Dr Robert London

Elizabeth Wurtzel helped clear the air on stigma

Publish date: January 21, 2020

When Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote “Prozac Nation,” an autobiographical account published in 1994 of her experience with depression and psychiatric medications, she helped shift the public dialogue about mental illness, and in doing so chipped away at the stigma that continues to haunt many of our patients.

Dr. Robert T. London of New York

Ms. Wurtzel, who died recently at age 52, wrote about depression passionately and matter-of-factly.

As she stated in “Prozac Nation”: “Depression was the loneliest &*%$ thing on earth. There were no halfway houses for depressives, no Depression Anonymous meetings that I knew of. Yes, of course, there were mental hospitals like McLean and Bellevue and Payne Whitney and the Menninger Clinic, but I couldn’t hope to end up in one of those places unless I made a suicide attempt serious enough to warrant oxygen or stitches or a stomach pump.

“I used to wish – to pray to God for the courage and strength – that I’d have the guts not to get better, but to slit my wrists and get a whole lot worse so I could land in some mental ward, where real help might have been possible.”

Think of where the public consciousness was in 1994. Peter D. Kramer, MD, had started the conversation on Prozac a year earlier with his book, “Listening to Prozac,” Kurt Cobain died by suicide in 1994, and 2 years later President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a law that “reformed” welfare and some say made it more difficult for low-income Americans to secure psychiatric and addiction services (Milbank Q. 2005 Mar;83[1]:65-99).

Prozac, as we know, was the first SSRI on the market in the late 1980s and was hailed as a major medication breakthrough in the treatment of depression. It lacked the side effects of the tricyclic antidepressants of previous years and did not have the potentially dangerous food restrictions associated with monoamine oxidase inhibitors.

Interestingly, the major reviews of Ms. Wurtzel’s book, mainly written by men, were negative. Those reviews focused more on the lifestyle of Ms. Wurtzel, her introspection, and how difficult life was for her, rather than the importance of the book. To me, her writing skills were exceptional, as was her willingness to put her lifestyle and suffering on the line.

The literary critics failed to recognize the book’s importance in unmasking the massive denial of mental illnesses and what Ms. Wurtzel was trying to get across. There have been many successful male writers over the years whose lives were difficult and replete with emotional pain and suffering, and their work was lauded. Regardless of the reviews’ negativity, readers found her book open and enlightening, making it a bestseller – thus paving the way for better and more-open discussion of mental disorders. It also became a touchstone in discussions of antidepressants in the psychiatric literature (Lancet. 1998 Sep 26. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(98)08418-9; Lancet. 2015 Oct 1. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366[15]00430-7; and Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Dec 1;84[11]:e73-5).

However, unfortunately, the stigma still exists on many levels, often starting with the medical profession itself. In my experience over the years in teaching and supervising medical students, many of those not interested in becoming a psychiatrist all too often could not wait for their psych rotation to be over. Generally, they did not take the rotation seriously. I’ve even heard students making light of the delusions and paranoia seen in the suffering of acutely ill patients.

We can take this even further within the profession. I have had many referrals from far too many extremely competent physicians, across many medical specialties, who would refer to their patient as “sort of crazy.” Those physicians want the best for their patients, clearly, in making the referral, but they need to change their thinking and, therefore, their vocabulary about mental disorders. I’d like to see these physicians be more respectful of our patients – just as I would be if I were referring a patient complaining of fatigue and joint pain to a general internist or rheumatologist.

I once knew a brilliant orthopedic surgeon who, when he made a referral, would sit down with the patient and clearly explain why they were not crazy but had an anxiety or a mood problem that he didn’t treat but had a person to refer to who could help. Likewise, I know an ophthalmologist who tells his patients with some emotional symptoms that they are experiencing a difficult situation and would benefit from help that he is not able to provide but could be resolved with another type of specialist who works with their “difficulties.” We clearly need more docs like this who go out of their specialty to explain what patients might need – despite the administrative burden exacted by EMRs on doctors’ time and energy.

As we grow more tolerant in our culture and eliminate distasteful words about people and groups, maybe we should try and avoid the word crazy – even in our general vocabulary. Furthermore, in social situations, while out to dinner with friends, at the gym, or even while in the workplace, just as we may refer to our primary care doc as the best or report we have the best cardiologist or dermatologist, we rarely hear someone being open about the best psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist in the same manner.

“If ‘Prozac Nation’ has any particular purpose,” she wrote in the afterword, “it would be to come out and say that clinical depression is a real problem, that it ruins lives, that it ends lives, that it very nearly ended my life, that it afflicts many, many people, many very bright and worthy and thoughtful and caring people, people who could probably save the world or at the very least do it some real good.” Those people are our patients, and medicine should take the lead in working further to destigmatize mental illness.

Dr. London is a practicing psychiatrist and has been a newspaper columnist for 35 years, specializing in and writing about short-term therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and guided imagery. He is author of “Find Freedom Fast” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). He has no conflicts of interest.