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‘American Addict’ Film Explores America’s Prescription Pill Popping Habit

Pill organizer with pills
 

An ongoing issue faced by many in the mental health field is the over-diagnosis of conditions like bipolar, depression, and attention deficit or hyperactivity (ADHD), as well as the over-prescribing of psychotropic medications—and consequent addiction—that goes along with the pressure to dole out diagnostic labels to people seeking therapeutic help.

Several organizations and individual practitioners have chosen to resist this tendency through the years, choosing instead to focus on the healing and recovery that comes from the tried and true methods of psychotherapy and counseling. Belief in the power of talking and working with a therapist to move through the various ups and downs experienced while walking in this world is a large part of what fueled Noah Rubinstein’s desire to launch GoodTherapy.org in February of 2007.

Now  Dr. Gregory A. Smith, a medical doctor based in Los Angeles, CA, with co-writer and director Sasha Knezev, brings  a new documentary that explores the issue of prescription drug abuse and addiction and reveals some of the reasons behind the pharmaceutical industry’s heavy influence on the field of medicine.

The film, called American Addict, exposes how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Big Pharma, physicians, and the media are tied together “to ensure that medical problems are treated primarily with pills.” It also explores the unfortunate side effects of widespread overprescribing of psychotropic medications in matters of physical and mental health, which often leads to “overuse, abuse, and unnecessary deaths.”

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Though there are certain conditions that respond well to pharmaceutical treatment, as well as medical professionals and individual users who claim that the benefits outweigh the side effects, the fact remains that the rate at which diagnoses are handed out and drugs are prescribed is becoming more problematic.

“What was once a diagnostic manual that was paper thin is now a huge book with hundreds of diagnoses in it,” says Dr. Peter Breggin, the psychiatrist and activist who founded the Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy, Education, and Living in Ithaca, New York, and who is interviewed in the film along with several other medical professionals. The author of Talking Back to Prozac, Toxic Psychiatry, Medication Madness, and other related titles, Dr. Breggin is one of many who have devoted their time, energy, and expertise to raising awareness regarding the very serious issues associated with widespread labeling and pharmaceutical drug use.

As Breggin reveals in his research and publications, there are numerous negative side effects associated with short- and long-term pharmaceutical drug use: chronic brain impairment (CBI), which presents with symptoms similar to those of dementia and Alzheimer’s; medication spellbinding, or intoxication agnosognosia, which causes users to underestimate the damaging effects of prescription drugs on their brains and bodies; suicidal ideation and violent behavior, especially in military veterans, are a few examples of these (Breggin, 2006; 2010; 2011).

In its Research Report Series on prescription drug abuse and addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that approximately 52 million people in the United States have used prescription drugs nonmedically at least once in their lifetimes, with young people, the elderly, and women the most likely to develop an addiction (2011). According to a 2013 NIDA report, “[P]rescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are, after marijuana (and alcohol), the most commonly abused substances by Americans 14 and older.” Opioid pain relievers, stimulants, and anti-anxiety medications are the ones most often associated with addictive behavior, with Adderall and Vicodin accounting for the bulk of pharmaceutical drug abuse, and OxyContin, Ritalin, Valium, and Xanax, as well.

Not only are prescription drugs potentially addictive; they can also be deadly. In the director’s message that appears on the first page of NIDA’s Prescription Drugs: Abuse and Addiction report (2011), Nora D. Volkow writes that since 1999, accidental deaths by prescription drug overdose have quadrupled, and as of 2007, they surpassed the number of deaths tied to heroin and cocaine.

So, what gives pharmaceutical companies such significant sway over practitioners and treatment facilities when their products are known to lead to abuse and addiction, not to mention devastating side effects and even death in some instances?

As one woman interviewed in American Addict shares, it’s partially because these companies are very strategic in their ways of pushing their products on people; the representatives hired to sell prescription drugs are often recruited based on appearance and marketing skills, and prescribing doctors are often offered huge incentives such as fancy vacations and financial perks. And then there are, of course, the myriad advertisements that feature glowing, happy people attesting to the life-changing, health-boosting benefits of said medications.

Lobbying is another way the pharmaceutical industry has established authority and control at the political level. “If you look at the amount of money they spend on lobbying, they have more lobbyists active than there are members of Congress,” says one of the interviewees featured in the film’s trailer. “Right now, pharmaceutical companies are in control,” he adds.

