Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Case of the Mysterious Adoration of Peter Breggin

Banging into a Brick Wall

Apart from the actual symptoms, the most alienating aspect of benzodiazepine withdrawal was the invalidation by the medical community. I spent much of 2012 – the year I hit tolerance - visiting my doctor, knowing something was wrong and suspecting the medication, only to be encouraged to pursue other – more well known – avenues of treatment.

The key discovery at the time came when I stumbled on the Ashton Manual – the online guide to benzodiazepine tolerance, withdrawal, and discontinuation. Written by a neurologist with impeccable credentials, Dr. Heather Ashton spent years running a clinic for people trying to get off the drug. Her clinical description of symptoms associated with the medication, tolerance and withdrawal, mirrored my experience. It was the first time I felt like I wasn't descending into insanity.

But despite the nearly unimpeachable rigor of the manual and the ubiquity of benzodiazepine prescriptions worldwide (xanax is the number one most prescribed drug in the US), my physician had no knowledge of the manual or the syndrome and neither did most other established healthcare sources I pursued. Sure, there would be acknowledgment of tolerance and dependence, but no one seemed to validate that the severity of what I was reporting was real – or at least not without extenuating, contributing factors.

This was, and continues to be, one of the most troubling mysteries for me. And the greatest frustration.

Trying to find a Sheriff or a Mayor in the Wild West

When you get off the main road of established medical conditions and treatments like I had to do with benzodiazepine withdrawal, you find yourself in a dense forest of uncertainty. The online community of alternative medicine and support groups for benzodiazepine and psychiatric medication withdrawal in general is a living embodiment of the wild west. There are no rules. Because of the dearth of research into drug discontinuation - what you encounter for coping strategies is anecdotal and often times contradictory.

What I wanted more than anything were more voices of medical credibility to back up the Ashton Manual. Heather Ashton for all her brave work, did not create a movement or get heavily involved in advocacy. She also doesn't seem to have too many other colleagues in the field who have studied the long-term cognitive effects of benzodiazepines and the drawn-out symptoms some people encounter when they get off. So who do people turn to for legitimacy when trying to get awareness and acceptance of this phenomenon?

Fortunately, there is a burgeoning psychiatric reform movement with compelling voices, led by serious professionals like Robert Whitaker (an independent journalist who has uncovered an amazing amount of data that throws cold water on the efficacy of psychiatric medication), Peter Gotzsche (an internal medicine specialist and expert in clinical trials and the drug industry), and David Healy (a psychiatrist who runs an excellent prescription drug database and advocacy site RxISK). Those three alone have helped build a grassroots campaign questioning the validity of psycho-pharmacology. Many other mental health care specialists and former patients have joined them in advocacy for reform and awareness of the harms of psychoactive drugs.

The Self-Described "Conscience of Psychiatry"

And then there's Peter Breggin.

Breggin is a psychiatrist and a long-time critic of biological psychiatry and the medical management of mental health care. He has for decades railed against medicating people with mental health issues and criticized essentially all psychiatric drug use.

Frequently cited by psychiatric reformers, Breggin's adoration often approaches patron saint status – something he seems to relish as he refers to himself on his weekly podcast as “the conscience of psychiatry.” That he was an early critic of psycho-pharmacology definitely plays into this unquestioning respect. But part of me keeps believing that as the movement grows in credibility, it will start to shed the skin of some of the more deleterious elements involved in the effort.

But what motivated me to write about Breggin and how his specter haunts me is the simultaneous posting of Breggin's most recent youtube video by both the Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry (Dr Gotzsche's advocacy organization) and Mad in America (Robert Whitaker's well-known grassroots web page).

On its face, the basic thrust of the video is one I wholeheartedly agree with and is an argument that needs to continue to be made to prescribers and those contemplating going on psychiatric medication. I don't particularly care for how simplistically Breggin describes the drugs (and the brain for that matter) or the implication that everyone who takes them experiences these harms while no one is helped. But largely, it's an argument I agree with.

UFO's, Brain Chips, and Progressives, Oh My!

But it only takes a quick look at Breggin's career path and associations for me to feel completely uncomfortable with those organizations putting his face on the front of their web pages and trumpeting him as a legitimate medical authority.

Just enter “Peter Breggin” into Google and count the crazy.

