HOW’S YOUR BRAIN? DEPENDS ON WHO’S ASKING

Why is it, when it comes to “mental health,” the US is still a nation drugged to the gills? One in six people take a psychotropic drug. We shoulder our “disorders” like the inevitable baggage of modern life and never ask are we cured yet?

Americans believe we’re the best at medical (which includes psychiatric) treatment. That China and South Korea blew our doors off turning around their coronavirus problems should be cause for pause. That both natural treatments for coronavirus getting some press now—Vitamin C and Vitamin D–are also antidepressant and anti-anxiety solutions in the “alternative mental health” world, is an interesting coincidence.

In the mental health system, guardians of the drug-‘em or shock-‘em approach claim there are no alternatives: they call nutritional strategies or energy work unproven, tell us they don’t work–without a glance at the studies that show they do. “New Age . . . too woo-woo.”

There is far greater profit, not to mention a sense of belonging, in blind following of that long-time married couple, Psychiatry and Pharmacology.

Yet two things endure: the swelling stream of persons willing to indict “medication” for its wicked side-effects, and the massive failure of psych drugs to actually affect a cure for so-called mental illness. Pulitzer-winning journalist Robert Whitaker has painstakingly probed the science of outcomes to find that psychiatric drugs in the long-term create the very monster they set out to address: psychosis! Especially when people attempt to withdraw from them.

But there might be even deeper attitudes that block change. Strangely, they even show up in those who agitate against forced drugging, calling out Psychiatry’s abuse of power.

Why do many of the anti-drug, anti-psychiatry advocates who say they believe ardently in “alternatives” (there’s even a major conference by that name) seem so lukewarm to the concepts of food-as-medicine, detox, nutrients for the body that re-balance neuro/immune/ hormonal/ digestive systems that directly affect thought/emotion/behavior?

The “alternative” these advocates favor is peer support–an effective and brave effort to tell the professionals to get the hell out of our heads. But think about peer support in conjunction with functional medicine, and you could be talking cures. Hold on, they say, we told you to keep medicine out of this picture!

But get this. Many of the same advocates are quietly taking supplements, re-calibrating their bodies with the right foods or Eastern medicine . . . while remaining hesitant to mention it.

Many years ago at a conference I lunched with one of the movement’s leading lights whose name generates ultimate respect. He was all about social justice issues in the mental health system and I revered him. When I asked why a conference on alternatives had no workshops beyond peer advocacy and how to fight the power, he sneered that he hardly thought that justice would be done by providing the oppressed with “buckets of vitamins.” Later in the same conversation, he admitted to spending a great deal of personal income on nutritional items to optimize his own mental health.

Another leading figure gave acupuncture treatments, and in a recent documentary quickly mentioned the role of “food allergies” in mental-health struggles. Yet later on camera he disparages the idea of “broken brains,” asserting that mental-illness matters should largely address interpersonal relationships.

A local activist, considering the work of Dr. Mark Hyman’s food and nutrient strategies needed for mental wellness, solemnly told me she would put these ideas in the same category as her friend who believed that real-time aliens from outer space were responsible for our mental-health crisis.

On one listserv, an anti-psychiatry author repeatedly trashed me for talking about Dr. Hyman, even after others told him to calm down. “Polemical” was one of the nicer insults he leveled at me for discussing food intolerances, nutrients, the gut and the brain.

After all these years, I’m beginning to understand these folks on the front lines, many who fought their way out of years of forced drugging. The red-flag word, right up there with MEDICINE is probably BRAIN. How’s your brain? Their response is, never you mind!

They have reason to be nervous. Medicine on the brain throughout history meant psychiatrists drilling holes in the prefrontal cortex, (lobotomy), zapping brains with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, “shock”) insulin coma (injecting persons with large doses of insulin daily and repeatedly over several weeks), whole-body restraints (straps and straightjackets), blasts of cold water in bath boxes, dunking devices, ladder and bucket contraptions, the fever cure (injecting mental patients with malaria), eugenics (the effort to sterilize or kill the mentally disabled), Freudian psychoanalysis which cruelly blamed mothers . . . generations have been forced into brain-and-body-shattering experiences in the name of medicine for the broken brain.

It was a holocaust of souls and lives, going back centuries when “the mad” along with criminals and the poor endured nasty confinements, or were forced onto a literal “ship of fools,” many of which traveled the sea channels and rivers of Europe to isolate them from society. Medicine’s interest zeroed in as the industrial state viewed insanity as a moral failure against society that needed to be fixed for the greater good.

Enter pharmacology! Dispense the drugs and empty the mental hospitals. As Whitaker’s research shows, the assault-the-brain approach was compressed into pills launched with great hope, but of dubious help and a lot of harm–even now, courts regularly mandate forced drugging, and forced drugging of children and the elderly is rife . For a first-person account that eloquent encapsulates the anti-psychiatry view today, look here.

