Craig's Story

My large extended family has witnessed mental health issues up close and personal. Frankly, too close and too personal.

We have experienced the dramatic mood swings of bipolar, the disembodied voices and delusions of schizophrenia, the black dog of depression, the spiral of alcoholism, the gripping fear of phobias, and the last resort of suicide attempts. We have faced the difficulties of withdrawal from antidepressants and the indignities of being forced into psychiatric care against our will. We have seen dramatic turnarounds to recovery. And we have seen relapses.

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"... I entered the world of mental health out of necessity.
It wasn't a career choice, but a survival instinct
when a loved one experienced a psychiatric crisis..."  

We have many stories. Each is owned by a single person who experienced these difficulties and who courageously fought to overcome them. Each story is very personal and will be told or kept private by the person at its center. I honor that ownership and decision to maintain privacy.

 

But I also have a story. I entered the world of mental health out of necessity. It wasn’t a career choice, but a survival instinct when a loved one experienced a mental health crisis. For our entire family, the experience was painful, confusing, frightening, and disempowering.

In an effort to make sense of what we were going through, I connected with the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I enrolled in their education class taught by volunteers who faced similar difficulties. Our class learned the basics of mental health and were given a good dose of pragmatic advice and warm, supportive companionship.  What especially caught my attention was the wide-ranging presentation on non-drug approaches. They seemed to hold great promise. A seed of interest had been planted. It drove me to systematically research this new world of alternative treatments.

I decided to start at a trusted place: medical journals. Although at first a bit daunted, I picked up their vocabulary and research methods quickly enough, reading everything I could find about non-drug options. All the while, I jotted notes and ideas. I realized that a vast range of non-drug options was available and the extent of research supporting them was fairly staggering. Soon my notes coalesced into a paper that I shared with interested NAMI volunteers, and later in public conferences.

But something was gnawing at me. If all of these medical journals were accurate, why wasn’t I hearing about non-drug options from psychiatrists?

In the space of thirty minutes, I posed that question to two psychiatrists who worked at one of America’s leading hospitals. I was interested in calibrating my new-found knowledge about mental health issues with people extensively trained and actively practicing in the field.

 

First I spoke with a smart and engaging psychiatrist who had recently finished his medical internship. I was interested in how the positive research on nutrient therapy was being used to improve clinical care. The newly minted psychiatrist made his position clear: taking supplements posed possible drug-interaction issues. He said it was important to stop the vitamins and other supplements unless there was a clear medical reason for taking them.  He obviously viewed vitamins and nutrients as having little benefit. In fact, he viewed them as potentially detrimental to the true solution: drugs.

I walked away feeling embarrassed. Maybe I hadn’t understood those medical journals all that well. But then I recalled the many studies documenting the benefits of nutrients both alone and with drugs. Regaining a bit of confidence, I set off for my next conversation.

The head of the psychiatric department was waiting for me, a man with decades of clinical experience and front-line mental health management. He smiled and invited me into a meeting room. After introductions, I asked him about recent studies that had received notoriety in the medical press, including a prominent blog by the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

The studies’ findings were startling: antipsychotics (drugs taken for schizophrenia and other disorders) appeared to do more harm than good in the long run. People who used them had more hallucinations than those who didn’t. Plus, their brains physically shrank in proportion to the amount of antipsychotics consumed. These findings seemed to shake the very core of recommended care for psychosis. I wanted to know what to make of these conclusions. Trying not to be intimidated by his degrees and expertise, I posed my question.

The answer I received stunned me.

"... I was stunned. I sat speechless...
My loved-one's psychiatrists were unfamiliar with the latest research
on the downsides of drugs and the potential of non-drug options.
... In that moment, my book was born..."...

He was unfamiliar with the studies. The head of a world-renowned psychiatric department was unfamiliar with the studies.

For a moment, I sat speechless. When I regained my composure, I forced out a few more questions, to which he gave insightful responses. But my mind was elsewhere. We soon exchanged pleasantries and I departed, feeling stunned.