For one, you find numerous guest appearances on some of the weirdest, most paranoid programs around. One of the most glaring examples is his presence on the wacky AM radio program called Coast to Coast. On its web site, the program describes itself as “a media phenomenon, Coast to Coast AM deals with UFOs, strange occurrences, life after death, and other unexplained (and often inexplicable) phenomena.”

Breggin has not just made one or two appearances on the program, he has his own link on the page as a recurring guest. Program titles he's been a guest on include “Psychiatric Drugs/UFO Disclosure”; “Supernatural Realms & Psychic Work,” “Satanic Ritual Abuse,” and “Advanced Beings and Reincarnation.” His portion of the segments are grounded in his work and criticism of psychiatry, but the surrounding content is literally not of this earth.

The crazy takes a more pernicious turn when you discover Breggin was also recently a guest on the Alex Jones Show. A 9/11 truther, armed militia supporter, and friend of illuminati wackadoodle theorist David Icke, The Alex Jones Radio Show mines the most paranoid conspiratorial theories, actively encouraging its listeners to buy survival kits for the upcoming apocalypse.

In the June 27th appearance, Breggin and host David Knight spend a good 20 minutes in a froth over fears of the government inserting brain chips into the populace. The kernal of truth in the segment is a project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to record and stimulate brain activity in veterans with issues related to PTSD. It's not nearly as Orwellian it sounds either as it incorporates Deep Brain Stimulation technology which is already a common and popular form of therapy for treatment of neurological conditions like Parkinson's and dystonia (a movement disorder). But to hear Breggin and Knight opine about it, it's the next step before being assimilated by the Borg.

And if that isn't enough, Breggin is a frequent guest of the unhinged, hateful right wing radio personality Michael Savage's show. You may remember Savage from several years ago when he created an uproar claiming that autism was a fraud and that, in 99% of the cases an autistic child is a “brat who hasn't learned to cut the act.” The widespread revulsion of the comments resulted in Savage's nationally-syndicated program losing sponsors and getting picketed by parents groups. But it certainly isn't too objectionable to Breggin.

Savage's show is your typical right wing AM talk radio program, focused on the horrors the Democratic party, and progressives in general, inflict upon our god-fearing country. Breggin has been on the show most of the time to discuss the over-medication of society where he frequently plays into Savage's hand trying to depict the problem as stemming from heavy-handed big government forcing medication on hapless souls. But at least on one occasion, Breggin himself editorialized on the dangers progressives inflict on society by shirking away from “personal responsibility.”

I mean never mind that if it weren't for the gains of progressives, Breggin wouldn't have the ability to access government and corporate records that he uses when he's tasked with being an expert witness in litigation cases against pharmaceutical companies. He certainly wouldn't have the legal avenues open to him for his litigants to pursue wrongful death lawsuits, a lucrative money making avenue of his career. But beyond even that, his gross caricature of progressives as eschewing personal responsibility and likening them to children is so simple-minded and naïve that I can't imagine how he's ever been able to convince anyone of anything.

Mad in America Protects Breggin

Dr. Breggin has been at this a long time. That could be part of the attachment to him – he was making these arguments before Robert Whitaker, before Marcia Angell, and the Kirsch Study. Perhaps Whitaker, Gotsche and others feels a debt of gratitude to Breggin for paving the way and getting many things right about the dangers of psychiatric drugs decades earlier. But I still think it's worth debating.

I tried pointing out my reservations about Dr Breggin in the comments section of his youtube video in Mad In America. I cited the frequent guest appearances on Coast to Coast and his June interview on the Alex Jones Show.

I definitely expected some blowback from other commenters, but I did not expect the site to remove portions of what I wrote. Just 12 hours after writing my concerns about him, however, I got an email from the Mad In America website moderator informing me that two comments I made were being removed.

One of the objectionable remarks I made was “Breggin has a relationship with Scientology.” Technically, that's not accurate. Breggin HAD a relationship with Scientology when he worked for the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) – an organization created by the Church of Scientology to combat psychiatry and psychiatric medication. He stopped working for the organization in the 70's and completely disavowed Scientology not long after. But CCHR still disseminates his work and criticisms (most likely against his preference) and so it's easy make the assumption of a connection.

