One is a church-going Christian, the other an adept of Kundalini yoga. One believes there is a place, albeit infrequent, for medications; the other has thrown away her prescription pad. One is focused on the brain, the other believes that “fear is the sickness.” Two authors of new books, psychiatrists unbound from the rules of their profession, calling for The End of Mental Illness and a mandate to Own Your Self.
These are people whose books sell. Why hasn’t the mental-health behemoth embraced them?
Daniel Amen, MD is in our living rooms regularly via PBS. A list of his published works is so long only a sample fills an entire page. His bold affirmation that we can truly make The End of Mental Illness happen is persuasive but dangerous—on a podcast he explained that PBS would not go with that title for a show. His frustration with his own profession spills out freely as a man whose great contribution has been overlooked and discounted by his psychiatrist-peers. Nonetheless, after amassing 160,000 SPECT brain scans of patients from 121 countries and still going strong, we the people are listening.
Kelly Brogan MD is a younger doctor of psychiatry. Her startling photo, dressed in the white clothes of a Sikh-inspired yoga teacher, fills the cover of Own Your Self. The look is one of beauty and power. She is equally on board with her colleague Dr. Amen’s dislike of psychiatry’s disempowering confiscation of souls and lives. Unlike Amen–though her talk of food, nutraceuticals and tapering off medications abounds, and her endnotes show rigor–overwhelmingly Brogan‘s chapters speak heart-to-heart.
Published within a few spare months of each other and taken as a double whammy, Own Your Self and The End of Mental Illness should have made a significant splash. For those of us who have worked to highlight alternatives in mental health matters, as I have with my clients and memoir, these meaty and indisputable writings are like living flames of proof. Proof of the efficacy of the field of functional medicine, and proof that there are unbound psychiatrists ready to shape policy and practice. Yet the revolutionary nature of these two works has yet to catch fire at large, and I see three reasons why.
Dr. Amen is famous for his brain-imaging technique, the SPECT scan. His outcry in this new book deserves an answer: why don’t psychiatrists, who claim to treat the brain, ever look at the organ itself? Like a magician over a crystal ball, Amen finds the brain’s scallops and perfusions highly instructive. This is neuroscience, aimed at mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, PTSD, addictions, personality disorders, and more. He terms the book a blueprint for shifting the conversation from a phrase he “hates”—mental illness—to talking about brain health.
The kicker is he’s about so much more than the brain.
Yet no other psychiatrist dwells on concussion and other overlooked head injuries as culprits of our despair. Dr. Amen has scanned the brains of Hollywood actors and NFL players and thousands of others who experienced falls, auto accidents, assaults, child abuse, explosive blasts, sports and combat injuries. He begs us to understand the impact: TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury, is more common than we think and a bigtime contributor to the “mind storms” patients are helped to quell at eight Amen Clinics around the country.
It should come as no surprise that The End of Mental Illness ranges far beyond than the brain. The book expands with ruthless pinpointing of whole-body assaults by common toxins like alcohol and vaping, mold, lead, personal care and household products, food additives and dyes. These have mental health consequences. Ditto the prevalent scourges of inflammation, poor gut health, autoimmune disorders and Lyme disease, fungal infections, neurohormonal maladies, diabesity and insomnia—all documented as agents of disordered thinking and runaway emotional pain.
But we’ve known this since the 1960’s-80’s when pharmacologist and philanthropist Dr. Carl Pfeiffer, after studying 20,000 schizophrenics plus persons with mood swings, depression, and oppositional/assaultive behaviors discovered and treated heavy metal toxicity and histamine imbalances, famously saying, “For every drug that benefits a patient, there is a natural substance that can achieve the same effect.” So why are so many psychiatrists still wearing that permanent sneer? Before examining the trio of obstacles, a word about Kelly Brogan’s mission to have you take back the you who you used to know.
Doctor of the soul. That’s how Brogan defines “psychiatrist.” Thus she decries the soul cowering before the lie that the snake-oil salesmen of mainstream psychiatry promote: the lie about the imbalance of your brain chemicals, the hopelessness of recovery, and the need for pills and more pills. Pills that are ineffective, actually induce psychosis and violence, are addictive with harrowing withdrawal symptoms, and are just plain unnecessary.
