Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

All Your Brains Are Belong To Us

Psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry have taken a lot of criticism in recent years for diagnosing large numbers of people with newly invented disorders and prescribing unnecessary drugs to many folks who, in the not-so-distant past, would not have been regarded as having any sort of illness or disorder. Some argue that it's all a clever conspiracy to line the pockets of a scheming cabal of psychiatrists and drug company executives. (The title of this post, for those who may be wondering about the ungrammatical language, comes from the gloating of an evil character in a poorly translated video game that has become an Internet legend.)

The other side of the argument can be found in an article in last week's New York Times, which defends the psychiatrists and drug companies by pointing out that many people always have used mind-altering substances of one sort or another. Alcohol, cigarettes, and other products were commonly used throughout history to reduce anxiety and other unpleasant conditions. The author also notes that we can't accurately compare the percentage of the population now taking psychiatric drugs to the percentage that had depression and other serious problems in the past, given the fact that today's diagnostic categories lack historical equivalents. Also, very few people choose to take psychiatric drugs for trivial reasons.

All of these points are based on solid historical fact. They're also quite irrelevant, in my view, to what is wrong with psychiatry. It's probably true that many of the people now taking Prozac or Paxil would've medicated themselves in saloons or opium dens a century or two ago; and if psychiatrists were nothing more than legal drug dealers, occupying the same social niche as bartenders, I wouldn't have any objection. But there is a major difference that the article never mentions: Psychiatry, unlike other types of substance use, always involves coercion, whether directly or indirectly.

When the medical profession broadly applies the narrative of disorder and illness to human cognitive diversity, it causes society to view the people so labeled as tragic sufferers, in urgent need of treatment and/or cure. Instead of being advised to make careful decisions and to exercise moderation, as with alcohol and other potentially harmful substances, a psychiatric patient is expected to take whatever medications the doctor prescribes and never to question the doctor's authority. And if a person who has a psychiatric label is reluctant to use drugs, that decision (unlike the choice to abstain from alcohol or street drugs) will get no support from society; rather, he or she is likely to be condemned as foolish, noncompliant, and irresponsible for not obeying the doctor.

And that's only the indirect coercion. Applying medical labels to cognitive differences also results in forcible use of drugs in many cases; after all, our society considers anyone who does not want treatment for an "illness" to be dangerously irrational. Ginger just posted a blog entry describing the ordeal of Nate Tseglin, an autistic teenager in California who was taken from his parents because they were seen as neglectful for not giving him medications to prevent self-injury. Although the parents explained that he had a history of strong negative reactions to psychiatric drugs, the authorities ignored their concerns and placed their son in a group home where he was forcibly drugged, as described in the Orange County Register:

… the parents were cut out of any decision-making regarding their son. They were given only short visits with him. After he ran away from the group home, the government transferred Nate to a mental hospital. The Tseglins say the drugs the hospital gave Nate caused him to have a "grand mal" seizure, and his health has continued to deteriorate while he languishes in a government mental facility. When they visited him over the summer, they found his face swollen. He faded in and out of consciousness and was suffering from convulsions. They believe he has been beaten and are worried about sexual abuse, given that he is housed with the criminally insane.

The Tseglins claim Child Protective Services has told them they have the "wrong set of beliefs" and even threatened to force them to undergo court-ordered psychological evaluation. The agency at one point suspended the parents' visitations as a way "to assist them in coming to grips regarding their son." The Tseglins, as former citizens of the Soviet Union, have good reason to be fearful of the authorities. But they tell me that they experienced nothing of this sort in the former communist nation. If their descriptions are correct, then the Soviets weren't the only ones who know how to create a totalitarian bureaucracy.

Ginger is asking autism bloggers to write about this case in the hope of shaming the authorities into letting Nate go home. We need to be aware, however, that this is by no means an isolated incident. Children in the foster care system are routinely given strong psychiatric medications to keep them docile, and this has been going on for many years. I used to know a woman who was a licensed foster parent. When she got a new kid placed in her home, the first thing she did was throw away the kid's meds. That was her way of fighting back against a broken system that was destroying children's lives.

That was 25 years ago.

We now have a society that spends vast sums waging a largely ineffectual "war on drugs" while, at the same time, enforcing a psychiatric regime that routinely uses powerful drugs for the purpose of "combating" autism and other neurological variations. Millions of American citizens are stigmatized, coerced in various ways, and sometimes locked up because they are using illicit drugs to change the functioning of their brains. Millions more are stigmatized, coerced in other ways, and sometimes locked up because they have not altered their brains enough to meet with society's approval. And the ever-shrinking group of "normal" people in the middle has to live in fear of what might happen if, at some point, they or their family members were to be judged "abnormal."

