By some yardsticks, Dr. Peter Breggin seems to be a successful -- perhaps even influential -- psychiatrist. He has earned impressive academic credentials, published a string of books and shown up on Today and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Many patients rave about the doctor. "He's a wonderful person," says one satisfied customer. "He cares so much about his clients. He gave me the will to get better."
So why are so many other people saying such nasty things about him? The head of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill calls Breggin "ignorant" and claims he's motivated by a lust for fame and wealth. The former director of the National Institute of Mental Health brands Breggin an "outlaw." The president of the American Psychiatric Association says the doctor is the modern equivalent of a "flat earther."
What causes these critics to lose their professional cool at the mere mention of Breggin is his relentless crusade against the conventional wisdom of psychiatry -- and his increasingly high profile. What causes Breggin to rail against his profession is its eagerness to embrace technology, from the early zeal for lobotomies and electroshock to the modern reliance on such psychoactive drugs as Thorazine and lithium. In looking for the quick fix, Breggin argues, too many psychiatrists have forgotten the importance of love, hope and empathy in maintaining sanity. The power to heal the mind lies in people, he says, not pills.
For many years no one paid much attention to Breggin, 58, but that was before the dawn of the Prozac Age. The immense popularity of the drug, which is most often prescribed for depression but is gaining a reputation as an all- purpose personality enhancer, has given Breggin his best ammunition yet. In his new book Talking Back to Prozac (co-written with his wife Ginger Ross Breggin), he says the drug is merely a stimulant that does not get to the root of depression and is probably dangerous when used over long periods. He has dumped on Prozac in TV and radio debates with Dr. Peter Kramer, whose best seller Listening to Prozac describes the drug's powers in generally favorable terms. In the process, Breggin has infuriated Prozac's manufacturer, Eli Lilly, prompting the firm to deluge journalists with material intended to discredit the maverick psychiatrist.
Breggin didn't start out to be a renegade. As his book jackets proudly point out, his background is pure establishment: Harvard College, Case Western Reserve Medical School, a teaching fellowship at Harvard Medical School. But early in his career, he became deeply disturbed by the treatment of psychiatric patients, particularly the many long-term residents of mental hospitals who spend their lives in a drugged-out state. In 1971 Breggin declared his rebellion, launching the Center for the Study of Psychiatry in Bethesda, Maryland, as a way to push for reform.