- CounterPunch.org - https://www.counterpunch.org -

Psychiatry Films and Politics: Filmmakers Take Issue with my CounterPunch Review of Their Doc

Cured, as I noted in my September 24, 2021 CounterPunch review, is an upcoming PBS documentary (October 11) about how gay activists forced the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1973 to rescind its declaration that homosexuality is a psychiatric illness. I had speculated that what allowed this documentary to get aired on PBS is that it painted a picture of the current APA as a very different institution than the APA that had barbarically attempted to “cure” homosexuality.

There is one disclaimer at the end of Cured which I could not imagine that the filmmakers would have inserted on their own without pressure from the APA and establishment psychiatry. Owing to my speculation of establishment psychiatry pressure—which has been reported in other psychiatry films (more later on A Beautiful Mind)—the Cured filmmakers reached out to me, and we had a teleconference discussion for approximately an hour, which I’ll get to.

As I previously noted, Cured includes a graphic portrayal of the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), commonly known as electroshock, to “cure” homosexuality, showing just how traumatizing and brain injuring ECT was for its victim patients. Cured also points out that another commonly used barbaric “treatment” was “aversion therapy,” in which electric shock to the genitals and/or nausea-inducing drugs were administered simultaneously with the presentation of homoerotic stimuli; and Cured notes that psychiatry also attempted to “cure” homosexuality with castration and lobotomy.

Cured is the story of the victory by courageous radical gay activists over the APA, but a more radical documentary would have had one of the film’s talking head psychiatrists responding to these questions: What did psychiatry learn from diseasing homosexuality? Did it compel psychiatry to let go of its arrogance in pathologizing what simply makes them uncomfortable, and attempting to “cure” what is essentially normal?

When gay activists defeated a homophobic APA in the early 1970s, they were not battling an APA partnering with Big Pharma, which is the case today. Psychiatry’s barbaric “cures” for homosexuality were, for the most part, not making drug companies rich. Thus, it is even more difficult today for a group who is being unscientifically pathologized by psychiatry whose “cures” are now drugs that are making enormous profits for drug companies which have enormous influence.

When I spoke to the filmmakers, Bennett Singer and Patrick Sammon, I asked them why the above issue was not dealt with in Cured. Their response was that their film was about a piece of gay activism history and not about present psychiatry. I responded that this would be a reasonable explanation except for the fact that in Cured, at the end of the film, a disclaimer (which they call an “epilogue text”) is included about present psychiatry, a disclaimer that the current APA and contemporary establishment psychiatry is most certainly happy to see included. The statement reads: “Electroconvulsive therapy is no longer used to ‘cure’ LGBTQ people in the United States, but it continues to be used as an effective treatment for severe forms of depression.”

When I saw that disclaimer statement, I was jolted. This insertion of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) “effectiveness” appears to be an appeasement to the APA and establishment psychiatry institutions who continue to promote ECT, commonly known as electroshock. I added that even for film viewers who are not well-informed about psychiatry, this claim will be a controversial distraction to the message of their film, as many Americans believe that ECT is no longer used, and that for more knowledgeable viewers, this insertion will be a claim that is disputed by the research.

In my CounterPunch review I provide that research, summarizing John Read, Irving Kirsch, and Laura McGrath’s comprehensive 2019 analysis of the research on ECT effectiveness for depression, which reported the lack of scientific evidence for ECT effectiveness. Before my scheduled teleconference with the filmmakers, through my Cured team contact, I emailed them the following:

“Patrick or Bennett might be interested in the following 2020 article in the Conversation ‘No Evidence that ECT Works for Depression – New Research.’  One of the co-authors of that research is Irving Kirsch, associate director of placebo studies at Harvard Medical School and perhaps the world’s leading researcher on the placebo effects of psychiatric treatments. While you may have been assured by many bigshot psychiatrists that ECT is effective, this claim, at best, is highly controversial. Not to be obnoxious, but you would have been assured by many psychiatrists in 1970 that homosexuality is a mental illness. Psychiatry has a long history of being wrong in their proclamations, and your film is about only one of their many blunders that was damaging for many people.”

In our conversation, I told Singer and Sammon that for many psychiatric survivor activists and dissident mental health professionals, given what they know about the media, it will be difficult for them to believe that the filmmakers on their own felt obliged to proclaim that ECT is an “effective treatment for severe forms of depression.” Singer and Sammon insisted that neither the APA nor anybody but themselves had control over any of Cured’s content.

After Singer and Sammon told me that they did not include the ECT effectiveness assertion because of the APA or because they were pressured by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or any bigshot psychiatrists, I asked them about their basis for concluding that ECT is an effective treatment. They mentioned a Mayo Clinic web site, a 2021 Lancet article with 10,000 subjects, and anecdotal reports. I discussed with them the lack of science behind their grounds for claiming ECT effectiveness, and after the interview I emailed them the following:

“Thanks, Bennett and Patrick, for spending so much time with me and answering my questions. A couple things you might be interested in . . . . In our discussion about the evidence you used to conclude that ECT was effective, you mentioned a 2021 Lancet study with 10,000 subjects. The 2021 Lancet study in the news with 10,000 subjects offers findings about safety (dubious ones from my point of view), not about effectiveness. If you don’t want to read the entire study, you can check out this MedicineNet report of it. The lead author of the Lancet study is Tyler S Kaster, and despite MedicineNet’s headline, in the MedicineNet article, they state the following: ‘This study did not gauge the effectiveness of ECT, Kaster said. But it’s estimated that up to 80% of patients with severe depression see their symptoms substantially improve after ECT, according to the American Psychiatric Association.’ You guys should know as well as anyone from Cured that ‘according to the American Psychiatric Association’ means nothing to critical thinkers who want to see the scientific evidence. . . . Second, as your evidence of ECT effectiveness, in addition to citing the Mayo Clinic website, you also mentioned anecdotal reports of ECT effectiveness such as with Kitty Dukakis. I told you that anecdotal evidence is not considered scientific evidence, and that I can give you many anecdotal reports from famous and nonfamous people of ECT horrific outcomes (this true even with the so-called modern “new-and-improved” ECT); and that I had written at length about Lou Reed’s ECT experience, which provided him only with the material for a hell of an angry song—here’s the link to my 2019 piece Lou Reed: That Which Does Not Kill Us Can Radicalize Us.”

