Bucking the Trend

December 9, 2010 — Features

By John Cressy

Psychiatrist challenges prevailing  mental health treatments

Few physicians would deny that advances in pharmacology have dramatically improved the lives of many patients. However, the medical necessity of drugs that affect brain chemistry – Prozac, Paxil and Xanax, to name a few – is a claim that  Grace Jackson, M.D., openly disputes.

Jackson, a North Carolina board-certified psychiatrist, also believes that Americans are being dangerously over-medicated with psychiatric drugs as a quick fix, replacing counseling sessions aimed at getting to the root of a patient’s existential problems.

“Too many people are taking drugs when they really need to be making changes in their lives,” Jackson maintains, adding that studies also show that use of psychiatric drugs leads to dependence and can cause permanent brain damage – even premature death.

So, are Americans addicted to psychiatric drugs? Jackson, the author of two books – Rethinking Psychiatric Drugs: A Guide for Informed Consent (2005) and Drug-Induced Dementia: A Perfect Crime (2009) – answers yes and cites data from IMS Health, a market intelligence company that tracks worldwide daily pharmaceutical sales.

According to IMS Health statistics for 2009, the United States (which makes up 4.5 percent of the world’s population) accounted for 90 percent of the world’s sales of prescription stimulants, 63 percent of antipsychotics, 51 percent of antidepressants and 41 percent of antiseizure drugs.

IMS Health also reported that pharmaceutical sales in the U.S. topped $300.3 billion in 2009. Antipsychotic drugs were the pharmaceutical companies’ No. 1 moneymakers, totaling $14.6 billion, ahead of cholesterol-lowering medications at $14.3 billion and gastric acid-lowering medications at $13.6 billion. Antidepressants are fourth on the sales list, at $9.9 billion.

“Something must be really wrong in our country,” Jackson concludes. “What is so different about our brains from everyone else’s around the world?”

Grace Jackson, M.D.

Jackson is especially alarmed by the dramatic increase in the number of children taking medications – an estimated 6 to 8 million boys and girls, or about 10 percent of the population under age 18 in the U.S. – for what are classified as mental health problems, including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Global use of ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall rose 80 percent – from 28.6 to 52 tons – between 2004 and 2008, according to the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board 2009 Report.

Jackson noted that many of today’s college students, members of the so-called “Ritalin Generation,” have been taking psychiatric drugs most of their lives, “and that to me is a scary thing.”

Jackson, 47, earned her bachelor’s degree in political science in 1986 and her master’s degree in public administration a year later, both from CLU. She returned to CLU and added a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1992, before enrolling in the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center to pursue a medical degree. After graduating in 1996, she completed psychiatry internship and residency programs in the U.S. Navy.

She calls the 1990s the “Decade of Deception,” when pharmaceutical companies became extraordinarily powerful and influential in the medical community and began pushing their drugs directly to the public through television ads.

Jackson added that pharmaceutical companies began funding clinical trials that promoted their medications as well as heavily manipulating studies that appear in medical journals.

As a result, “Doctors are doing what they’ve been told to do,” by prescribing psychiatric medications as opposed to recommending safer and more effective alternatives to drugs.

In addition, Jackson claims, “Few patients today are receiving psychotropic drugs within the context of an authentic or genuinely informed consent to such treatment.”

“The elephant in the room is that these drugs are toxic to the brain, even in small doses,” Jackson said.

Jackson reached a “crisis in conscience” in the Navy as she “watched what was happening to patients who were right in front of me. They were being prescribed medications but were becoming stuck in their behavior. I began asking myself, ‘Why are these people becoming chronically disabled and not recovering?’

“I thought the model of care was unnecessarily harmful. It was like, ‘Your brain’s broken so here’s your pill,’” she added.

Jackson resigned her commission with the Navy in 2002.

“Few patients today are receiving psychotropic drugs within the context of an authentic or genuinely informed consent to such treatment. The elephant in the room is that these drugs are toxic to the brain, even in small doses.”

Questioning authority, challenging the status quo, speaking one’s mind and protecting the rights of patients are ideals that Jackson holds dear. They are ideals, Jackson said, she gained in large part from the challenging liberal arts education she received at CLU.

“I really didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but as I get older I think, wow, my professors were very special people who taught me the skills to become a critical thinker and an independent human being,” Jackson said.

Jackson quickly names German professor Walter Stewart – “One of the reasons I took foreign languages at Cal Lutheran was so that I could connect with other people around the world, and Dr. Stewart helped me in that regard.”

She credits English professor Sig Schwarz with teaching her “what it means to be an ethical person.” She also looks back in awe at the teaching skill of the late Robert Woetzel, a professor of constitutional law who was for many years a leading proponent for the establishment of the International Criminal Court. “It was a tough class. He made you work your tail off, but it was worth it.”

But Jackson saves her warmest recollections for Ed Tseng, professor emeritus of political science and former Associate Dean for International Education.

“He was – and is – an extremely gifted lecturer,” she said. “He really knew how to bring the subjects of government, political philosophy and Asian history alive, and he did it with humor.”

Grace Jackson pictured during a USN combat casualty care course in February 1997.

Tseng, Jackson added, selected her to work as a political science departmental assistant when she was an undergraduate and he encouraged her to pursue her master’s degree in public administration. Tseng also invited Jackson to teach an introductory political science course at CLU for two years.

“Each of these chances provided me invaluable experience in research, writing, teaching and communicating – skills that I continue to use in my professional and personal life today,” she said.

Jackson noted that CLU also provided her opportunities to grow outside of the classroom. As a senior, she needed a physical education credit to graduate. So Jackson joined the women’s cross country team, even though she had no previous competitive running experience.

“I can’t say I never finished in last place,” Jackson said, laughing. “But I appreciated being part of a group. My approach to running was not to die.”

Since leaving the Navy, Jackson has worked in a variety of healthcare settings, including the North Carolina Department of Corrections. She is currently employed as the Medical Director for several social service agencies in her community. She also has a private practice in Greensboro, N.C.

An internationally renowned lecturer, writer and forensic consultant, Jackson has submitted testimony to governmental agencies and authorities on behalf of patients’ rights, medical ethics and healthcare reform. She also has served as an expert witness for the Law Project of Psychiatric Rights, a nonprofit organization based in Anchorage, Alaska.

John Cressy is a freelance writer who currently works in public relations for Whisenhunt Communications of Ventura and teaches writing skills to probation officers. He is a former staff writer, columnist and sports editor for the Ventura County Star.