Toxic Psychiatry

Drugs and Electroconvulsive Therapy:
The Truth and the Better Alternatives

Peter Breggin

reviewed by Mira de Vries

Breggin is one of the two most prominent heroes of the opposition to psychiatry movement, who has been campaigning against tortures in the name of psychiatry since the fifties of the twentieth century. This is probably his best-known book, which Jeffrey Masson rightly calls “an all-out attack”.

What Breggin does best in this book is expose the truth about psychoactive drugs, and especially the neuroleptics (also called antipsychotics). Developed from dyes, these drugs were known to have horrible side effects from the beginning. Their inventors proudly proclaimed them to bring about a “chemical lobotomy” which was considered an endorsement of the drugs. Breggin points out that the so-called side effects are actually the main effects, and even the only effects. When early psychiatrists saw what today is called tardive dyskinesia (TD) – the movement disorders caused by these drugs – they took it as a sign that the drug was “working.”

Breggin points out that such destructive drug effects would not be tolerated in people about whom somebody cares. Only because they are prescribed to society’s cast-offs can physicians get away with it. Neuroleptic drugs are used wherever social control is at a premium: in psychiatric institutions, prisons, homes for problem children, nursing homes, and in the former USSR, on political dissidents.

Early psychiatrists who spread the use of these drugs were even more familiar with TD than today’s psychiatrists, who routinely fail to recognize it, or attribute it to the condition being treated. Breggin is probably the first author to describe TD and its variants, tardive dystonia and tardive akathisia, in such graphic detail to professionals and the lay public alike. There are a few forms of it he overlooks, such as Pisa syndrome and hunchback. Perhaps he wasn’t familiar with these effects (yet) at the time of writing, but he covers all of his bases by stressing how grossly debilitating and disfiguring these drugs are, “causing the worst plague of brain damage in medical history.” It’s high time somebody said that.

Breggin duly credits Thomas Szasz for pointing out the political nature of psychiatry, and the extensive but illegitimate powers psychiatrists have to imprison and (mis)treat people. He also adopts Szasz’s position that mental illness doesn’t exist, but Breggin doesn’t seem to carry this idea through to its logical conclusion. The first part of this book is about “Schizophrenic overwhelm,” his alternative explanation to what schizophrenia is about. Although he encloses the word schizophrenia in quotation marks, obviously if there is no mental illness, then there is no schizophrenia, and also no schizophrenic overwhelm. Furthermore, even if “overwhelm” does exist, it surely is only one of very many factors in causing people to turn or be dragged to psychiatrists. As he himself points out, psychiatric drugs are prescribed for an almost infinitely wide range of conditions, real or perceived.

Whereas Szasz places his emphasis on personal responsibility, Breggin in this and other books largely lays responsibility for what ails people with their parents. He denies blaming them, but what else could it be called? When parents turn to him for advice, he states, he doesn’t even have to see the child to counsel them. One of his most treasured treatments is more attention from the father. The unlikelihood of parents who seek out and pay for Breggin’s services being child neglectors seems to elude him. Nor does he explain why not all children who don't even have a father suffer from lack of paternal attention. Breggin seems to think that parents are all-powerful, and have complete control over their children's welfare.

The absolute nadir of Toxic Psychiatry is Breggin’s contention that autism is caused by parents treating their children like furniture. This puts us back half a century to when Bruno Bettelheim was expounding such ideas, and is a slap in the face of dedicated and loving parents coping as best they can with raising a disabled child. This was, of course, written in 1992. Perhaps Breggin has changed his mind since then. I have unfortunately not had the opportunity of reading all of his books, so don't know whether he has since publicly rectified his position on autism. Ironically, he mentions “developmental disorders” in the same book, although this is but a new euphemism for autism. Perhaps he uses the term to mean something else, which he doesn't explain. To be fair, Breggin does state emphatically that even if these conditions are to be attributed to the brain, that still does not justify administering psychiatric drugs to children or adults so labeled, damaging their brains even further.

Apparently disparaging drugs is taboo unless an alternative is offered. Breggin is no doubt right that, for instance, depression can be alleviated by falling in love or finding a job. The trouble is that if people had the power to access these solutions, they wouldn’t have the problem in the first place. Not everybody is lovable or employable. Likewise, what’s the use of his advocating finding a good therapist when the people who need this elusive professional may not be able to find or pay for him, or even to identify him?

It’s a shame Breggin doesn’t limit himself to exposing psychiatric drugs and electroshock for the permanently damaging and destructive treatments they are, as the book would have been stronger and less easily discredited without his questionable positions on parenting and therapy. However, he deserves rousing applause for his lifelong dedication to revealing psychiatry’s ugly secrets and warning us about them.

When I picked the book up at the bookstore, it turned out to be a British edition, with a foreword by Australian born psychologist Dorothy Rowe, who, like in her foreword to Against Therapy, misses the point.

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