THE BLOG

Criminal Defenses Blaming Mental Illness

06/15/2012 12:47 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2012

If there can be a Twinkie defense, why can't there be one for Zoloft?

That appears to be the logic of the defense in the case of Anthony Nicholas Orban, the Westminster, Calif., police detective charged with kidnapping and raping a waitress at gunpoint in 2010. The defendant's counsel, James Blatt, called as a witness Dr. Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist who travels the country testifying against psychotropic medication. Relying on Breggin, Blatt argued that Zoloft caused his client to lose consciousness and enter a state of delirium that rendered him not responsible for his violent crimes.

Wouldn't it be nice if a now-convicted rapist like Orban or a serial pedophile, which Jerry Sandusky is alleged to be, accepted responsibility for their atrocious behavior?

Instead, we have Sandusky's attorney arguing that his client suffers from histrionic personality disorder, a despicable attempt to blame mental illness for the apparently calculated and malicious actions of an alleged predator.

Likewise, I think the Zoloft defense is horse shit. But what makes it so dangerous is that it comes at a time when many academics, most recently Siddhartha Mukherjee in the New York Times Magazine, are gaining space in eminent publications to decry the use of psychoactive drugs. While Breggin, the defense witness, is a clinician, that does not make the defense's argument any less specious, absurd or harmful to those with mental disorders.

Thankfully, on Wednesday, the jury rejected the Zoloft defense after less than a day of deliberating and found the defendant guilty of rape, kidnapping and other charges. The prosecutor in the case, Debbie Ploghaus, deputy district attorney in San Bernardino County, had presented her own expert witness, Dr. Douglas Jacobs, an associate clinical professor at Harvard, who testified that Zoloft has proven to be a safe medication for the millions who use it.

Not only is Zoloft a safe medication, as Jacobs testified, it also has given those millions of patients hope, without which they might not recover so well, if at all.

I am one of those who has benefited enormously from Zoloft, a medication I have been taking for 16 years.

As I have written before, medication alone is not a panacea for depression or other mental disorders. A patient should be in therapy while taking meds, and a patient needs to try to get better.

That means doing simple tasks that when you are severely depressed can appear daunting. In my case, when I was recovering from my first psychotic break in the spring of 1997, I struggled for a few weeks to do anything. But then I enrolled as a patient at a day-hospital. That forced me to drive the car every day to the hospital and back. No one would make me lunch, so I had to do it myself.

At home, I started putting together my résumé, going for walks with my parents and polishing my novel. After two and a half months of recovery, I was able to return to Los Angeles and pursue a career as a writer.

All the while, I was taking Zoloft as well as various anti-psychotic medications.

While I gained 30 pounds over 15 years, I do not know if I should attribute that to meds so much as to aging and leading a sedentary existence as a writer. In any event, I have lost much of that weight in the past year due to exercise and improved diet.

No, I was never eating Twinkies. I was eating bacon more frequently than I should have been, and I wasn't eating anything until 11 a.m.

Now, I gobble cereal first thing in the morning. This has no doubt helped to jump-start my sputtering metabolism.

I also take Zoloft with that cereal. Needless to say, I have never committed a crime. Of course, I do act like a jerk on occasion, but that has nothing to do with Zoloft, which has never rendered me unconscious or in a state of delirium. If anything, it peps me up during the day and reassures me that all is well.

And when I act like a jerk, I try to make amends. I would like to think that I would do that, with or without Zoloft.