The fault lines in our cultural landscape run a lot deeper than any recent conspiracy between the psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical companies. We are dealing with unresolved issues of social class and eugenics that go back more than a hundred years. We still have a frighteningly high number of influential people shaping social attitudes (such as a professor who told his students last week that aborting babies with Down syndrome is "the moral thing" to do) who think in terms of controlling and eradicating the undesirables and perfecting the gene pool. In short, we are dealing with a very complex situation, and we oversimplify it at our own peril when we treat it like a video game battle against evil cartoon conspirators.

Update, Feb. 29: For more information about Nate Tseglin visit http://www.getnatehome.com/



  • Great post. It is true, foster children are given meds at much higher rates then normal children, but now the schools are demanding that children be medicated or the parents face a report made to Child Protective.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:28 PM  

  • I have continued to wonder whether this problem and others like it are based on a very low-level reflex to take a "short-cut" in evaluating the world around us. Jared Diamond has spoken of this tendency which he suggests is the organisms response to a finite lifetime. We don't have forever to evaluate a new acquaintance so our basic reflexes look for some quick and dirty signal that can be used to base a guess on.

    The irony for me in this is two-fold. First, eugenicists generally would never admit to following such a "primitive" strategy as a basis for their grand ideas. They feel they are following something much more refined.

    The second issue for me is that I generally am very aware of times that I take such shortcuts, and have a hard time understanding why others dismiss this as a widespread occurrence. I surmise that (1)my autistic love of details and (2) tendency toward being more detached than normal from the personality quirks of those around me, result in my own short-cutting to be perhaps more obvious to me than it is for an NT.

    Despite the fact that my awareness of shortcuts may be an autistic trait, it does not change the fact that most cultures, ours included, place a high value on avoiding a rush to judgment. I have always been advised that one should indeed attend to appropriate details and not proceed with some sort of kangaroo court followed by a lynching.

    One of my points here is that, at least in my experience, autistic traits seem to confound themselves with "higher ethics". I tend to tell the truth alot not so much because it is ethical, but because it is easier on my brain. I engage in fewer metaphorical lynchings than I might in part because of the same issue. I think this entangling of primary experience and ethical intent may be part of the complexity that is ignored in discussion of this issue.

    I think the underlying shortcut reflex that Jared Diamond discusses is also part of the complexity. If one looks at this issue entirely from the point of societal controveries and fault lines, many of the fundamental mechanisms are missed completely.

    To have a direct or indirect coercion applied in this situation is a sign of an extreme lack of humility in the face of the infinite.

    By Blogger S Denslow, at 2:42 PM  

  • Wow...
    Thats is the main problem way the Doctors wanted to overmedicating people by trying to "quick fix" the problem thats make their problem worse instand of seeing these issues and find the other alternatives to how to overcome it.
    They have no rights by controlling these parents want the best for their child(ren), and telling them that they have the wrong set of belifes(which is a total BS).And also, they have no right to talking them away from them and places them somware that they are the risk of being abused. The problem is the helthcare is realy, realy screw up in America and they are too quick to judge and give us medication to inore those problems and most won't be covered with life or health insurence, (I heard that 1 of 7 people without life or health insurence)!!! How wonder the system is broken when it come to health and safty. I hope that the system will listen understand Nate Tseglin' parents and reunite him. I am sorry that they are going trough this. I know that they are doing the best for their son, and I hope them the best.

    And another main problem that American is having problems with. Some jerk said that people with Down Syndrome are distoying these famlies lives and must be eradicated by abortion and said that it is a "moral thing to do", I don't think that it is the moral thing to eradicate their lives of those people who just come into this world for a purpose and I think that what he said is very, very, sick, and that he may think to good thing to suggest that, but is to me, it is pure evil of what he had suggested. I have a couple of my High School clssmate have Down Syndrome and they are just like everyone else. They are not distoying everybody lives by being a producitive members of the scocity and I heard that many people who have a family member with Down Syndrome how wonderful they are and how they effect thir live in a positive way and I heard no word that how they distoying their lives . This is very sad that the scocity are fixlating on perfection buy getting rid of the ones that are not "perfect" and don't realized that every single one of us, on this earth, no matter that we are disabled or not, have our own flaws and we come to this earth for a purpose to teach eachother love. Sadiy, we heard many people who have a families with an autism specturm about how they are distoying these famlies lives, and don't realized how blessed thay are to have that person in their lives. The only things to be to say how wonderful we are and how they effect thir live in a positive way and I heard no word that how they distoying their lives is our families and the Autism Hub. Think you for speading a positive word about us and to educate that we are not doom, broken, sad, nor soulless, distoying their lives,and say that we are producitive members of the scocity, we can do wonderfull things and to be loved and to be valued, and live is much more than autism. Also sadly, 90% of babies with Down Syndrome are being aborted and I hope that the furture famlies who going to have a baby with autism, won't go the same fate by to eradication by aborted them, and I hope that they won't cross the line what that guy said.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:46 AM  

  • I have a website that would make these people think twice before they are thinking about to think in terms of controlling and eradicating the "undesirables" and perfecting the gene pool.

