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Socialist Review, May 1994

Daran McFarland


Freedom to choose


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I welcomed last month’s article on Tory community care policy by Hazel Croft. Whilst some people with mental health problems have benefited from increased freedom and choice, for too many it means only the freedom to choose which cardboard box to live under.

However, I would like to comment further on the medication which controls the behaviour of people with severe mental health problems, and therefore allows their release into the community. These drugs are extremely powerful. Their side effects range from chronic fatigue and shaking to lack of concentration, dribbling and even brain damage or heart disease. Unsurprisingly, in some countries they are used to ‘treat’ political prisoners.

Since the side effects are so risky, you would think these drugs must be pretty effective in treating mental illness. Unfortunately this is not so. For example, since the ‘accidental’ discovery of chlorpromazine’s ‘anti-psychotic qualities’ in the 1950s, the majority of recurrent sufferers have remained in psychiatric hospitals until recently. Research in the early 1970s showed no difference between the recovery rates of people treated with or without drugs. Even the medical theory on which the treatment is based is extremely weak. The basic idea is that mental illness is caused by biochemical abnormalities in the brain, which are corrected by drugs. But scientists are not sure how most work or which part of the brain different drugs affect. These drugs undoubtedly do affect mood, but then so does the weather.

The real reasons drugs are used to treat mental illness is that they are relatively cheap, act as a medical straitjacket for potentially dangerous people and, I’m sure not so coincidentally, provide huge profits for drug companies. There are other more effective treatments such as counselling, psychotherapy or psychodrama, but they are expensive. They also, unlike medical treatments, tend to see mental illness as something caused by society and explainable by an individual’s emotional reaction to, and sensory perception of, traumatic experiences. This is something that the people who control our society would rather forget.

You might ask, wouldn’t we be better protected by simply locking up the dangerously insane and the permanently baffled? Absolutely. The sooner we lock up the Tory government the safer we’ll all be. Better still, let them choose which cardboard boxes to live in.


Daran McFarland
North London

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