Whistleblower Film Festival Review: Medicating Normal

July 30 is National Whistleblower Day. In celebration, the National Whistleblower Center will host a virtual conference featuring panels and speeches from lawmakers, whistleblowers, and whistleblower advocates. In conjunction with the conference is the ninth annual Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival. The festival will be presented virtually from July 28 – August 1. To buy passes to the festival and to see the schedule, please visit here.

One of the featured films in the festival is Medicating Normal. Medicating Normal takes an in-depth look at the overmedication of Americans, particularly regarding mental health issues. A situation which some posit as a national health crisis. According to the film, fifty million Americans are dependent on commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs. These drugs often provide effective short-term relief for emotional distress and other problems. However, pharmaceutical companies have hidden common side effects and long-term harm from both patients and doctors. The film examines this crisis through a mixture of cinema verité and investigative journalism. The film primarily focuses on five individuals whose lives have been profoundly impacted by their use of psychiatric drugs. Filmed over the course of three years, the film traces the individuals’ attempts to make sense of the role, both positive and negative, psychiatric drugs have played in their mental health. In most cases, the individuals feel that the drugs have only heightened their mental health issues and that they were never adequately informed of the side-effects and risks of taking the drugs. For example, one of the main subjects of the film is Shalamar, a waitress who sought medication to help her sleep. Prescribed a Benzodiazepine, the film follows her journey to ween off the drugs, from which she still suffers side-effects.

The film powerfully mixes the personal stories of its five subjects with interviews of psychiatrists, journalists, and other experts. These interviews provide a broader context for the crisis, highlighting the catastrophic effects of the United States’ profit-driven pharmaceutical industry and the dangers of scientifically designating what is ‘normal’ in regard to mental health. A strength of the film is that these experts do not weigh in on the individual subjects’ stories and only offer broad context. In this way, the film subjects are granted the autonomy to be the ‘experts’ on their own mental health. This autonomy powerfully echoes one of the film’s main messages: that every individual’s mental health is unique and that there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

While the expert interviews in the film do not touch upon the intersections of race, class, and gender with the mental health industry, the cross-section of subjects offers a glimpse at the role these factors play. For example, when Shalamar, a Black woman, visits her psychiatrist, she is treated aggressively and condescendingly. In contrast, Bri, a white woman, is treated cordially by her psychiatrist, and her opinions are validated. A strength of the film lies in allowing for insights into these sorts of dynamics while still treating their subjects as wholly unique individuals first and foremost.

One of the most powerful ‘storylines’ of the film is Bri and her husband, Dave. Dave is a former Navy officer who, while enrolled at MIT for graduate school, sought psychiatric help for his stress and anxiety. He feels that his medication has had terribly adverse effects on his mental health and claims that it has impeded his ability to feel emotions. Dave’s story is especially powerful because the film is able to trace the effects of his struggles on those closest to him. He and Bri are separated for a period. The film rightfully treats Bri as just as much of a victim as the others. Bri and Dave’s story is also important to the film because Bri serves as an interesting counterpoint to the other subjects. She has been prescribed stimulants to treat her ADHD for 15 years and feels that the drugs have been overwhelmingly positive in her life. This serves to underscore the film’s message that each individual’s relationship to prescription drugs is unique.

Dave’s story also overlaps with that of Angie, an Army veteran who feels that her mental health deteriorated faster once she was prescribed psychiatric drugs for PTSD. Dave and Angie’s stories allow the film to examine the institution of the United States military and how it structurally responds to mental health issues with overmedication. The film is thus able to examine larger structural and systematic apparatuses and practices while still remaining grounded in individual stories.

Overall, Medicating Normal does not present any neatly packaged solutions to the problem it examines. Instead, the film itself serves as a sort of example of what it sees to be the route forward. By centering the film on individual stories instead of big picture exposé, the film reinforces the need to treat each individual as wholly unique. And the general purpose of the film is to open up an informed dialogue around mental health and prescription drugs so that each individual can make the best choices.

Watch the Trailer for Medicating Normal

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