Surviving the Mental Health System: The Difference between Drug-Induced Psychosis & other Mental Illnesses.

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I am what some refer to as a “psychiatric survivor.”

I was first hospitalized—against my will—when I was 17 years old.

I had been experimenting with a variety of drugs for a few years. Crank, a low quality amphetamine usually cut with toxic household items, was popular at the time, and I had dabbled in it for about a year.

After coming home one night after a crank binge, I got really paranoid and freaked out. My parents listened as I told them that people were trying to kill me and then curled up in the fetal position in the living room. After sleeping it off, I felt more myself, but my folks took me into the hospital to get checked out because they just didn’t know what else to do.

The hospital placed an involuntary hold on me because they said I fit the criteria of someone who was gravely disabled and a danger to others. I didn’t go home for three months and missed my high school graduation.

While incarcerated in this privately funded juvenile psychiatric ward, I was not allowed to outside, did not receive any individualized therapy, was heavily medicated, and once tied down and injected with drugs. I was only released when my insurance stopped paying.

They eventually diagnosed me with paranoid schizophrenia and recommended a steady diet of Haldol and Ativan. Over the years, I was diagnosed with other disorders, such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and generalized anxiety disorder. Many of these diagnoses came after a 15 minute interview with a psychiatrist.

I had zero history of mental illness before the age of 17. I was a well-adjusted kid with a bright future. I had a 1360 SAT score and thought I was headed to university in the fall. I spent the next eight years fluctuating between being homeless, in jail, or in a mental institution. I came to believe that what I had experienced at 17 was a temporary drug-induced psychosis. It was not schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any of the other labels the doctors had tried to put on me.

After eight years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, and being given numerous diagnoses—and a variety of psychotropic medications—I eventually freed myself from the mental health system through a combination of abstinence from drugs and alcohol, a healthy diet, yoga, and meditation. At 25, I had pulled myself out of the gutter, got sober, and made a commitment to fight to get my life back. Eventually, the pieces started to slowly get put back together.

After an extended period of sobriety and a lot of yoga and meditation, I found myself a job at a treatment center helping people like me escape the mental health system. It was basically drug rehab for people stuck on prescription drugs and stuck in the hamster wheel of the mental health system. Many of the patients we see have been told that they are disabled for life, that they have to remain on medications, and they will forever need assistance in living their life. I have hope for every person who walks through our doors because I know firsthand what is possible.

Psychosis can be caused by a variety of factors. Many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder can manifest symptoms of psychosis. Mania, insomnia, trauma, stress, and hypoglycemia can also cause the rapid onset of psychosis symptoms. Symptoms of psychosis can include paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and hearing voices—to name a few. The list of symptoms for schizophrenia are very similar. The difference is in a drug induced psychosis, the symptoms often will subside after a period of abstinence from the drug.

According to the National Center of Biomedical Information, “The toxic effects of substances can mimic mental illness in ways that can be difficult to distinguish from mental illness.” In other words, a person experiencing a temporary state of psychosis brought on by drug use will present similarly to a person diagnosed with schizophrenia.

As more designer drugs become available, we have seen a steady rise of patients experiencing drug induced psychosis. In past decades, it was less common to see such instances. People might have associated such a condition from a fluke event, such as smoking PCP or taking a batch of “bad acid.” These days the list of drugs that can elicit a state of psychosis is much longer, and the frequency of such effects is steadily on the rise.

The epidemic of meth, along with the phenomenon of designer drugs, the increased potency of drugs available, and the increased instances of drugs being mixed with more toxic substances have all contributed to a rise in the diagnoses of drug-induced psychosis. Teenagers and young adults experimenting with these substances are more susceptible to having a psychotic reaction because their brains are still developing. A night out for an unassuming partygoer could end with a visit to a lock-down psych ward, and it gets worse from there. Many patients are misdiagnosed at this point with anything from schizoaffective disorder, to schizophrenia, to bipolar disorder.

What follows are prescriptions for heavily sedative antipsychotic drugs, highly addictive benzodiazepines, and mood stabilizers with a long list of side effects. Patients are told that their symptoms will not go away, and they will need to take medication for the rest of their lives to manage those symptoms. Unfortunately, once inducted into the mental health system, it can be difficult to extract oneself.

Doctors are taught to prescribe, not to safely taper off medications. It can prove difficult to correctly diagnose an individual while they are under the influence of heavily sedating medications. For most doctors, it is more advantageous for them to simply keep their patient on a steady diet of psychiatric medications than to try an alternative.

I have worked with many young people over the years who were in similar situations. Like me, they were normal, with no history of mental illness. A combination of drugs, stress, trauma, and other factors caused a mental breakdown. When we remove the drugs, decrease the stress from their life, and address the trauma therapeutically, these individuals can experience a full recovery. I’ve been a witness to dozens of patients who walk through our doors in psychosis and heavily medicated, yet are able to walk out sane and stable without being dependent on medications. Many of these patients return to university, careers, and relationships and are able to function independently without carrying around the stigma of a mental illness.

Our goal should be to educate people and empower them to make the right decisions for their own mental health care. With the right help, many individuals can recover from drug-induced psychosis, as well as many other mental health issues. Using a combination of detoxification, supplementation, diet, and exercise to help rebalance a person’s brain chemistry naturally can be more effective than medication. If each person is treated holistically, then we see and address every part of the individual, because each part is connected and important. We can’t heal the mind without healing the body and vice versa.

The public needs to be skeptical of the mental health system. Do your own homework and do not take what a psychiatrist tells you as the God’s honest truth. Evaluate yourself and explore your options before you surrender yourself to a system that is broken. If you are diagnosed with a mental illness, get a second opinion—or a third. We must advocate for ourselves, investigate, and find the solution that fits our needs. Many times, symptoms can be managed through natural methods. What is necessary to treat mental illness is to first understand it. Mental illness is more than just a diagnosis and it does not have to be permanent.

What should you do if you or someone you love experiences a mental health crisis?

Consult a nutritionist and find the right diet for your mental health. Sugar, energy drinks, excessive caffeine, and processed foods can all have a negative impact. Starting a regular exercise routine can help manage the stress that leads to breakdowns, as well as detox the body and mind. Cultivating positive relationships in our lives is essential to our mental health. A balance of alone time is healthy, but isolation is not. Look at the factors affecting your mental health and remove the toxic elements. Drugs, alcohol, unhealthy diet, excess stress, negative relationships, and unaddressed trauma can all be elements eating away at your mental health. Be proactive and create change where you can.

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Additional resources:

National Institute of Mental Health

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians

The Alternative to Meds Center Sedona, Arizona

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Author: Isaac Levin
Image: Pixabay/greekfood-tamystika
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell

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Isaac Levin

Isaac Levin is the chief administrator and CEO of the Alternative to Meds Center in Sedona Arizona. He has been happy, sane, sober, and medication free for over 15 years. His life’s work is to help others like himself who have been misdiagnosed and overmedicated by the American mental health system. He lives with his wife Crystal and dog Piper in their home in Sedona. In his spare time, Isaac’s passion is home improvement. Going from homeless to homeowner is the accomplishment that Isaac is most proud of.

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