The Way Out

From the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY blog “Mad in America” by Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America

As I wrote in Anatomy of an Epidemic, I think that this corner of medicine suffers from a lack of honest storytelling. The public has been led to believe that psychiatric medications fix chemical imbalances in the brain and thus are like ‘insulin for diabetes,’ even though research has repeatedly failed to show that this is so. In addition, the results from long-term outcome studies, which time and again have told of better outcomes for the unmedicated cohort, have been kept hidden from the public. Our society needs an honest broker of information about the nature of psychiatric disorders and the drugs used to treat those disorders, and my hope is that the Foundation [for Excellence in Mental Health Care] can fill that role. . .

Don and Lisbeth Cooper founded CooperRiis Healing Community eight years ago (Riis is Lisbeth’s family name.) It offers its residents “holistic” treatment — diet, exercise, group therapy, music, and farm chores are all part of the “therapeutic” environment. The farm community is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Asheville, and there is a second campus near the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Don Cooper is a board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care, and yesterday, he and Lisbeth announced that they plan to give $2 million to the Foundation.

“Lisbeth and I feel deeply about the mission of the Foundation to find excellence in mental health care and to facilitate change in the United States where needed,” he said. “We hope that this initiating gift will provide for strong staff leadership, important new research, and encourage other donors to join with us in funding this initiative.”

The Foundation is now planning a second symposium, which will be held in the fall and focus on the use of medications in pediatric populations. I asked Virgil for his thoughts about this gift, and I thought it would be best to simply print his answers in full.
Q. What will the donation be used for?

This wonderful resource will allow us to promote better mental health outcomes by engaging the research community to help us answer questions such as: What are the best approaches to helping people to recover from their mental health challenges while also helping them to decrease their long-term reliance on psychotropic medications?

As an educational foundation, we will use this donation to help us develop and share the emerging research-based knowledge. As ‘best approaches’ are identified, we will also use this resource to leverage the formation of new programs. Some of us with the Foundation are already involved in efforts to replicate recovery programs like the CooperRiis Healing Community. We are also deeply curious about the Open Dialogue approach from Finland. In general, we are focused on supporting the reality and dream of recovery, while appreciating broad approaches that embrace the complexity of humanity rather than reduce our despair to a chemical imbalance that is supposed to be resolved by a medication.

The Foundation is not ‘anti-medication’ but we are indeed aware that our overuse of medication in this country has not been successful in producing better, long-term mental health outcomes. As we form the ‘New Mainstream’ we seek to discover the optimal balance between medication use and the use of non-medication approaches, the combination of which will foster long-term, improved recovery outcomes.

In addition to supporting the development of a ‘New Mainstream’ this generous donation from Don and Lisbeth Cooper will help us to build a staff infrastructure for the Foundation. To date, all efforts of the Foundation have been through volunteers.

Q. What is the significance of this pledge to the Foundation?

The Foundation is new, having had its first full Board meeting on the 12th of February this year. Its first symposium “Medication Optimization in the Service of Recovery” was funded largely by the Putnam Foundation, which has also agreed to fund a fall symposium that will focus on optimizing (reducing) the use of psychotropic medications by children.

Now, with the magnanimous support of Don and Lisbeth Cooper we can capture the myriad opportunities that are arising and fully launch our efforts. There is much demoralization and despair in the mental health field today; this support from the Coopers will help us begin to restore optimism. You might say that the Coopers have provided a foundation for the Foundation.

Q. Can you speak more about the composition of your board, and your plans to create a scientific advisory council?

The Board of the Foundation consists of program providers, philanthropists, public policy leaders, a former state mental health commissioner, an international consumer advocate, and an attorney. Some nationally and internationally known psychiatrists and psychologists have also agreed to stand for election at the next Board meeting. In addition to the Board, we are beginning to assemble a Scientific Advisory Board that will help to guide the research projects that we will fund.

Q. What are the Foundation’s fundraising plans?

This donation from the Coopers has lifted us into a place of credibility and capacity. We have many opportunities that stand before us and a sense of optimism that the Foundation can seize them and help to swing the pendulum of mental health care toward improved long-term mental health outcomes and away from reductionism (the magic pill), chronicity/disability (warehousing), and imprisonment (too often the substitute mental health system).

The tasks before us are awesome and will require many millions of dollars to accomplish. We are actively looking for other philanthropic partners, like Don and Lisbeth Cooper, who are willing to donate significant resource to help us make a difference.



About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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