A terrifying tale about over-prescribing: Q&A with Elizabeth Kenny

Actor and playwright Elizabeth Kenny performs an excerpt from her play dramatizing a horrifying journey through the American medical system during which she was over-prescribed psychiatric medications. We asked her a few questions to learn more about her experience and work.

A terrifying tale about over-prescribing: A performance by Elizabeth Kenny
Actor & playwright Elizabeth Kenny performs at TEDMED 2014. [Photo: Jerod Harris for TEDMED.]

Why does this talk matter now and what impact do you hope it will have?

In 2014, the top selling drug in America was an anti-psychotic called Abilify. Are there really that many people in need of anti-psychotics? I want an answer to this question. The pressure of marketing and the lack of time and true collaboration between patients and doctors are leading to a crisis of over-prescribing and medicalizing suffering of all kinds. I hear people talk about how great it is that more people have access to mental health care now more than ever before – how wonderful it is we have these “silver bullet” medications for debilitating states like depression. I want to be happy, too… but I’m scared. It seems to me that the help being offered is not always helpful. I’m afraid that if we don’t start a more rigorous and nuanced conversation about the health of our mental health system, in the long run, many more people will be harmed than helped. I hope this talk can be a starting place for some to enter the conversation. I think a great place to start would be with simple transparency about what we truly know and don’t know about the brain, and about how psychotropic medications work on it.

Is there anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?

My original play, Sick, was 70 minutes long, and editing it down to a 12 minute talk was an enormous intellectual and artistic challenge. Early on, I realized I would have to leave out the entire second half of the play which was all about withdrawal from the medications – a grueling process, and one that I almost didn’t survive. We were operating under a controversial hypothesis (that the medications I was taking might be making me sick) and we found tremendous resistance from inside the psychiatric community. Coming off psych meds is a deeply personal decision and not one that should be entered into lightly. Tapering very slowly made it possible for me. I suffered tremendously during the protracted eight months in which I tapered off of all my medications. I was very lucky to have my family’s support – physically, emotionally and financially. Getting off my meds became my full-time job; helping me became my mother’s full-time job.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I had been performing and touring with my play Sick for a couple years when I received the invitation to speak at TEDMED; the experience of making and taking the play on tour was so surprising. While I was living through the story, I was certain that what was happening to me was extreme, that I was one in a million, and that nobody else could possibly be going through the same thing. Once I started to perform and engage with audiences I was shocked by how many people wanted to talk after the show to share their stories. I have lost count of how many times I heard, “I think this is happening to my sister,” or mother, or aunt, or boyfriend. It has become clear to me that what I, my family, and my doctors thought was a rare occurrence may be far more common than any of us can fathom. I feel an obligation as both a writer/performer, and as a person who came through an iatrogenic mental illness, to raise questions. How many more people like me are there? How are people’s lives being subtly or not so subtly diminished by their treatment? Are we really operating within a system that allows for informed consent if all our drug information is coming from those who stand to profit from its sale? My role in transforming the mental health system is to ask questions and tell stories, and the TEDMED stage seemed like a perfect fit.

Check out the archive of our lively Facebook chat with Elizabeth where we dove deeper into her story and reflected on audience members’ similar experiences.