He is 6’4” at least – 192 cm. He has blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. When he first suggested making a program about SSRIs I was not very helpful – very little of the media coverage by 60 Minutes or anything else has ever seemed to make much of a difference. They may have just increased the sales of antidepressants by keeping the names of the various drugs in the limelight. And he was suggesting more talking heads which the cutting edge of journalism tells me is past tense.
But he was persistent and turned up on my doorstep, putting himself up in a very cheap hotel, because as I found out later he had almost no money. Many of the people I put him in touch with as he and his son Elias wound their way literally around the world making their program were far more generous than I in accommodating them in their own houses.
Who is he?
Who was he? He is Swedish and his wife Mexican – a striking genetic and cultural mix. She makes wrought-iron jewellery. He had been a classical musician but had decided orchestral living was not for him. This had led him to film-making. But finding work was difficult.
He was gifted. Seeing him edit the huge volumes of material he amassed, produce graphics to illustrate points and carve out a distinctive story line all in the apartment in Stockholm in which they lived – you couldn’t but be impressed. This was a far cry from BBC or CBS or CBC or NBC studios. When I went to visit him in Stockholm, the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had just come out and it was difficult not to think of Lisbeth Salander.
Swedes would listen he said. He knew his countrymen and women. They still believed what they heard on the news and read in newspapers and they just needed to be told the truth up front. This didn’t seem completely naïve to me, Swedes are a bit like this. I was certain the rest of the world wouldn’t listen but if one country really did take the message on board who knows…
Who cares in Sweden?
The central idea was all his. He and Elias both had friends who were put on an SSRI who had lost their personalities. The drug produced a lack of caring that had spreading consequences for everything. Both had lost friends and families. But no-one said anything. Jan talked to eight doctors about it and they all told him he was wrong, “the medicine did not have these effects”. Finally he talked his friend off the medication and his personality was reborn.
If the doctors instead had answered: “That was interesting, I will keep that in mind.” … then he probably wouldn’t have started the project.
He ended up coming to me because he began by asking Swedish doctors to participate in the film and noticed that almost all said no. It would be too dangerous for their careers to be involved. He was regularly asked by doctors and politicians and others if he belonged to the Scientology Church. This puzzled him as he knew nothing about Scientology. He was also not anti-medication – several family members had been greatly helped by medicines.
Slowly he came to the view that Swedish journalists didn’t talk about the obvious corruption in Sweden because they didn’t care about the issue. For Jan the idea that a great deal of money from the pharmaceutical companies is being used to corrupt society is a non-starter as an explanation.
This is the case even though doctors are being corrupted. As he puts it “there is money that is being distributed as cash in small envelops, hand-to-hand or as repayment for consultant missions. The money can also be found hidden as funds for research or equipment or as invitations for doctors and journalists to international meetings. These offers are mostly sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry – all kinds of “services” seduce the recipients.
“Doctors end up getting trapped. On return home their colleagues never find out what really happened. They show their respect or feel envy for their colleagues who receive higher salaries, reputation and influence. Only a few people in Sweden acknowledge today how bad the situation is. Ignorance is massive”.
“That’s why we had to travel to foreign countries in order to find people willing to speak to us. As individuals we can’t make big changes or tell politicians, journalists or the justice system what to do. But as a production company, we are definitely able to produce films that may be helpful for society. There are many people searching the Internet for information about side effects that doctors have been taught to deny”.
I knew nothing about his views when we met first. I was struck by another idea of his. If the treatment could produce something like this in his friend, there seemed to him to be no end to the implications. Would any of the contracts his friend might have entered into during this period, from business contracts to relationship contracts, to legal contracts, to property deals be valid? Were the contracts anyone entered into while on these medicines – stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers – valid?
The more he explored the more he found firemen who were aware of the effects on them or on those who had set fires by accident or on purpose, judges who were aware of the effects within the legal system, doctors treating children who knew of the effects – all of whom facing the problem turned mute and were paralyzed.
There is a condition called Catatonia that can be induced in animals by facing them with tasks such as having to distinguish between an oval and a circle in order to get a reward. As you gradually start making the oval more circular and the circle more ovoid, the dog or other animal gets distressed and finally freezes.