But it's the other “objectionable” remark that drew rebuke that really floored me – the moderator removed a sentence that “implied he is a 'zealot.'” I simply was expressing my uneasiness with him as a major figure in the reform movement and the rigid combativeness he exudes when talking about the field of psychiatry. That was over the line, apparently as the moderator told me, I don't think it would be respectful or responsible for us to offer a platform for bloggers just to let them be dragged through the mud.”

And that's the mystery in a nutshell. Does Mad In America and the Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry not know that the person they promote on their web site airs his views on shows so easily dismissed by rational people? Is accurately pointing that out "dragging him through the mud"? I am more of a “victim” of psychiatry than he ever will be (in fact, he's benefited a great deal from psychiatry when you look at his paid efforts of criticism), yet I'm the one being censored for voicing uneasiness with his vaunted status.

Summarizing the Case and Why It Matters to Me

Why is the psychiatric reform movement trumpet this guy so readily? How can such a movement engage in dialogue with the established mental health world, when one of its most-promoted figures so effortlessly associates himself with crazy and intolerance?

This seems maddeningly self-defeating for a movement that desperately needs understanding and awareness.

This is not an academic issue to me. I've been pounding my head against the wall for three years now trying to carve out a space of understanding with doctors, family members and friends. What would any of them say if they saw Peter Breggin's multiple guest appearances on Coast to Coast? How much success could anyone have saying, “just focus on what he says about psychiatric medication and ignore the fact that he goes on shows about UFO's, lizard people and paranoid conspiracy theories.”

But I feel like I'm the only one. And I don't understand it. Where are the people - those fighting for acceptance, awareness and more research into this field - vigorously objecting to the inclusion of Peter Breggin as a reliable and legitimate authority?

When I was at my worst and there was simply no where to turn for support and understanding, I doubted myself. If this isn't a real condition– I thought – then I'M the problem. I'm too weak for this world. There is no one here to back me up, to take the burden of responsibility off me, to say that this is not my fault.

I wanted research that proved what I was going through was not a personal failing, but a genuine medical phenomenon from taking benzodiazepines for six years as prescribed by a doctor. I wanted credible, sensible voices whose work I could share with the physicians and counselors I was going to for help. And so have scores of people before me, scores of people right now trying to work with their doctors for help, and scores of people who have yet reached tolerance.

There is so little out there in the mainstream medical world validating this experience that isolated me and many others. So much is unknown because the research is lacking. So much still needs to happen for this condition to be accepted and understood. It's not that the numbers of people suffering what I've gone through are dramatic, it's that the experience for those who do suffer from it is so traumatic and disabling that many resort to suicide. I know this for a fact because no fewer than three people I encountered on message boards and support forums took their lives while I was frequenting them.

So this is the place I'm coming from when I raise this case about Dr Breggin. I personally feel that his poster-boy status is harming those of us fighting for awareness and legitimacy and I genuinely want a dialogue on this so I can either understand why he's so prominently featured or plant seeds of concern about him and the questionable baggage he carries.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Totally agree with you.

But I don't believe that Breggin has completely disavowed Scientology...

Greg said...

It's easy to get that impression of him. But on closer inspection, you see that Brteggin's wife was a fromer Scientologist who completely rebuked the organization and has detailed criticisms of it.

My wife has relatives who live on the Freewinds ship and we have a close understanding of how that organization works. I think they would make life really tough on Breggin if he tried to remove CCHR from disseminating his work - as that is their modus operandi. His work is so synched with their mission that he provides easy sourcing for them to spread their cause.
I wondered the same as you, of course, but the more I look into it, the more I think that they both kind of help each other but do not get along.

Sandy Villarreal said...

My community mental health care professionals told me it would be just 'fine' to cold turkey from a 10 yr addiction to Klonopin provided by my psychiatrist. That withdrawal almost killed me physically & emotionally. If I would have a gun in my home going through those withdrawals I would have killed my self as I prayed for every single day. Dr. Peter Breggin is the ONLY Psychiatrist I know of that actually seems to know what we the patient experience when withdrawing from Psychiatric Drugs and I 'cold turkeyed' Effexor, Trazodone & Lithium because my Mental Health care worker said it would be just fine to do that too and I trusted them almost at the cost of my life from those withdrawals. My house just burned to the ground while prescribed 10mg Ambien. Now I am homeless while living on Disability wages. Thank God for Dr. Breggin, we finally have someone advocating for those of us who have no voice!