Additional issues, such as accessibility and affordability, are also explored, as well as a glimpse into the “underground” prescription drug trade. The hope of the film’s creators is that American Addict will spark increased awareness and dialogue on the subject, thereby inspiring change.

References:

  1. Breggin, P. (2006). Intoxication Anosognosia: the spellbinding effect of psychiatric drugs. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 201-215. Retrieved from http://breggin.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=53
  2. Breggin, P. (2010). Antidepressant-induced suicide, violence, and mania: risks for military personnel. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 12, no. 2. Retrieved from http://breggin.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=53
  3. Breggin, P. (2011). Psychiatric drug-induced Chronic Brain Impairment (CBI): implications of long-term treatment with psychiatric medication. International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine, 23, 193-200. doi: 10.3233/JRS-2011-0542. Retrieved from http://breggin.com/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=53
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011). Research report series: Prescription drugs: abuse and addiction. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/rrprescription.pdf
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (May 2013). DrugFacts: prescription and over-the-counter medications. Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-over-counter-medications

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Comments
  • Keith March 18th, 2014 at 3:52 PM #1

    And what about the doctors who are more than willing to keep writing the prescriptions for these drugs? Aren’t they in many ways just as responsible, maybe in many ways even more so, for these growing habits? And yet no one is pointing the finger at them and blaming them and holding them accountable for their actions.

  • Iris March 19th, 2014 at 3:37 AM #2

    Addiction is the biggest problem nowadays. People should be well educated about consequences of drug use. Special institutes should provide all necessary information concerning substance use and its after-effects. Special reality show “Doctor Life” produced by doctor Nazaraliev shows which problems and consequences has drug addiction. It would be great if people have started to watch such kind of programms.

  • blake March 19th, 2014 at 4:05 AM #3

    I work in a doctor’s office, and let me tell you, there are pill seekers out there every day, and they are Soooo creative with the stories that they can tell you! The doctors that I work for are only trying to do what they can to help these people but you are dealing with people who are addicts, sneaky and manipulative, and as much as you try to have them on your radar, there are always those who are going to get through the cracks and get more meds than they need, just through doctor shopping and being cunning.

  • Keller March 19th, 2014 at 11:51 AM #4

    Know what I am most curious about and I am not sure if this is brought up in this film or not, but I would like to know if this is purely an American problem or are there other first world countries that are seeing the same sorts of issues with painkillers?
    I would be willing to say that this is something that is pretty unique to the American health care system, that the abuse has been put into play by the incestuous relationship that has been created via the insurance and pharmaceutical companies and the patients have been caught in the middle.
    That does not excuse the fact that there are many that are profiting from it, but I feel that the patients have gotten the raw end of the deal by being told that these pills were harmless and that many are now battling addictions that can’t be beaten.

  • Todd March 19th, 2014 at 2:38 PM #5

    Drug addiction is just another form of self-medication in an attempt to control their pain. If this country would ever have an open discussion on mental health we might get some where. And I am not talking serious mental problems like bi-polar and others that require meds. I am talking generations of general dysfunction that started when the first boat of deseperate europeans landed in America. We are a country of alcoholics and drug addicts, codependents and narcissists, obese and anorexic, workaholics and dead beats and why would that be?????? We keep treating the symptoms but never want to get to the core problem. I guess it is easier to sale a pill or pour a beer than treat the immense inner pain Americans have.

  • Donna Bunce March 19th, 2014 at 3:23 PM #6

    I continue to write my story where ever I can on the internet/facebook. I worked in mental health starting at hotlines for crisis/suicide prevention, a state hospital for the criminally insane, private psych units and mostly county mental health units and programs. I was trained to push meds. In fact you are not compliant or a good patient/consumer if you refuse meds. After ten years in the industry I lost my composure over not getting a job promotion. Quite a disappointment at the time which interupted my sleep and self esteem. My favorite gentle seemingly compassionate psychiatrist also had a private practice. He surpisingly diagnosied me at age 40 with a type of bipolar. Away my life went to the merry go round of pharmarcalogy. No MMPI. Several different psychiatrists and follow the blind counselors. My diagnosis after 5 years went to major depression and borderline personality disorder. Along the way I got ADD and ADHD. I stayed controlled and lost in the numbing drugs 11 more years. Needsless to say I lost my career and the 7 years of higher education. My family disowned my mentally ill status and behavior. Because believe me those meds are hell on earth! Finally while my mother was dying I decided my only option in my life time was to listen to my inner voice. My inner Light House/God. It took the guidance of a real person, a counselor who taught mindfulness meditation to help walk me out the chemically induced dark forest. I made it!! So after 16 years I am free of all medications!! No life is not easy but I like having to see and be responsible to deal with the pot holes in this life. Thanks for listening to my story. p.s. I read and liked Toxic Psychiatry in my masters program. Dr. Breggin has got alot of stuff right. Psych meds are a slow but sure murder.