    ****Abortion Truth


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:01 AM  

  • Thank you so much for your thoughts and bringing some attention to the nightmare of a situation for Nate Tseglin and his parents. Anyone is welcome to visit our site, www.getnatehome.com, for more details, and join our advocacy Group from this site if you would like more ideas on helping Nate and his family.
    Thanks again!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:56 PM  

  • Gotta love the AYBABTU reference

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:54 PM  

  • I found my way here when someone posted a prayer request in my Yahoo Group for Nate. We are a group that discusses non-drug approaches to mental illness.

    I have since re-posted it in several other places.

    IT IS a systemic problem, this stepping in of the medical community and legal communities to "manage" a person's illness when it is perceived that the person is not doing a good enough job.

    I have bipolar disorder. I have been on the receiving end of medical professionals and law enforcement people who, I swear, if stake burning was still available, I would be toast.

    I went to an ER in June of 2000 with a fever of 102, knowing I was sick and knowing that the only thing standing between me and a manic/psychotic episode was a bag of saline solution. I could feel the Lithium compounding in my blood - it feels like your blood is boiling in your veins. Long story short, with ZERO physical exam, I was dragged into a psych holding room where I ended up staying the night courtesy of restraints and 3 injections of I don't know what. No food, no water, no saline - nothing - restraints and tranquilizers. Did I go calmly? Of course not, Lithium poisoning is a reality and you can go into a coma and I was terrified because these people simply would not listen to me tell them how the illness should be managed. Never mind that I was totally stable for 3 years since diagnosis and for 7 years since that night with those people.

    It just didn't matter. I had a label and they were putting me in the slot that held the label, with absolutely no regard to clinical presenting symptoms.

    I have decided to redouble my efforts to get into law school. My husband says I should tell them I am bipolar and that I would have a better chance. I don't know about that. But I might tell them what happened to me, what happened to Nate and that I intend to sue the shit out of whoever gets in my sights that screws with a person or family's right to choose thier treatment.

    You are the AGFH (lol-sort of, i know you aren't kidding), I am the POBB (pissed off bipolar bitch).

    This cannot be allowed to continue. NO ONE has the right to tell me how to manage my illness or run my life. If I can draw up an advance directive demanding the withdrawal of food and water if I am ever in a vegetative state - essentially choosing to die - why can't I choose vitamins if that is what I want.

    One of my best friend's son has Asperger's. I have known him since he was a baby. I suspected Asperger's when he was two. They finally got a diagnosis when he was 8/9 and found a good nuerologist a couple of years ago. He is doing very well.

    And when I read about Nate, I thought about Matthew, because he is 14 now. He has his issues, but his parents and he are doing well together. He goes to school, gets good grades, plays baseball, active in church. I even saw him "hanging out" with a couple of girls - being cool - last week.

    Based on what I read about Nate, I don't think there is a whole lot of difference.

    I hope the State of California gets sued because litigation is the only thing that makes narrow minded people do the right thing where others are concerned, especially in this area. Without litigation, the personal rights of anyone who is seen as "deviant" within a society will increasingly become threatened.

    It has to stop.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:00 PM  

  • I hope you can help me.
    I am writing a book and I want to have one of the characters to be an autistic boy. In the book the child was in foster care until the age of 3. At the age of 3 the boy was adopted and is living in a very stable family. Now at the age of 11 one of the parents die and the boy is at risk of returning to foster care.
    I want my character to be a voice for autistic children (and parents) can anyone help? I want the mother of this autistic kid to be one that fought for that kid.
    I am sure I could find many parents willing to share their experiences with alternative treatments, difficulties of research, heartbreaks. Anything you would like to see in a novel?
    For the kid I would like to learn more about the necessity of routine, sensory stimulation and the risk of over stimulation. All I really know about autism is from the works of Temple Grandin. I would like to hear from parents and learn what would you like me to show in the novel.
    Also does anyone have any experience with autism and the foster care system.
    Please e-mail
    social awareness@live.com

    By Blogger aware, at 5:41 PM  

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