Mental illness, when covered by the popular media, is generally considered in one of two contexts: stories about violent crime or exposés on the shortcomings of drug company marketing. The American public would be better served by greater consideration of the everyday success stories made possible by the revolution on psychiatric pharmacology.
The emphasis on stories about the criminally insane, however much it may sell tickets to blockbuster movies like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, has the effect of scaring people who could very well profit from psychotherapy. As a veteran of many years on the proverbial couch I well remember how difficult it was to initially accept the much needed help. This initial resistance came, at least in part, from a fear of the prospect of having to think of myself as “mentally ill.” The classification carried all kinds of terrifying overtones that I wanted to avoid at all costs. Mental illness was not discussed. It was alien. It was a sign of catastrophic failure. Above all, I did not want to think of myself as one of those people.
The scare factor associated with mental illness leads directly to the fierce taboo against open discussion of what might be considered the most human of chemical and biological problems. Not only is the person who suffers from one of these deficiencies afraid to reach out for help in the first place, but when they do take the brave step of seeking help, the taboos inevitably leave them feeling isolated and alone. As long as the lead story on the six o’clock news is about the mentally ill man who pushes someone in front of a moving train, the millions of others who quietly make their way to and from their therapist and the pharmacy counter will be left without a voice. For me, it took a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, the result of abusing lifesaving drugs, to realize that there were others just like myself. And there are others. Just look at the numbers. Millions of these prescriptions are being filled every year, the vast majority for people who are quietly getting better.
When the story isn’t about some violent and heinous crime, it is often about over the top and possibly irresponsible marketing practices of the pharmaceutical companies. Doubtless, these large companies have taken advantage of their new found power as witnessed by the three billion dollar penalty recently imposed on GlaxoSmithKline. Like the tobacco companies whose products have none of the redeeming qualities, the pharmaceutical companies have been punished. When, however, these excesses are allowed to overshadow the enormous positive advances in psychiatric pharmacology that have been made in the past 20 years, a disservice is done to us all. Psychiatrists now have at their disposal an arsenal of useful medications to help individuals suffering from debilitating forms of illness. They have learned to use them well and people are getting better.
An alternate story is being written by thousands of recovering writers and filmmakers, individuals who have witnessed the progress of 21st century psychiatry first hand. They are placing their stories of survival and triumph in the hands of self-publishing companies in the form of autobiographical novels and memoirs. This past month a movie was released, OC87, that provides a director’s perspective from behind the camera of decades of illness and recovery. These stories are not as exciting as those that tend to lead the six o’clock news, but they are just as important. They are the stories of one of the greatest successes of our time, the story of how committed doctors and therapists, assisted by ingenious scientists, have devised ways of curing those willing to face down fearsome societal judgment and undertake the hard work of getting well.
Josh Greenfield is a Cornell alumnus, Class of 1984. He may be reached at email@example.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.