I’m intensely sympathetic to this view and highly supportive of its focus on social justice issues. My brother spent decades in the mental-health system, was destroyed by drugs, and died much younger than he should have. His brain’s fate was a loss for science: he had dual degrees in chemistry and physics and swooned for a good math theorem.

Our family once got him started with nutrients to replace drugs, but the psychiatrist in charge would not play ball when he started to improve, and his girlfriend, a fellow lifer in the system, did not like my bro’s new clarity and confidence. Both she and my brother were beaten down by the county mental-health monopoly, by years of drug-fog and by poverty, to the point where they couldn’t speak truth to Power and hope to survive.

I was luckier. Though forcibly hospitalized and drugged, I resisted. I was a teenage hippie barred from recreational substances of my choice who found it hypocritical to swallow the hospital’s drugs. My confinement only lasted six months–I went back to pot and alcohol with such a vengeance I never noticed any withdrawal from the Mellaril.

The anti-psychiatry, peer-advocate movement has every right to rage at how brains and bodies are broken by psychiatry. For some it’s a lifelong struggle to recover from the damage done by quote-unquote medication. The important work they’re doing by calling out biopsychiatry as it’s operated since the 1950’s is incisive and necessary.

But still remains the problematic brain. A soulless, secularized culture views human beings as walking brains (good) with unfortunately attached unruly bodies (bad). I think therefore I am. What’s below the neck is somehow another territory–digestion and sexuality and defecation are down there! Make the lower regions out of the picture, servants to the brain that has the decorum to keep its weird-looking gray matter out of sight behind our interesting faces.

We’re decades into the science of the smart nature of the gut, often called the “second brain.” Ditto the immune system and its hand-in-glove relationship with the brain. You can Google the specifics, because in a sense it’s old news, though very important news, and still overlooked. Even the oldest (and in bed with Big Pharma) umbrella organization for patients, the National Institute for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) now on their website gives a nod to nutrients like fish oil, folate, and the detrimental role of gluten. We’ve come a long way, baby!

But until there’s an end to the double-sided coin of bowing to the brain experts or rejecting all brain-talk with suspicion, then “Houston, we have a problem.” Both stances miss out, letting either veneration or vilification of the brain go to their heads.

I suspect that many anti-psychiatry advocates downplay a nutrient path for fear of another force. Doctors. The power of a doctor addressing mental health, no matter how maverick or friendly to natural-medicine on PBS, is still suspect. Too many have played God (and Executioner) too long. The aura of such overpaid and over-glorified health workers continues to promote submission. No one impassioned for social justice likes “experts” lording it over the little guy, especially when it comes to the mysterious and complex brain.

Yet it takes guts to step out of line with medicine-as-usual, a powerful lobby. A healer shouldn’t be suspect because they carry MD behind their name, even if their specialization is psychiatry. Secondly, young people drawn to be natural healers should be rewarded for choosing that path if called to it, because someone has to usher in change.

Too often alternatives can be expensive because insurance companies won’t be pried loose from their lascivious affair with Pharma, which deplores alternative medicine. Often the poor-and-disabled can’t get access to the testing and nutrients they need. This should be a paramount social-justice issue, but we’re still in a fight for the right to basic “healthcare reform” at the moment.

Until then maybe we could examine the patterns of cigarette smoking and food abuse among some of those tied to psych drugs and ask about adding more peer-support toward budgeting their funds for natural-health options. I don’t say this blithely, for I’m aware of the addictive nature of those substances. But peer support in addiction recovery is already an idea in practice.

Here’s another rationale for the brain to break free from its overly invested handlers, a fairly new concept known as neuroplasticity. “Plastic” here doesn’t refer to that awful stuff clogging the oceans. The brain is pliable or “plastic” because it can literally change itself in startling ways, rewiring and rejuvenating.

Science used to think that people lost brain cells at predictable stages in life–poof, they’re gone for good—and that the brain was a fixed and stable thing: certain areas of the brain were assigned to specific functions, period. Turns out the brain can remodel itself and even grow new neurons; it makes re-connections and alterations over various locations that lead to healing, re-found skills and other positive outcomes. Here’s the rub: the “plastic paradox.” Brain changes can also be for the detriment, because the brain can restructure itself to be more rigid and unenlightened.

Predictably, psychiatry proudly claims medication and psychotherapy, even shock treatment, as agents of neuroplasticity—ignoring the real harms caused. But read this account of one professional’s hymn to the plasticity of the brain, giving the usual nod to medication and psychotherapy, but clearly excited about something else:

“Hannah W.” . . . presented for treatment as a 27-year-old single woman who had a difficult early life with many losses and traumas, and who had experienced over fifteen years of severe depression and panic disorder.  She also had a number of ‘stress-induced’ medical illnesses including colitis and severe asthma.  Her depression and anxiety responded to medicine and psychotherapy, but to me the more interesting thing was that at a certain point she became passionate about yoga.  She practiced yoga on average 2 to 3 hours a day, and after a few months, she described how she was able to feel sustained sense of calm and wellbeing for the first time in her life.  For what it’s worth, her asthma and GI symptoms became much less severe, perhaps a result of her physical changes. 

