Marianne Williamson’s Message Regarding the Overuse of Anti-Depressants Should Be Heard By All Americans

Self-help guru and democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson had a break-out moment at the recent CNN Democratic debate when she cut through the mind-numbing discussion about Medicare for All.  In her moment she reminded us that the 2020 presidential election is something completely different than the usual choice between policies and political personalities; instead, it is a battle for the American soul, as consequential perhaps as the 1860 pre-Civil War election of Abraham Lincoln. What has been lost or at least drowned out in the Democratic presidential debates to date is that the target should not be on the Obama Administration’s policies — which on its worst day was far better than the Trump Administration’s best day — but on the current White House incumbent. According to Williamson, Trump poses an existential threat not only to our democratic values, but also America’s moral infrastructure and collective psychic well-being. As Williamson put it at the CNN debate:

If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.

The audience responded with thunderous applause to Williamson, who also reminded us that “when we’re talking about health care … we need to realize we have a sickness care, rather than a health care system. We need to be the party talking about why so many of our chemical policies and our food policies and our agricultural policies and our environmental policies and even our economic policies are leading to people getting sick, to begin with.”

Following the debate, the internet practically exploded with viewer interest in Williamson and her views. Google trends showed that she appeared in the most searches after the debate in 49 of the 50 states. This increased interest immediately led to a mad scramble by mainstream journalists and opinion writers to try to drive a stake through the heart of Williamson’s quixotic campaign before it gained any more traction. Articles such as that by Brian Boyle of the LA Times predicting that “we’re all probably doomed” if Williamson were to succeed in her quest to drive Trump’s “dark psychic forces” from the White House. 

On Thursday night, August 1st, CNN’s Anderson Cooper had Williamson on his show in what could have been a very informative discussion on the massive over-prescription of antidepressants in the United States, possibly the most severe drug crisis facing the country today – with the possible exception of the opioid crisis. Instead, Cooper seemed intent on totally trashing Williamson’s legitimate message regarding the dangers of overuse of antidepressant and psychotropic prescription medications by focusing on one or two ill-advised statements that Williamson had regretted making in the past, including a reference to clinical depression as a “scam” and a statement referring to antidepressants as merely “numbing our pain.” Cooper also dredged up her promotion of an article on the death of Robin Williams that had been written by an arm of the Church of Scientology, which, strongly opposed psychiatry in general and almost all medications in particular. However, what Williamson was agreeing with in the article was the relatively non-controversial position that antidepressants are “helpful for some, but harmful for others.” 

To be sure, Cooper started the segment by noting that Williamson has been outspoken regarding the “legitimate” issues of over-prescription of antidepressants, the aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies, and their potential harmful side effects. However, he then spent the balance of the segment, taking Williamson to task for arguably suggesting that antidepressants may cause harm by “numbing” or “masking” emotions. Williamson denied promoting that message, but did articulate her core message that too many doctors are treating the “normal spectrum of human despair” with antidepressants, adding that, in her view, “We have lost our sense that there are times when sadness is part of life.”

Instead of blindly attacking and dismissing Williamson’s views as “kooky” or so outside the mainstream that they should not be taken seriously, it should be noted that there is growing recognition in the psychology and psychiatric fields that psychotherapists and other mental health professionals have been far too quick to view patients from a purely psychopharmacological perspective. Powerful antidepressants and psychotropic medications are often prescribed far too quickly, without a proper diagnosis and without taking into full consideration the potential dangerous negative side effects and addictive qualities of such medicines. 

In 2002, researchers at the Rand Corp. surveyed close to 700 adults who were taking antidepressants, but fewer than 20% had tested positive when screened for clinical depression, and fewer than 30% of those receiving medication had any symptoms of depression at all. Put another way, more than 70% of patients in the survey presented no medical need for antidepressant treatment, and an additional 10% had insufficient symptoms to warrant the American Psychiatric Association’s official DSM diagnosis of depression. 

In June 2012, an article in the American Psychological Association noted that a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that “patients often receive psychotropic medications without being evaluated by mental health professionals,” and that that many Americans are being prescribed powerful antidepressants and other medications without a proper diagnosis. Often these patients are unaware of other non-drug treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, that might work better for them without the risk of dangerous side effects.  In 2016, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study based on a review of 100,000 prescriptions for antidepressants written by about 160 doctors for 20,000 people.

A growing number of therapists who are either not licensed to prescribe medications or choose not to prescribe medications for many of their patients believe that non-drug related therapy (Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) or “talk therapy” as it is often referred to) is the most effective and least dangerous tool to provide treatment to their patients. There are also many members of the clergy or spiritual healers, such as Williamson, who offer counseling and therapeutic services to individuals who are not taking antidepressants or psychotropic medications. However, these “non-drug” therapists are the exception, rather than the rule, and, as Williamson stated in the CNN interview, “We’re living in a society now where somebody is going through just a normal breakup, and somebody says, ‘You should be on something.’” 

As Anderson Cooper repeatedly pointed out, a patient who has been appropriately diagnosed with clinical depression may well benefit from a proper prescription of antidepressant medication as long as he or she is closely monitored by a qualified physician or other mental health professional. However, as multiple studies have shown, antidepressants and psychotropic medications are being over-prescribed for thousands – if not tens of thousands – of patients who have not been properly tested and diagnosed with depression, often with disastrous results. 

In one medical malpractice case that I handled for the family of their deceased son, the young man of college age was prescribed nearly two dozen antidepressant and psychotropic medications, even though the medical providers who were prescribing these medications to him never conducted any psychological testing to determine whether, in fact, he was clinically depressed.  It was later discovered through a comprehensive battery of psychological testing; he did not have any mental problems but, rather, may have had some organic and neurocognitive problem related to a bout with Lyme’s Disease that he suffered from as a young child. In other words, the massive doses and chemical cocktails that he was forced to take during several hospitalizations were wholly inappropriate and unnecessary, and caused classic side-effects, such as extreme agitation and severe akathisia (literally, inability to sit), extreme mental anguish, self-violence, suicidal ideations and, eventually, attempted suicide.  