I stated in my CounterPunch review that at the bottom of the Cured website homepage, the following is stated: “Outreach and Engagement Sponsorship Provided by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.” Singer and Sammon were adamant that the APA Foundation supplied no production funding and had no editorial control of the film. They indicated that their major reason for reaching out to me was to ask me to clarify to CounterPunch readers that the grant that they received from the APA Foundation was purely for “outreach and education,” allowing them to have 100 screenings of the film and get feedback from it, and that the grant was not for financing film production. They stated that they had complete control of the film product.

I asked Singer and Sammon if the APA Foundation had given them this grant without seeing the film, and they told me that the APA Foundation had seen the film before giving the grant. I then told them it’s difficult for me to imagine that while they were creating and editing their film, they weren’t thinking about what type of content would or would not be viewed as “irresponsible” by the APA and establishment psychiatry institutions such as NAMI. They responded that they were not thinking about that, and I told them I don’t know how that’s possible, as I would think any filmmaker dealing with the subject of psychiatry would know—or quickly discover—that certain material may be considered “irresponsible” resulting in being marginalized. I pushed this issue, but Singer and Sammon remained adamant that they had not been controlled or influenced by establishment psychiatry institutions.

This exchange led to a discussion about psychiatry movies. Interesting for me, one of the Cured filmmakers was aware of how in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, its filmmaker Ron Howard had falsified a key fact to make the film more acceptable for establishment psychiatry. Specifically, there is line in the movie in which 1994 Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe) states, “I take the newer medications,” despite the fact that Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 book (with the same title) states that Nash stopped taking medication in 1970, and Nash himself, in a 2009 interview, confirmed that he had long ago stopped taking medication. I mentioned to Singer and Sammon the 2015 report in the The Guardian that stated: “The change was apparently made because the screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, whose mother was a prominent psychologist, was worried that the film might persuade people to stop taking their medication,” and that The Guardian also reported that there were rumors that NAMI had “put pressure on the filmmakers to include the line about medication.” It wasn’t clear to me whether or not the Cured filmmakers had heard about The Guardian report.

I then asked Singer and Sammon if they had ever heard of the 2017 film 55 Steps. They had not, and I told them that I’m not surprised.

I would not have heard of 55 Steps either except that Sera Davidow, who is an activist, filmmaker, and director of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community, alerted me to it in 2018, and we both tried to get to the bottom of why damn near nobody knew about this film despite its all-star cast and director. It is more than curious that a film starring Helena Bonham Carter and two-time Academy Award winning actress Hilary Swank and  directed by an Academy Award winning director Bille August would not get some attention—especially since it was based on a true story about a human rights issue that no major film had examined. But 55 Steps has been almost completely ignored since it premiered in 2017.

55 Steps is the true story of a friendship between two women formed during a fight for patient rights. When Eleanor Riese (Helena Bonham Carter) discovers that the psychiatric drugs that she is being forced to take at St. Mary’s Psychiatric Hospital in San Francisco are damaging her physically, she hires patient’s rights lawyer Collete Hughes (Hilary Swank). Then, as the film’s official description states: “With the help of expert attorney Mort Cohen (Jeffrey Tambor) the two defeat St. Mary’s in court while the indefatigable Eleanor and Collette become best of friends; a friendship where the colorful psychiatric patient Eleanor teaches the work-obsessed Collette a thing or two about life itself!”

The speculations (that Sera Davidow and I discovered) from those involved in 55 Steps as to why it is unknown and forgotten didn’t seem to make sense. For example, Helena Bonham Carter guessed that “It might have been something to do with Jeffrey [Tambor], who has had a whole sexual scandal drama to do with the Amazon TV series Transparent. Unfortunately that came out just at the time, and people might have thought: ‘Oh, we can’t touch it.’” However, the problem with this theory is not simply that 55 Steps is a Helena Bonham Carter-Hillary Swank film with Tambor only having a relatively minor role, but in 2017, another Tambor film, The Death of Stalin, got a huge amount of attention and continues to get attention. What made sense to me is that 55 Steps is not a feel good story for establishment psychiatry but rather a feel good story for psychiatric survivor activists, and because 55 Steps is not a film that the psychiatry establishment is enamored by, this has resulted in it being marginalized and receiving  almost no media attention.

Cured has already been shown multiple times, and the filmmakers made no indication to me that for its upcoming PBS broadcast, they would consider pulling that ECT effectiveness text at film’s end, and so I’m assuming it will still be there. Given how powerful and valuable most of Cured is, that will be a shame—like being nearly home after a fun road trip, but in the middle of the night with nobody on the road, getting nailed in a speed trap by the police and slapped with an expensive ticket. But I suppose the disclaimer could have been even worse, as instead of  calling ECT an “effective treatment” the filmmakers could have called ECT a “safe and effective treatment”—which would have been like ending what had been a fun road trip with not only getting pulled over by a cop and getting ticketed but also tased.

An earlier version of this article ran in Mad in America.