  • Me March 20th, 2014 at 8:32 AM #7

    My adult step-daughter is an addict. She is 28 years old. Truly a beautiful young woman – model looks- and could do anything in the world she wanted to. She is choosing her addiction. She’s in the arms of a major relapse right now and could easily lose her life this time with the route she is taking. A few years ago she went pill shopping and was able to walk into a doctors office for the first time and she walked out with a prescription for 60 pills of OxyContin. Her dad found them and discarded them and she’s telling him not to and the street value was $85 a pill. Addicts are very clever with their symptoms of back pain, migraines, etc… The kind that have symptoms that you really can’t diagnose fully with test results. My husband and I use to joke that they needed to have a talk show that would educate people on the deception and manipulitive methods used by addicts. It amazed me how she could pass an at home drug test. It amazed me the methods used to deceive and manipulate. And so quick and convincing with the stories and excuses. I think I’m pretty sharp but thus sure caught me off guard. I had never been involved with addiction world until I married my husband. I knew she was an addict when I married him and she was living at home and I had spent plenty if time around her, but talk about a hard learning curve!

    I don’t understand either why doctors keep prescribing even when they know there are addiction issues. I think thru need to somehow be accountable for their prescribing practices. I think all pharmacies should be connected to show records to each other to show the perscriptions a person has.

    I don’t know the answer but I am fully aware of the problem and it is growing. They start on oerscription drugs and then they go to heroin or other street drugs. OxyContin was $85 a pill and heroin was $5 to $10 a balloon at that time. Heroin has all kinds of grades too. They never know how pure or dirty it is. They never know what’s mixed in it. We list the father of our grandson to really dirty heroin a few years back also and at that same time there were multiple overdose deaths in the same community to these young adults who had taken this path.

  • Me March 20th, 2014 at 8:36 AM #8

    Oh and one more comment.. She lived to watch the show Intervention. She was very aware of it all and still is. Been thru multiple recovery programs, jail time, etc. she can walk the walk.. But it always catches up with her. Burned pretty much every bridge now.

  • Padgett March 20th, 2014 at 12:04 PM #9

    look at how early so many people are started on pills, getting on ritalin and stuff real young and then i guess it just progresses from there no wonder we have problems

  • Christa March 22nd, 2014 at 6:19 AM #10

    There is certainly enough blame to go around so I don’t know who is the most at fault but I suppose that most of the responsibility lies at the feet of the big drug companies who have put these medications out there making us feel like they are so harmless and then doing nothing to take them off the market even though they have been proven to be a little more dangerous than we once thought. Once the patients are hooked, then of course there is a huge problem, but the companies have already sucked them in by then so they have their money and its’ too late. The FDA will do little to retract what they have already put out there as the end all and be all and the doctors hands are tied because they ahve already given out the prescriptions. Who is going to say no to the patients from there? The pharmacies? Insurance companies? Give them even more power than they already have? All in all a HUGE problem.

  • kenneth G March 24th, 2014 at 5:45 PM #11

    Is this what we have been relegated to? A society that cares a whole lot more about the drugs we can get versus the good we can do for others? I swear there are definitely times when it feels escactly that way!

  • Cam March 26th, 2014 at 4:40 PM #12

    I must be missing something with the whole pain med industry because I just don’t see the appeal of them. Any time I have had to take any of them they just make me itch like mad and really don’t do anything for me at all. What is the appeal? I guess I am not hard wired to be addicted to them because they have done nothing for me. I would much rather sit down with a nice glass of wine and last time I checked this is nto trading on the underground black market. So if anyone could please explain this to me and let me know what I am missing I would really appreciate it not because I wnat to get involved in it but just because I wnt to try to understand it.

  • Sherman T March 27th, 2014 at 5:31 PM #13

    I think that more and more you see doctors who are feeling the pressure to cave to the wishes and demands of patients who are telling them that if they don’t get their drugs and prescriptions from them then they will got to someone else who will do it for them. And these are pretty hard times you know, with everyone needing as many patients as they can get. Seems kind of crass but I think that a lot of this has to do with a whole lot of competition and the patients knowing that they hold a whole lot of power in this area where they really shouldn’t.

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