Hidden Dangers of Prescription Drugs

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About 50 guests attended a film screening and panel discussion last month at the Hill Center about the award-winning documentary Medicating Normal which focuses on the adverse effects of psychiatric drugs. Dr. Joe Tarantolo, a psychiatrist who has been practicing on the Hill for 40 years, hosted the panel discussion.

“I saw the movie when I was in Virginia Beach. It was being used as an educational tool,” said Dr. Tarantolo. “I wanted to share it with my Hill neighbors. I’m sure lots of people are taking drugs and don’t recognize the potential danger associated with the drug they are taking.” He said most of the drugs prescribed by psychiatrists, like the popular Xanax, are beneficial in the short term but not when taken for a long time.

What is Medicating Normal?

The movie follows five people— a newly married couple, a female combat veteran, a waitress and a teenager whose doctors prescribed psychiatric drugs for sleeplessness, stress, mild depression, focus and trauma.  The subjects struggle with serious physical and mental side effects as well as neurological damage which has resulted from taking the drugs as prescribed and from attempting to withdraw. Their doctors prescribed pills to help with common problems such as stress, insomnia, anxiety and grief. The benefits of the drugs are often the only ones presented to patients. Medicating Normal tells another story.

For more than three years, the producers documented the journey of these five individuals. They stated, “Our hope is that Medicating Normal will present one very important and predominantly untold story so that as a society we can begin a meaningful, informed nationwide discussion about what it means to be fully human and mentally well.”

According to the movie, fifty million Americans are dependent on commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs. While the dangers of illegal drugs and opioids are well known, few are fully informed of the potential dangers of antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds and stimulants before becoming physiologically dependent on them.

Panelist Mary Vietin, a psychologist who heads a group called the War Fighters Advance said vets who come to her for treatment stay about a week to begin to get off prescription psychiatric drugs. She said 80 percent do well several years off the drugs.

“When I work with vets, it takes about six hours to brief them on [all aspects] of the drugs, so they have informed consent,” she said. “It’s a very complicated process. Psychiatrists don’t take that kind of time.” Dr. Vietin said that often psychiatrists practice hit or miss. “If a patient has an adverse effect from a drug, they try another one then another one. Patients become guinea pigs.”

The film acknowledges that psychiatric drugs do help alleviate suffering for a segment of those who take them. However, it is estimated that of the one-in-five Americans taking psychiatric drugs, 30-35 percent are harmed by the very treatment meant to help them. Medicating Normal focuses on the predicament of this group—individuals facing trauma and stress who are made sicker as a result of the medication.

One of the panelists, Chuck Ruby, is a psychologist in private practice. He is also the executive director of the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry. He said the reason there’s a problem is that doctors are medicating for problems that aren’t illnesses. “We diagnose a mental illness when [a patient] becomes inconvenient to other people,” he said. The panelists all stated they are not anti-drugs. They are pro informed consent.

Problems with No Easy Fixes

“We live in a drug culture,” said Dr. Tarantolo. “There is no problem that can’t be cured by a drug.” According to a 2017 article, only two countries – USA and New Zealand – allow pharmaceuticals to advertise directly to consumers. He added that drugs are being used to address the basic core dilemmas of life—death, dying, being alone, anxiety—instead of trying to address life issues by being more open to experiencing them. If any feeling becomes “uncomfortable or difficult then it becomes a disease.”

Gina Sangster, a licensed clinical social worker with the Capitol Hill Consortium, was in the audience. “It’s an issue I’m interested in, and it’s an issue that is relevant to everyone who has been through depression and/or anxiety or knows someone who has,” she said. “I have clients currently taking Zoloft and Prozac and seem to get better in the short term. I never realized the withdrawal from these drugs could be so severe,” she said.

Information is power. Medicating Normal is a movie everyone needs to watch. I rented the movie from my local library. You can also get it on Amazon or YouTube. If you want to view the panel discussion, go to the Hill Center’s Facebook page.

To contact Dr. Tarantolo, call 202-543-5290.

Pattie Cinelli is a health and fitness professional and journalist who has been writing her column for more than 25 years. She focuses on non-traditional ways to stay healthy, get fit and get well. Please email her with questions or column suggestions at: fitmiss44@aol.com.

Sitting at brunch with a new friend recently we exchanged personal information about ourselves as we enjoyed our eggs benedict and vegetable omelet. She was telling me about her grown daughter and I was sharing my passion about writing this monthly column. When I told her about my topic this month, she became quiet. “I never knew this,” she told me. “My daughter (who is in her 30s) has been on these drugs for many years,” she said. My friend not only watched Medicating Normal herself but shared it with her daughter