives. I hope she will come back.