Mad in America

History, Science, and the Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders

"Broken Brains" and "Beautiful Minds"

Diagnosis, Low Expectations, and Intellectual Triumph

When I first interviewed Brandon Banks, in the spring of 2008, while researching Anatomy of an Epidemic, he had recently entered Elizabethtown Community College in Kentucky, with dreams of becoming a journalist. Given his medical history, which included multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, this seemed like a bold dream, and few people in his life thought he would succeed at it.

But today, in this blog, I get to brag a bit about Brandon Banks.

Brandon Banks grew up poor in Elizabethtown, without a father at home. After graduating from high school in 2000, he moved to Louisville, where he attended college part-time and worked nights at United Parcel Service. There, he became depressed, and shortly after he began taking an antidepressant, he suffered a manic episode. "This was a serious shove into seriousness," he says.

Diagnosed now as bipolar, he came to understand that he would be struggling with this illness the rest of his life. During the next four years, he was hospitalized several times, and unfortunately, none of the endless combination of drugs he took -- Depakote, Neurontin, Rispderdal, Zyprexa, Seroquel, Haldol, Thorazine, lithium, and a number of antidepressants -- brought him lasting relief. Instead, he became a rapid cycler who suffered from mixed states, and he also developed a number of new psychiatric symptoms -- worsening anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive behaviors, voices, and hallucinations. At one point, his ability to concentrate declined so severely that Kentucky took away his driver's license.

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"What my life became was staying at home all day, getting up in the morning and laying my pills out on the counter, taking them, and then going back to sleep because I couldn't stay awake if I tried. Then I would get up, play some video games, and hang out with my family," he recalls.

The story of his recovery from that dark moment is a long and complicated one. But suffice to say, it involved rejecting the idea that he had a "broken brain." Perhaps he was just "screwed up," he thought. Gradually, he regained a sense of hope about his future, about being able to make something of himself, and in the fall of 2008, he began pursuing his interest in journalism. He quickly became managing editor of the Elizabethtown Community College student newspaper, and under his leadership during the 2008-2009 school year, the newspaper won 24 awards from the Kentucky Intercollegiate Press Association. Banks personally garnered ten such honors for the articles he'd written, including first place in a deadline-writing competition.

During that year, Banks did continue to struggle with "bipolar" symptoms. But he had discovered that he had an incredible talent for journalism, which boosted his self-confidence. He could now realistically think of fashioning a career as a journalist, and this past fall he wrote an in-depth article, which was quite well reported, on how easy it was to "cheat" when taking an Internet class. In the spring, his article won a regional award from the Society for Professional Journalists, and then Banks emailed me with his big news: In the national competition, the Society for Professional Journalists awarded his article first place for in-depth reporting by a student at a two-year college.

I know there is an obvious lesson to be drawn from his story, but I have to confess that I am writing this note for a different reason. When Brandon Banks told me of his award, I felt such joy that I simply had to tell as many people as possible.

 

Robert Whitaker is a journalist who writes mostly about medicine and science; his latest book is Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illnes more...

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