Synopsis: Millions of American are physically dependent on, not heroin or cocaine, but commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs. While these drugs can provide effective short-term relief, pharmaceutical companies have hidden — from both doctors and patients — their dangerous side effects and long-term harm. Combining cinema verité and investigative journalism, Medicating Normal, follows the stories of five diverse Americans who were damaged by the very medications they believed would help them.
Our film, Medicating Normal, began as I witnessed what I believed was the psychiatric unravelling of a dear family member.
A high functioning graduate and star athlete, she had been diagnosed in her early twenties with “mental illness”. Her subsequent treatment resulted in a steady stream of doctors dispensing different diagnoses and an ever-increasing regimen of medications. As time passed, she was told by some doctors she would need medication for the rest of her life. Twenty-plus years later, she was taking a staggering 10 pills daily. Today, with the support of our family, she has a house, a steady boyfriend, and has just self-published a meaningful book of essays. While she has reduced her daily medications to 4, she still struggles with their challenging physical side effects. She says the medication mutes her disruptive thought patterns—what she calls “intrusive thoughts”—but at what cost? I wrestle with the question– are these powerful medications really helping her achieve her full potential? Or is there another, better way?
My quest to understand the pros and cons of drug treatment resulted in searching discussions with my longtime friend, and now filmmaking partner, Wendy Ractliffe. Confounded, we began researching the role of psychiatric drugs in our society which led us to the journalist/author Robert Whitaker. His book Anatomy of an Epidemic became our call to action.
Lynn Cunningham, Bob Whitaker, and Wendy Ractliffe
In this groundbreaking work, Whitaker examines the current mental health profession’s drug-centered approach to treatment, concluding that it is actually creating a public health crisis. Scrupulously researching data from drug trials and studies, Whitaker draws a disturbing parallel between rising disability rates and increased usage of psychotropic drugs.
Alarmed that Whitaker’s cautionary narrative was conspicuously missing from today’s public discourse on mental health, Wendy and I set out to verify and define the extent of the problem. We read every book and article we could find, interviewing more than one hundred individuals treated with psychiatric drugs and numerous credentialed researchers, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. What we learned became the basis for Medicating Normal.
The film acknowledges that psychiatric drugs do help alleviate suffering for a segment of those who take them. However, it is estimated that of the 1 in 5 Americans taking such meds, 30% to 35% are gravely harmed by the very treatment meant to help them. Medicating Normal focuses on the predicament of this group – individuals facing trauma and stress who are drugged needlessly and made sicker as a result. Interviews with experts in the film reveal that significant numbers of these people will get better over time without medication.
For over three years, we documented the journey of five individuals whose lives were profoundly impacted by the medication they were taking. Understanding the harm that has befallen them – especially in the context of the misleading science and marketing behind these drugs – compelled us to make this film. Our hope is that Medicating Normal will present one very important and predominantly untold story so that as a society we can begin a meaningful, informed nationwide discussion about what it means to be fully human and mentally well.
Lynn Cunningham and Wendy Ractliffe
LYNN CUNNINGHAM, Director/Producer, Executive Producer
Lynn began her filmmaking career editing films in the late 1980s and 1990s for PBS, Middlemarch Films, Michael Blackwood, and the History Channel. Editing credits include: Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers’ Union, a one-hour documentary for American Experience, Behind the Scenes, a children’s series about the arts for PBS, as well as Butoh: Body on the Edge of Crisis, Tadao Ando,and Mel Bochner: Thought Made Visible. In the late 1990s, as an Asahi Shimbun fellow, Lynn directed and produced A Quiet Revolution: The Emergence of Alternative Education in Japan about Japan’s ‘School Refusal’ movement that won the 1997 Japan Times Award for films and videos about Japan. Lynn holds a BA in Architecture from Yale University in 1983.
WENDY RACTLIFFE, Director/Producer, Executive Producer
Medicating Normal is the first film Wendy has directed and produced. She became a filmmaker in order to raise awareness about societal problems that are ignored or inadequately covered by the mainstream media. She was associate producer for the documentary Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles. Past professions include equities analyst, stay at home mother, and teacher at an international Waldorf school in France. She has been connected to organic agriculture and creating sustainable communities for two decades. She earned a B.A. in History from Yale University in 1984, an MBA from Duke University.