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Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin Hardcover – December 30, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Vincent's first trip to a mental institution—to which the writing of Self-Made Man drove her—convinced her that further immersion would give her great material for a follow-up. The grand tour consists of voluntary commitments to a hospital mental ward, a small private facility and a boutique facility; but Vincent's efforts to make a big statement about the state of mental health treatment quickly give way to a more personal journey. An attempt to wean herself off Prozac, for example, adds a greater sense of urgency to her second research trip, while the therapists overseeing her final treatment lead her to a major emotional breakthrough. Meanwhile, her fellow patients are easily able to peg her as an emotional parasite, though this rarely stops them from interacting with her—and though their neediness sometimes frustrates her, she is less judgmental of them than of the doctors and nurses. The conclusions Vincent draws from her experiences tend toward the obvious (the better the facilities, the better chance for recovery) and the banal: No one can heal you except you. Though keenly observed, her account never fully transcends its central gimmick. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

Struggling with the “psycho-emotional” conflicts of being a woman living as a man for her last book, Self-Made Man (2006), Vincent checked herself into the psychiatric ward of a hospital. While there, she found inspiration for her next immersion-journalism experience. But this experience went way beyond observation as Vincent actually wondered about the state of her mental health. For a woman with a history of depression, what began as an investigation into psychiatric practices and questionable diagnoses, within the broader context of modern American culture, morphed into a personal exploration of mental stability. In this sometimes harrowing and sometimes humorous account, Vincent recalls her stay at three mental-health facilities: the ward of a big-city public hospital, a rural private psychiatric hospital, and an alternative-treatment program. Vincent chronicles not just the social and economic differences in illnesses and treatments at the facilities but also the madness of bureaucracies that overmedicate and don’t listen enough to what patients have to say. A riveting and enlightening look at mental-health treatment. --Vanessa Bush

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1 edition (December 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670019712
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670019717
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,133,747 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Norah Vincent was born in Detroit, Michigan on September 20, 1968. She began her career as a journalist writing columns for The Village Voice, Salon and the LA Times. She has published four books and is at work on a fifth. Her web page is at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

164 of 198 people found the following review helpful By W.H. on January 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I was really dismayed by Vincent's depiction of psychiatric drugs in Voluntary Madness, particularly antipsychotic drugs like Seroquel.

As someone whose mental illness (schizoaffective disorder) is and was NOT voluntary, I could tell Vincent that, for me, Seroquel made and continues to make the difference between life and a living death.

The onset of my illness brought loud and threatening hallucinations (voices that threatened to kill me and worse). I was treated with a variety of drugs, the first of which were not very helpful for me.

When my doctor tried giving me Seroquel, however, my life returned to normal as the drug built up in my system. The delusions stopped almost completely, and what voices I heard from then on were and are few and far between. They were also easy to distinguish from real sounds and ceased to be frightening--they became merely annoying and easy to ignore.

While the drug was sedating at first, my body adjusted to it very quickly (it is usually taken at bedtime for this reason). I could also tell Vincent that I certainly DO NOT twitch, drool, or fall asleep during daily activities!

If and when people experience these side effects from drugs, their doctors should withdraw them slowly and gradually while starting them (also slowly and gradually) on new ones. Unless I missed it, Vincent failed to mention that this simple solution to these problems is even possible.

Stopping any psychiatric drug slowly and gradually, under a doctor's supervision, is also an easy way to avoid a painful withdrawal. Vincent demonizes Effexor, for example, as causing withdrawal, but she never mentions that this withdrawal is avoidable.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Luke Sjulson on November 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book because I spent three months on "Meriwether Ward 20" as a psychiatry resident, and I thought it would be fun to read something a patient on the unit wrote about it. However, the book turned out to be an poorly-researched anti-psychopharmacology diatribe full of rather egregious, ideologically-driven factual inaccuracies. For example, the author states that the role of excess dopamine in psychosis is entirely unproven, and that the safety and efficacy of D2 receptor antagonists in treating hallucinations and delusions is the subject of "great debate in the scientific community." That's like saying that the role of treponema pallidum in syphilis is entirely unproven, and the safety and efficacy of penicillin in treating syphilis is the subject of great scientific debate. She makes similarly inaccurate statements about the role of serotonin in depression, and perhaps more humorously, attributes the symptoms of other patients' illnesses to the medications used to treat them! Of course, that's what happens when you spend ten days as a tourist on a unit where the average length of stay is almost a month; you're not there long enough to see how well the meds can work and how much better people can get. None of that would even bother me that much if she didn't go around on the unit, encouraging other patients to cheek their meds. Because in a way, that's what her book does--tell the millions of Americans who actually have serious mental illness to stop taking their meds.

While her ignorance of the topic may be her greatest sin as a journalist, her greatest sin as a writer is mainly that the book is not more interesting to read. By focusing so exclusively on herself, she fails to spend enough time describing the fascinating, colorful characters that one encounters on a unit like "Meriwether Ward 20," which would have made the book a lot more entertaining.
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Jacinda on February 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Whats the point? & who's it meant for? I'm not sure who would be the target audience for a book that has really no point or purpose. The author appears to be making a half-hearted attempt to get some mileage out of a literary degree by sharing her sophomoric ideas about a subject she has obviously not studied or fully experienced. It's not about her own 'illness' (although that is what she implies in the title) as she doesn't ever really commit to exposing her own struggles but rather gives a preachy and perfunctory speck here and there. At one point she describes her reaction to another person prefacing it with "me being me," and it hit me that I have no idea what that means. She doesn't share enough for the reader to join her in her concept of "me" so it just emphasizes the fact that she has not really developed her 'character' at all for the reader. It's unfortunate too, because there's probably a story here if the author was willing to really commit to telling it instead of hiding under pretense. The writing winds back & forth between vague descriptions of her being a "depressive" and her treatment in the mental health establishments. If you want to write a book exposing the latter- there is alot more to say than is portrayed here! If you're looking for a book that will help you to empathize with those who struggle with mental illness and the institutions/ treatment woes that are a part of that, you're better off elsewhere (Saks or Redfield Jamison). This author appears not to really have much passion and therefore much focus with regard to whatever subject she's calling this & it just comes off as trite as the word "bin" she continually uses. She extracted her 'words to live by' off of the patch on someone's jacket- need I say more? It seems her purpose was simply to write a book. It's practically an insult to people who actually have a diagnosed mental illness, and full of opinions disguised as information. Don't waste your time-
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