Readers Respond

Forget ‘Field of Screams,’ psychiatry has more than an image problem | READER COMMENTARY

Framed photos of phantoms and a Bates Motel sign complete the Haunted Hill Insane Asylum on Newport Beach, California's Balboa Island. File. (Susan Hoffman/Daily Pilot).

In response to the recent commentary by three psychiatrists regarding the demonizing of psychiatry by using old asylums as places to terrorize visitors looking for a Halloween scare (”Haunted asylums are a Halloween staple. Does the fictional gore undermine psychiatry’s good?” Oct. 27), I offer a more skeptical take on the current treatments one is offered by modern psychiatry. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety in the past and watched friends and family members suffer, I am well aware of the serious nature of emotional distress issues, and I am in favor of evidence-based treatment. But for many people, the treatments run counter to the latest research, are ineffective at best and sometimes are even harmful.

One of the main problems plaguing modern psychiatry is its overreliance on the biological model of mental illness, often simply referred to as the chemical imbalance theory. Yet prominent leaders in the field have disavowed this theory, though many in the general public have not gotten the word. For example, Dr. Ronald Pies, a psychiatrist and professor at SUNY Upstate Medical Center and Tufts University School of Medicine, denies the chemical imbalance theory that modern treatment is based on: “In short, the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ was never a real theory, nor was it widely propounded by responsible practitioners in the field of psychiatry.” And lest you think he is exaggerating, you could consult recent research that shows no connection between depressiona nd serotonin imbalance in the brain.


Despite its leaders disavowing the theory of a chemical imbalance causing emotional distress, psychiatrists routinely prescribe “treatment” consisting of drugs that purport to address a chemical imbalance theory, which we now know does not exist. And recent research states that antidepressants only work for 15% of the people who take them. Few, if any, doctors mention the horrors of sexual dysfunction, sometimes permanent, that afflict many people who take such psychiatric drugs. Most people who watch TV have heard the litany of the more common side effects of psychiatric drugs, which include insomnia, sedation, constipation, headaches, weight gain, blurred vision, tremors and seizures.

And if you try two or three drugs and your doctor deems you to be treatment resistant — meaning the drugs don’t work for you — then your doctor can administer an electrical current strong enough to induce a grand mal seizure. Electroconvulsive therapy or ECT is a serious and harsh procedure by any measure, despite the assurance from The Sun’s contributors that ECT is “brief, still and quiet.” Even so, recent literature reveals that 44% of people who receive ECT relapse within a year, most within the first three months after the treatment. The doctors fail to inform readers that harms from ECT can include memory loss and brain trauma.


We may be removed from the horrors of the “Field of Screams,” but research shows us that many of psychiatry’s current treatments, far from being precise and effective, are often futile at best and potentially very harmful at worst. Given that many recent studies show that exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating most cases of depression, shouldn’t patients be offered the least harmful method of treatment first? And, after reviewing many of the harms that are possible with the use of antidepressants and ECT, let’s consider the results of a National Institute of Mental Health study that concluded this about the course of untreated depression: “If as many as 85% of depressed individuals who go without somatic treatment [drugs, ECT, and other treatments] spontaneously recover within one year, it would be extremely difficult for any intervention to demonstrate a superior result to this.”

— Ann Bracken, Columbia

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