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Freed from a Pharmaceutical Fog, A Young Man’s Life Changes

westley_swihart_pt_iii1[Part 3 of 3]
It started with one pill.

The first night that Westley Swihart, then 14, spent in a Texas residential treatment center, the staff gave him a pill and said he’d be taking it from then on. Days later, they added a second psychotropic drug. When Westley started to resist because he didn’t like the way the pills made him feel, medical staff prescribed a sedative injection, which would knock him out at night. He can’t remember the names of each medication — who knows if anyone even told him — but he can recall exactly their effect.

“I felt like a zombie,” said Westley.

Such is the situation that many children in foster care find themselves. While psychotropic drugs can play a role in treating some of the mental health issues that kids face, they can also be abused — by doctors and child welfare staff looking for quick, easy methods to control behavior and discipline, without fixing the true problems.

Westley certainly isn’t the only youth in foster care who didn’t want anything to do with mind-altering meds. Nor is he alone in being powerless to affect his healthcare and have a say about what went into his body and affected his mind.

He shouldn’t have been in a residential treatment center to begin with. After his mother — who had substance abuse and health problems — abandoned Westley, his twin brother, and his sister, he needed the security and attention that comes with a family placement.

He got that home, but only temporarily. His first foster parents decided they couldn’t take care of Westley because he was gay. They tried to “cure” him, anointing him in oil and praying over him. In the end, it was easier for the family to give him back to the state. In doing so, the family told child welfare officials that Westley had problems. And so began this boy’s journey through Texas’ congregate care system and a haze of psychotropic medications.

His problems grew when his mother died a year after he and his siblings entered foster care. Westley rarely got to see his brother and sister, and to this day he’s essentially out of touch with them. Rather than give him the psychological therapy that these types of trauma deserve, Texas’ child welfare officials plied him with pharmaceuticals.

He remembers being on five or six medications at a time. “I was on a drug that wasn’t approved by the FDA,” said Westley. “It had some horrible side effects.”

He rarely got to talk to the person who was supposed to be his advocate. “My caseworker thought I was on fewer drugs,” said Westley. But he wouldn’t be freed of these psychotropic drugs until he left state custody. Despite long odds, Westley was adopted at 18, before he aged out of foster care.

One of the first things Westley’s adoptive father did once the adoption became legal was take him to an independent psychologist — who was astounded at the number of drugs prescribed to the young man.

The weaning process stretched over a couple months. Slowly, Westley’s brain, and personality, emerged from the pharmaceutical fog. “I was able to talk to someone while being conscious,” he said. “That made me feel better.”

The support of a permanent family, the healing of therapy, and the freedom from numbing psychotropic drugs have pushed Westley to heights that many former foster youth never reach. He just graduated from the American Musical and Drama Academy in Los Angeles, and he’s set his sights on a career as an actor, writer, and director.

How many young adults have the same potential for greatness as Westley but won’t realize it because they’re saddled by these mind-altering drugs?

Too many.

As part of our reform campaigns, we will continue to press child welfare agencies for more accountability in its use of psychotropic drugs. These kids need solutions to their problems, not just more problems.

Photo Credit: Maia Rosenfeld

READ PART 1: Psychotropic Drugs: A Troubling Staple of Foster Care
READ PART 2: A Merry-Go-Round of Psychotropic Drugs Can Destroy a Childhood