This doctor of soul encourages us to believe we can survive the “points of pain” in our lives. In tribal cultures, this trait was bolstered by rites of initiation, where a difficult trial was ritually constructed then resolved in sacred space. Today, we’re all about getting rid of any discomfort as fast as we can. We don’t sit with it. But Brogan isn’t telling us to wallow or stiff-upper-lip it. She can talk about a healthy breakfast, meditation and taking vitamin B6 in a fluid argument that makes these moves into acts of power. She can weave a tale of chronic worry, childhood trauma (she is liberal with tales of her past), sugar addiction, antibiotic use, Tylenol/Advil dangers and vaccine side effects into an anthem for “fearless healing.” What are the steps?
Step one, know the psychiatric “pretenders,” and call them by their names: thyroid dysfunction, gluten and dairy sensitivity (“intestinal permeability and gut microbe deficiency” fuel these), blood sugar instability, B12 deficiency and medication reactions. She outlines a One-Month Reset to tackle any of these with food, movement, detox, nutraceuticals, sleep, and of course: meditation. Want to learn to taper meds safely? Brogan doesn’t flinch from outlining the task.
The striking thing about this book is how woven is the heart-to-heart, human-to-human reach. Stories, many stories of those who made the journey—Amen’s book is also chocked with true-life tales, notably the saving of his nieces Alize and Amelie from a toxic life—these are what we want to hear when we dare to court hope. Brogan gets how the “terror of the childself” blocks awakening, how the “heaviest baggage” we can carry is dealing with family, and what constitutes the Dark Night of the Soul when suicide seems the only salve.
But neither Amen nor Brogan fall into the trap of self-help cheerleading as if all is a matter of individual will. Their pique with corporate medicine is visible. Which leads us to the three reasons why these books aren’t widely hailed and rushed into the hands of policy-makers.
First, the immediate. Then the obvious. Finally, the inscrutable.
The immediate, collective focus is Covid-19 and the fallout from George Floyd’s death. Amen’s book hit the shelves just as the first shelter-in-place orders were initiated; our cities erupted two months later. Though observers wasted no time warning of a massive mental-health meltdown, this time the cause was clear: a dual-loaded, societal nightmare. Eighty-percent of folks in a large poll agreed the nation was “out of control.” Anxiety moved from discrete disorder to a shared tinge of mind.
Reason two, the obvious: Big Pharma, Big Medicine, Big Insurance, Big ol’ FDA and these forces’ minions in Congress all despise natural medicine. Though there have been inroads and concessions, the acceptance of natural mental health still appears fringe in the halls of decision-making. Root cause: money. The self-perpetuating machine of diagnosing and drugging is defended not only by fat pockets at the top but supports a web of jobs for mental-health professionals of all types. If consumers reframed mental illness into “we’re not going to swallow your pills and fake food anymore because we want wellness and know where to look!” there would be repercussions to profits and livelihood when control began to shift to the people who actually live the experience they seek to heal.
The third reason I speculate that Amen and Brogan will be kept to the outsider camp involves the strange case of mental-health advocates who fear any whiff of the “medical” view of their suffering. Their focus is on keeping the barricades strong against psychiatry at all costs, and few will read Brogan or Amen because the two are medical professionals.
In this way anti-psychiatry supports the Cartesian, mind-body split that has been under fire for decades by progressive thought waves. Anti-psychiatry activism focuses not on cures but, reasonably, against coercion—they are mirror-images of their oppressors, psychiatrists who also dread a cure but justify coercion against those they deem the insane. Activists who resist discrimination and stigma are necessary in the that paradigm, but moot in the new. They appear oblivious to the historical role of natural medicine—born in earliest human times, nurtured in indigenous populations, and burgeoning today with developments in nutrition, meditation and “forest bathing,” calls to cease separating the physical from the mental from the spiritual. They overlook how the suppression of natural medicine not only hampers the cure they so desperately need, but how it’s as political an issue as their struggles for rights and reparation.