Two of the drugs the patient was required to take – Celexa and Zoloft – carried “black box warning” on its label as required by the FDA. This warning cautioned that, based upon various studies, the drugs may increase suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children and adolescents (under 25). Nevertheless, the medical providers insisted that the young man continue to take these and other prescription medications with dangerous side effects. When the patient began making progress with a therapist who specialized in DBT “talk” therapy that did not rely upon any prescription medications, the other doctors who were prescribing the antidepressants for him ordered that such drug-free therapy cease since it was supposedly interfering with his pharmacologically-based treatment. 

Eventually, the young man’s downward spiral resulted in him dousing himself with gasoline and lighting himself on fire, resulting in severe burns over 90% of his body. He lingered near death for six months in a hospital ward before he eventually died. 

Tragically, this case that I worked on is not an isolated incident, and although some of Marianne Williamson’s rhetoric on the subject of the overuse of prescription medications is undoubtedly “over the top,” the topic deserves much more public attention and debate, since it is a crisis throughout our country as real as the opioid epidemic. 

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Kenneth F. McCallion is a former federal prosecutor and principal attorney with McCallion & Associates LLP, a law firm specializing in human rights and medical malpractice cases involving the inappropriate and overuse of antidepressant and psychotropic prescription medications.  

REFLECTIONS OF A MARINE DAD

Since my son is about to start basic training with the Marines, I have been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about honor, courage and commitment, the core values of the Marines. Citizen soldiers have fought for the ideals of freedom and democracy since April 1775, when the local Massachusetts militias first confronted the most feared army of its day at Lexington and Concord. Few could have imagined that a rag-tag army of irregulars and citizen soldiers could bring the British Empire to its knees and win independence for this fledgling democracy. Even more astonishing is the fact that 242 years later, the Republic has not only survived, but it has become the greatest and most powerful nation on earth.

Like several generations of his forefathers who have served their country before him, my son will soon raise his right hand along with many other patriotic young men and women, and solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. They will come from all backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds, but the one thing they have in common is a devotion to their country and a willingness to fight and – if necessary – die for it.

Unfortunately, the spirit of public service and self-sacrifice appears to be on the wane. Few of my son’s classmates seem to be attracted to government service, such as the Peace Corp or VISTA, and almost none are signing up for military service.

I am saddened, but not surprised. How can we expect our younger generation to follow the call of honor, duty, and dedication to the common good when they can plainly see that our country’s elected leaders are driven more by craven self-interest and egotism?

Our young men and women must be deeply concerned about the direction in which our country is going. Is it still worth fighting and dying for? They must have some doubts. The gulf between the very rich and the rest of us in America has widened over the past several decades. More and more Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and as they see the American dream rapidly fading, they are increasingly turning in despair and desperation to alcohol and opiates. No longer is a good education and hard work a sure ticket to participate in the American dream. The only guarantee now is that you will be paying off your student loans for the rest of your working life. Small wonder, then, that most Americans are all consumed with the burdens of day-to-day survival, and have stopped looking beyond the frantic scramble to exist to ask what they can do to serve their country and their fellow citizens.

The first cabinet meeting of the new Administration on Monday, June 12, 2017, demonstrated how far the standards for our civilian leadership have fallen. The current Commander-In-Chief began the proceedings by praising himself as history’s most successful president, “with few exceptions.” Really? What of the truly great Presidents who have come before him? What of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan?

Greatness must be earned; it is not pre-ordained or self-proclaimed. It is the judgment of history about us, not our own judgment as to what place we think we deserve in history.  Uncritical self-praise and self-congratulation is a prescription for disaster, not a success. Pride cometh before the fall.

Fortunately, the one Cabinet member charged with responsibility for our armed forces had a different perspective than those of his colleagues, who were falling over each other to see who could praise the President the most. Retired General James Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps, now serving as Secretary of Defense, firmly stated that his “praise” was reserved for the members of the armed services. “It’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense,” he said. “And we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making.”

Has the quality of our civilian leadership fallen so low that we must rely upon a retired general to remind us that the role of our government officials is to protect and serve the people of this great country, not just the current occupant of the White House? This is not the first time in American history that our military leaders have had to also provide the country with moral leadership as well as security. Nor, I suspect, will it be the last.

Fear seems to be the great motivator of our times, with the courage to face our deepest fears in precious short supply. The Marine Corps defines courage as “having the mental, moral and physical strength to do what is right in the face of fear.” The lesson ingrained in every Marine recruit is a simple one: You can never escape fear, it will follow you everywhere. The key is to embrace that fear, then turn it inside out and transform it into a mental, moral and physical positive field of energy that will make you and your unit invincible.

Where are the true leaders, the patriots of this generation who are willing to put country ahead of partisanship, community before tribalism? No doubt there are many young people out there who would be willing to make the necessary sacrifices that prior generations have made for their country. But will they dare to step forward when they see leaders who are less interested in making sacrifices for their fellow citizens than tweeting about petty grievances?

As much as I strongly believe in civilian control of our military, I am hugely relieved that the current President has seen fit to delegate most of the awesome responsibilities for military action to our current and former military commanders, such as General Mattis, who at least have a basic grasp of what America’s role is in the world, and that our key allies should be supported, not criticized. Our young men and women in uniform deserve wise and thoughtful leadership, and I am confident at least that our military leaders are up to the task.

Godspeed, my son. May God look after and protect you and your fellow Marines.