I don’t have MRI scans for Hannah W., but I’m willing to bet that treatment and her regimen of intense yoga caused measurable changes in her brain.  Specifically, I think yoga allowed her to decrease the activity of her brain’s fear center, the amygdala . . . The fact is, we now have the tools to study the effects of treatment and behaviors like yoga on the brain-on the brain’s anatomy and the function of specific centers.  (Psychology Today)

Anyone who does yoga—and 36 million Americans do–knows how over time, one’s body becomes a flowing whole, ever more supple and in tune, as one’s hurting “parts” shift from pain to breath-linked connection. Resources  for using yoga for mental health are widely available–one free method for taking charge of changing your brain and so much more.

We needn’t split into camps that either exalt the brain or reject the brain. By shunning anything medical, anti-psychiatry folks are holding to the ol’ mind-body split. This firm grip on Cartesian duality furthers what holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan describes as a “mechanistic perception of the body as an input-output machine” quite separate from the mind. Sadly, she says, this suppresses a more healing view that “honors the body as an emergent representation of the soul.” (1)

But we needn’t go completely brain-ape either. There are bigger fish frying us, every body-part of us. The effects on our emotional and energetic bodies via chemical load from cheap products and bad food is a microcosm of the planetary, ecological crisis which makes “mental” health much less of a mental matter. It’s hardly as if all that gunk out there stays in the environment and never enters us. Heart, lungs, brain, liver, spleen, reproductive organs, skin–name the organ, it harbors environmentally-caused hurt. The World Health Organization (WHO) now calls air pollution alone a silent public health emergency, affecting every organ and cell in the body.

I see an analogy between drugging those souls who might be “different,” and straight-jacketing the environment with toxic fumes and toxic sprawl. All that is wild or unpredictable must be contained . . . or obliterated. No questions answered or care forthcoming for those who might impede the stampede stoked by greed.

The mental-health industry is literally contiguous with planet-rape and profit-addiction. Think about all those antidepressants, benzos and anticonvulsants that slip past water treatment facilities and run with your tap water.   How about the link between bipolar disorder and air quality, and the correlation between poor land quality with personality disorders?  Now picture Pharma lobbyists, along with insurance company, hospital and other health product peddlers traversing the halls of Congress, rubbing shoulders with the oil and gas industry, which they outspend. Comrades in arms?

In the end, anti-psychiatry’s biggest fear is the push for conformity, the danger of letting a profession dictate how one should think and feel and behave. They highlight the vendetta against the untamed and unexplored, since a so-called psychotic break can be a profound dip into a different reality: not necessarily illness, but something unknown, and threatening to others on the approved path.

However. Millions anguish due to their own thoughts and feelings, and see nothing spiritual about it. They want balance and wholeness again, to get rid of the voices that urge suicide, that isolate, that tug down a good day into sordid criticism and self-hatred. I reject the division between the “mentally ill” and the “worried well.” Suffering is suffering, and I’m a dreamer for the day that the Pharmafia and PsychoDoctor Inc. are trounced in support of natural/functional/energy medicine. Or at least an integrative approach that looks fairly at what both sides have to offer.

No more scapegoats necessary.

We should be concerned that the “tools” for understanding brains are kept in the hands of an elite profession financed by Big Pharma. Contrast the practices of integrative/holistic/natural healers who spend far greater amounts of time with their patients, insisting that the patient become an active participant, a student of themselves. In other words, take charge and stand beside the practitioner, don’t crouch as an underling to the almighty doctor.

Is anti-psychiatry’s suspicion of every M.D. warranted? Watch for another underlying culprit here: class war. Most mental-health advocates place their work firmly within the disability rights movement. Persons with disabilities experience poverty at a rate twice that of persons without disabilities. Wouldn’t a shifted paradigm that embraces cures, and advocates for the dissemination of those cures, ultimately serve the effort of taking down class distinctions?

No matter our take on “mental” health, I wish we could marry our pieces of truth together. Mental health, planet health. Non-conformists, peer-supporters, or broken brains crying out for real cures that go to the root of real problems. . . a new vision calls for multi-vision. We can talk openly about class, about disability, about elitism and oppression. But there is no reason to overlook a way out of this stand-off just because we are mired to our camps, afraid of each other’s brains.

  • Brogan, Kelly, M.D. Own Your Self. Carlsbad: Hay House. 2019.

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