And I continued to feel stunned. Yes, I could forgive anyone for missing one study in thousands that stream through their inbox. But this wasn’t just one insignificant study. It was a bright yellow caution sign held aloft by the head of the American agency coordinating all mental health research.

As I stood rooted to the floor, a familiar feeling started to come over me. After spending years in business, I knew the sensation: inertia. It seems to infiltrate all large organizations. Even when individuals know better, the machine they are a part of often doesn’t. The status quo changes slowly, even when compelling, peer-reviewed, scientifically-calibrated and well publicized studies point in a better direction.

 

In that moment, this book was born.

I had searched long enough to know that a comprehensive layman’s guide to the full breadth of non-drug treatments didn’t exist. So I decided I had better write one.

But before I did, I listened to many people: those in psychiatric distress, their loved-ones, mental health professionals, advocacy groups, and many more. Their sentiments echo a recurring theme, an urgent plea, and a critical need in the field of mental health: people need options.

This plea arises from the fact that the most prevalent conventional option involves psychiatric drugs, which rarely offer a completely acceptable answer. In some cases, they work well. But often they only reduce the severity of some symptoms while leaving others untouched. And far too often they introduce a dizzying and distressing array of side effects.

Fortunately, many non-drug approaches can be used with drugs—or in place of them. In some cases, these approaches target underlying causes of mental health symptoms and can legitimately be called cures. In others, non-drug approaches can provide substantial and prolonged symptom relief as good as, or better than, what psychotropics offer, and with minimal or no side effects. Still other approaches can reduce symptoms so that lower doses of psychotropics are needed. The message is loud and clear: substantial scientific findings support using non-drug options.

We are drowning in a sea of information about mental health, thanks to the internet. But often it raises more questions than it answers. So many competing claims from so many sources espouse so many perspectives with so many agendas. It’s hard to make sense of the masses of sometimes conflicting advice.

"... We're drowning in a sea of mental health information.
I unearth, evaluate, distill, and communicate information for a living.
So I brought these skills to the ocean of psychiatric research..."

I bring two primary skills to this roiling sea: information management and communication. My academic background and career have required unearthing, evaluating, synthesizing, distilling, and communicating information—separating the wheat from the chaff, differentiating the hyperbole from the truth, making the complex understandable, and making the important compelling. 

I applied these skills to the work of brilliant psychiatrists and researchers who have already navigated and charted portions of this sea. I am significantly indebted to them for their many valuable maps. My goal was to stitch together and harmonize these maps for people with mental health issues and their loved ones. This job required overlaying maps from opposite sides of the world regarding illness and wellness, science and humanity, pragmatism and hope. In the process, I’ve discarded medical jargon when it wasn’t necessary and translated critical information I believe can help you or your loved one recover.

My effort resulted in the book, Choices in Recovery.  It is the first book I’ve seen that presents the full breadth of proven non-drug approaches to mental health, extracted from the bowels of clinical research and translated into a usable and empowering tool for those who need a path to recovery.

"... Writing this book, I found more than scientific methods of recovery.
I also found tremendous hope.."

And in writing this book, I found more than scientific methods to recovery. I also found tremendous hope.

This effort is intended to inspire hope from the experiences of many people who live in recovery. I invite you to explore non-drug modalities and identify any that can help you. And I urge you to trust yourself enough to lead your own recovery, within the context of a team. Ultimately, accepting this personal responsibility becomes an “Ah-ha!” moment, both a turning point and a burst of energy that helps propel you on your journey to wellness.

I have a simple premise.

Mental health recovery can be achieved through a courageous individual process of prudent experimentation. The likelihood of success skyrockets when the process is grounded in self-determination, fueled by hope, assisted by talented practitioners and caring supporters, and enabled by non-drug options validated by science–where the golden nuggets, warts, and any unknowns are clearly stated.

 

I have great respect for all who engage in the mental health struggle: those with mental health issues, their families, mental health professionals, researchers, teachers, and communities. 

In bringing this to you, I sought to make available resources that would have helped and encouraged me and my family members many years ago. I hope that it will help and encourage you right now.

 

Onward,

 

Craig Wagner

© 2019 ONWARD Mental Health