Practitioners like Amen and Brogan gravitate to ways of seeing that include systems biology, bioinformatics, and epigenetics. These are holistic, interdisciplinary approaches that make the word “mental” an outdated container. Unlike standard medicine, which includes psychiatry, where parts of the body are studied in isolation and specialists are gods of their discipline, Amen and Brogan see the body, which includes the brain, as a “we’re all in this together” proposition.
They grasp there is a vast complexity and interactionality within a human being, a weave of biology and consciousness, and an innate urge to heal oneself. Psychiatrists unbound place themselves on the side of that urge–not as gurus with the key to its activation, but as healers who facilitate, celebrate, then elevate us all to let wither away the artificial contrivance of mental health/mental illness.
But what about those pesky social problems like a pandemic, police brutality, a country if not a world out of control? Anti-psychiatry has been saying it all along: systematic dysfunction and oppression at large breed “psychiatric disorders.” It’s a soul-sick culture that makes us sick, not unseen processes in our brains. But where will the stand-off between justifiably-aggrieved survivors and the mental-health system end? Psychiatrists unbound challenge everyone to make a seismic shift in the way we view our fears, our longings, our lives.
Brogan’s speaks of the mentally ill as canaries in the coal mine, “sentinels to anchor this process (of finding) solutions to the big mess we’ve made…for all of humanity.” The one in five, or 44.7 million persons in the US dubbed mentally ill are manipulated to believe they are “victims of their pathology” by psychiatry. They shouldn’t be kept “captive to a narrative that disempowers and depersonalizes their very real experience”—nuttin’ you can do about that bad ol’ brain chemistry, baby. Rather, the diagnosed are “sounding an alarm with exquisite sensitivity” for the rest of us–that things are deeply wrong on this toxic planet, says Brogan. The thin line between a prophet and a madman is an old theme, but today with a twist: so many millions are struggling while planetary turmoil steams full-speed ahead.
Daniel Amen’s plea is to focus our endeavors in the mental-health system away from the moral distaste that a diagnosis conjures. The history of blame heaped upon lunatics as slackers and dissidents is long and writ large in the tragedies of medieval asylums to the locked wards of lobotomy times, and into the current drug regimens, as Amen notes in “From Demon Possession to the 15-minute Med Check.” By the way, he’s no fan of marijuana, social media, or video games—viewing these things sold as distractions with side effects, to a species who deserve better.
But wait, could there be yet another reason that Brogan and Amen will have to keep fighting their way into credibility? I fear it’s their audacity to insist on spirituality as a necessary component to transform treatment protocols.
Neither the priests of Scientism (science as religion) nor activists keen on issues of privilege and justice will touch this one. Nor does DIY spirituality sit well in organized denominations since the concept favors exploration over dogma. Amen Clinics include the “Spiritual Circle” as one of four equal areas of concern in the treatment plan (with biological, social, and psychological). It can include one’s connection to “the planet, and past and future generations; your deepest sense of meaning and purpose…We are all spiritual beings created with divine purpose, whether or not we believe in God…our lives matter; we have a role to play and a calling to fulfill.”
Brogan is more specific. She discusses spiritual emergence/y, and what it means to be “woke.” She vouches for these tools: psychedelics for mysticism, tantric and kundalini meditations, Holotropic Breathwork and ecstatic dance. She has immersed in them, and seen them lighten the loads of the super-stressed, the depressed, and those so disabled with their psychic burdens they long for death.
The litany of what alternative mental health practitioners and their patients are up against is starting to get long. But remember. People are buying these books, hungry for the knowledge. People are trying out what the pages strive to detail and share fully. People are logging results.
It starts with a wish, turned on the lathe of will, sharpened by support—even if it’s Future You egging on the Present You—and ultimately a leap into the unknown. What have you to lose but your chains to the diagnosis, your isolation and recriminations, capsules with contrived names and stigma in outcast-land? Yes you, who care about the world, I know you do: who wants to own their self again and finally see an end to mental illness?
If I have inspired you to believe that challenges—and even adversity—hold a meaning, that the body has an innate wisdom, and that the cosmos operates under the principles of an elegant design, you are ready to bend and flow with what comes. To bring curiosity to bear. And to live a life that is free of bad luck, a broken body, and emergencies. Kelly Brogan MD
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