We can cope with judgement calls about responsibility when people who are normal do things and when people who are on an LSD-trip do something – especially if the person has been slipped the drug without knowing it. When someone in the midst of an LSD trip steps out of a twenty-fifth floor window, we do not regard this as suicide. LSD works on the serotonin system. Start making it harder to distinguish between normal and treated serotonin systems and both people and Society freezes up.
A Norse myth
I felt I was being educated about the drugs by someone who had no background in the issues. It was a story that definitely needed to be made if only because it has the dimensions of a Greek tragedy or myth.
The SSRIs are after all a Swedish invention. Arvid Carlsson who later won a Nobel Prize produced the first SSRI, zimelidine, 3 years before Prozac was made. Carlsson deliberately made an SSRI whereas Lilly only produced one as an accidental by-product of a search for a quite different drug. Zelmid was also brought to the market in 1981, 7 years before Prozac. See Let Them Eat Prozac for a history of what happened next.
Can antidepressants and even Zelmid cause suicide? According to Carlsson in 2000 yes – “we have known this for a long time”.
But it doesn’t stop there, Stockholm is of course the place where Stockholm syndrome was born.
In August 1973, a bank robbery at the Kreditbanken in Stockholm triggered a 5-day siege with bank employees held hostage. The media camped outside. After the siege ended, to the surprise of everyone many of the hostages, as if hypnotized, spoke well of their captors. “Stockholm syndrome” was born. Now recognized as common, the conditions that trigger this change in behavior seem to be isolation, a fear that your life is at risk and kindness on the part of the hostage takers.
Disease isolates us as profoundly as incarceration or anything else might. Our lives are at risk, and our doctors who control the exit to freedom are almost certain to be kind. But not a single doctor is trained to manage Stockholm syndrome, to suspect that apparent insouciance or congenial conversation might conceal deep unhappiness with a proposed course of treatment or worse again alarm at new problems that have emerged on treatment.
Doctors are also increasingly likely to suffer their own Stockholm syndrome. If something goes wrong with a treatment a doctor gives, even though the label may concede that the drug can cause the problem, the makers of the drug and other doctors will deny that it is likely to have done so in any particular case. Speaking up about a problem, once the material of medical advance, is now a recipe for professional suicide. A doctor attempting to rescue a patient is likely to be accused of being a persecutor who takes patient hostage by withholding effective treatment.
Offers to describe problems at professional meetings are turned down. Journals are ever less likely to accept publications outlining a new problem. Invitations to apply for better jobs, to attend conferences, or simply to go with colleagues to local eateries funded by drug companies are ever less likely to happen for doctors linked to adverse events. Those holding doctors hostage have been very kind indeed – there are ever fewer medical departments or medical conferences not awash with company support, when it comes to paying for meals with colleagues most doctors have forgotten what a credit card looks like, and of course in supplying drugs they supply the objects that make doctors desirable.
What can a hobbit do?
“We all must take advantage of freedom of speech and freedom of press. This is what the small individual can do in a democracy. Thereafter it’s up to the professional journalist and politician to act. The truth is that Sweden needs help from foreign politicians, scientists and journalists. It is very sad to have to admit that many homicides, school shootings and other horrible killings are linked to medication and that this fact is being suppressed as journalists exclusively talk about weapons”.
“Many people decide to stop their medication when they start getting the “numb feeling” or the “derealisation feeling”. However, in the majority of cases, doctors insist they continue until the side effects “disappear”.
So Jan Akerblom made Who Cares in Sweden. This is playing with fire. He has taken on the Swedish establishment for real. Lisbeth Salander is the myth, Jan Akerblom the reality. Watch the Who Cares in Sweden – official trailer.
“Our conclusion is that, the best advice, in order to clarify any problems is to talk to the person’s family, friends and colleagues. The person themselves may not be aware of the side effects, the change of personality, the problems he or she creates. People sometimes say that the “medicines work” precisely because they just don’t care anymore”.
This conclusion about what he had to do and also what needs to be done to clarify individual problems are exactly the conclusions that Rosie Meysenburg came to that led her to create SSRI Stories.
In the next post, we’ll see some of the consequences of Kicking the Hornet’s Nest.