Voluntary Madness; voluntary recovery?

March 7, 2011

One in 10 persons has some form of mental illness, I read once, and I believe it. Of course, if you looked at the frequency with which anti-depressants (and even stronger) drugs are prescribed, you’d think mental illness was far more prevalent than that.

But I’m not sure it is. Some depression, for example, is an appropriate response to life events, such as depression after the death of a loved one. Or loss of a job. In time, that kind of depression eases. Going through it seems natural and normal; meds seem very inappropriate.

A big part of the problem is the hyper-marketing of these brain-altering drugs to the general public, which is part of what leads to the shocking misuse of powerful anti-psychotics to treat garden-variety depression. Have you seen the magazine ads for Abilify, positioning it as an anti-depressant? It’s not. Abilify is an anti-psychotic, a drug meant for schizophrenics. It packs a serious wallop. Bristol-Myers/Otsuka America is irresponsible to be marketing this drug to the general public. It’s wrong, it’s unethical and it’s dangerous.

The same with Seroquel. And the FDA is complicit: in bed with Big Pharma and turning a blind eye.

The use of powerful prescription medications for mental illness has become a serious problem that isn’t being effectively addressed inside or outside of the medical profession. I’d submit that it may be even more of a problem than mental illness, itself.

Misuse of heavy-duty prescription drugs –drugs that some actually do need — really bothers me.

Norah Vincent’s book, Voluntary Madness, chronicles her own struggle with depression as well as her experiences at three different mental institutions. An immersion journalist, her original idea was to check in to several loony bins voluntarily and write an expose.

As it turned out, she needed treatment, after all, and was able to write from the viewpoint of a real patient, albeit with the observation skills of a professional journalist. She’s been through it all: pharmaceuticals, therapy, a state hospital, private institutions and the reader is brought along for the ride, step by step. It is an insightful book and maybe even provocative.

She writes about the prescription drug issue throughout. Her insider’s view of the system “serving” the mentally ill is riveting. I thought some of her thoughts and conclusions were provocative:

A person’s condition has less to do with his prospects for recovery than his personality, his willingness to change. The system, flawed as it is, is not solely, or perhaps even primarily responsible for (or capable of bringing about) the health and well-being of the individual. The individual himself is.


If you come to the conclusion, as I have, that you are at the helm of your mental and physical health, that you have more control than anyone over your own well-being, then the power to heal is put into your own hands.

We tend to think of happiness (and by happiness I also mean health or overall well-being) as a gift, and sometimes it is, a pure gratuity. But most of the time it comes about because you’ve done the work, prepared the ground to allow it in or tended it carefully once it has arrived. You have to practice happiness the way you practice the piano, commit to it the way you commit to going to the gym.

You don’t do it most of the time because it feels good to do it. You do it because it feels good to have done it. Or…you do it because repetition lays the groundwork. It is the prerequisite for feeling good.

Happiness is not a reward. It’s a consequence. You have to work at it every day.

So…what do you think?

5 comments on “Voluntary Madness; voluntary recovery?
  1. Dawn says:

    The book looks intriguing, but some of the comments here seem a little to simplistic and unrealistic — happiness can be illusive and yes attitude has much to do with it. But there comes a time in every life when one must examine the baggage we carry and decide whether to keep carrying it, shift the load, jettison some or finally look inside and figure out just what we’ve been carrying!

    Writing about life experiences — yes memoir if you like — is an excellent therapeutic tool. Often I’ve written an anecdote and just let my mind keep going and my fingers keep typing and I’ve discovered the most amazing truths that unlocked the importance of the memory.

    There is a reason we remember what we do from our life experiences. Why siblings remember same things — differently.

  2. She builds to those conclusions and that was more than I wanted to cover, but I did think they were an interesting contrast to the way meds are handed out.Some of the Amazon reviewers were fairly frothing at the mouth about her book. I thought it was an interesting take on mental illness (not just her conclusions, the whole book) I think you’re right about confronting demons.

  3. I am going to look for this book, would love to read it. And I do agree with what she says; that happiness is, or at least can be, in your own hands. As a person who has suffered from depression in the past and took Zoloft for a couple of years, I only know what worked for me and I know it’s not the same for everyone. Zoloft helped me function when I couldn’t. But ultimately what happened was that being depressed kind of started to become a way of life. It was who I was. I started to blame depression for everything I didn’t do or couldn’t do, professionally or personally, wherever there was an obstacle I could say “oh but it’s because of my depression, it’s because of mental illness”.
    I finally had to ask myself “do I really want to be depressed? Do I want to contintue to take medication?” and of course the answer was “no”. And that’s when I was able to start returning to my life again. I make a conscious decision every day to be happy. Some days are harder than others but it has been getting easier and easier. I consider myself happy and healthy and if I hit a low I don’t beat myself up over it.

  4. Dawn says:

    There is a BIG difference between ‘MENTAL ILLNESS’ and depression. IMO. So I don’t think there is one size fits all answer. It would be like prescribing insulin for everything in the physical disease world. Sometimes medicine is absolutely necessary!

  5. I think the lines are often blurred between the two, but you’re absolutely right about the “one size fits all” – no such thing for sure!

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