A watchdog group turned out in force Saturday at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting to protest the practice of medicating troops and veterans with psychiatric drugs.
More than 400 members of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights marched from Times Square to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City to oppose what they say is overmedication of military personnel with potentially harmful prescriptions.
Citing cases of accidental overdoses and sudden unexplained deaths, organizers said APA members have “failed to warn military psychiatrists against the mass drugging of the armed forces and veterans.”
“The drugging of the military has become so egregious … these drugs are associated with mania, homicide, suicide, psychosis,” CCHR President Bruce Wiseman said.
The crowd chanted “APA, APA, drugging troops is not okay,” at the physicians, pharmaceutical representatives and others entering the convention. Many protestors carried placards with the faces of service members who have died, including Senior Airman Anthony Mena, 23 who stopped breathing in 2009 from accidental drug toxicity, and Marine Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Bachus, prescribed opiate painkillers and psychiatric drugs, who died in 2008.
CCHR is a non-profit established by the Church of Scientology and Dr. Thomas Szasz, a professor of psychiatry at State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse.
Their mission, Wiseman said, is to promote alternatives to treating mental illnesses with medication. He declined to discuss the group’s relationship to Scientology, which has denounced psychiatry and medical treatment of mental health issues, only saying that CCHR is an independent organization.
In the past several years, the Pentagon has moved to limit the use of powerful anti-psychotic drugs for post-traumatic stress disorder — an off-label practice that many believe has contributed to accidental deaths of service members.
Military death records obtained by Military Times in 2011 showed there were at least 68 accidental drug deaths among troops in 2009, up from 24 in 2001.
At least 430 troops have died from drug or alcohol use in the past decade.
For the fourth straight year, the APA conference is featuring a military track with more than 65 workshops and poster sessions focusing on understanding, diagnosing and treating service members, veterans and family members with behavioral health conditions.
Norman Berry, a former Army private first class, was one of the few veterans participating in the protest. The former radio operator said he believes the U.S. should not be involved in conflicts that may be the root cause for troop issues.
“These drugs kill people … the best thing we could do is end these wars,” Berry said.
Military psychiatrists speaking at the meeting said they are committed to helping troops and veterans deal with any mental health conditions related to military service and say the APA meeting is an opportunity to educate civilian psychiatrists — many of whom are now treating combat veterans — on the nuances of reaching a military population.
“The lessons learned are going to be important sessions. We’ve been at war 12, 13 years and there’s a lot that folks want to share about treating those with physical injuries, a head trauma and a psychological component,” Ritchie said.