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Warning: This Movie May Have Psychiatric Side Effects

Warning: This Movie May Have Psychiatric Side Effects



Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, “Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

—from Ballad of a Thin Man, by Bob Dylan

You could substitute Ross McKenzie for Mister Jones, and you will get a sense of what the movie Bipolarized: Rethinking Mental Health is all about. It is a documentary of a man searching for the answers to what happened to him psychologically after a childhood of high achievement . . . a kind of Joseph Campbellian attempt of a heroic journey to try to find wellness after much suffering.

By chance, my wife and I recently saw this movie at the ReelAbilities Festival in Houston—a “free city-wide film and arts festival to promote inclusion and celebrate the lives, stories, and talents of people with disabilities.”

The introduction to this 2014 movie briefly mentioned that the sponsoring mental health organization had mixed feelings about showing the film. There was concern that others might try to imitate Mr McKenzie’s journey and not question his message.

We all know about the so-called side effects of most any medication, including aspirin. There can also be side effects from many aspects of mental health care. For example, psychotherapy can cause temporary escalation of anxiety. Administrative policies can limit useful resources. Teachers and journalists can cause side effects if they provide misinformation, or even if they provide the right information if it is misinterpreted. Popular and entertaining movies can do the same.

Mr McKenzie decided to make this movie when he was trying to recover from an apparent psychotic manic episode in early adulthood. We see him buying a camera so that he can document his ensuing quest for the mental gold. As such, it is a sort of movie selfie, and thus subject to his subjective decision of what to shoot and show.

McKenzie is from Toronto, apparently from a wealthy family, given his trips around the world to seek treatment. Most of the focus is on the assumption that he not only suffered from lithium side effects, but also from lithium withdrawal and ongoing lithium toxicity for years after the drug was stopped.

Some of his depicted side effects while taking lithium, such as lethargy and mental confusion, seemed accurate enough to be true to me. But severe lithium withdrawal? I’ve never heard of this or saw it. I checked the literature just to be sure and couldn’t find any reputable scientific support. Yes, there can be a kind of discontinuation syndrome: lithium is best stopped gradually (about 10% per month).

However, withdrawal, in the common sense of desiring the drug again, seems to be a misnomer. And chronic lithium retention and toxicity, requiring chelation treatment like lead poisoning? This too was news to me. Speaking of lead poisoning, McKenzie’s neuropath claims that he had high lead levels, as well as mercury, though the source is never described. These, too, were said to need chelation.

After a childhood of great success (apparently demanded by his father), McKenzie goes from a psychiatric-enforced hospitalization to various alternative treatments. His journey is like a psychiatric version of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN travelogues in tasting foods from different places around the world.


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