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Carter case shows misconceptions of mental health

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In 2014, then-17-year-old Michelle Carter made headlines for sending texts to her long-distance boyfriend Conrad Roy, 18, that encouraged him to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. The text exchanges published show that on June 6, just a week before the suicide, Carter helped Roy conjure up a concrete plan to die by suicide in the most discreet way possible. On June 13, the day of the suicide, Roy expressed second thoughts before attempting, but Carter encouraged him to stop "push[ing the suicide] off" and to "do it."

On Feb. 4, 2015, Carter was indicted, and the case was allowed to move forward. That year, Carter evoked some strong emotions on social media. Just two days before the indictment, she took to Twitter to post a photo of Roy telling him to "enjoy the parade from up there tomorrow" and that she was "[r]eally missing you tonight." Although the judge's order banned Carter from using social media, her mother shared photos of Carter going to school competitions, attending her senior prom, and going to Disney World on her behalf. Becki Maki, Roy's aunt, expressed her distress by saying “It’s really hard because we don’t have our nephew in our lives anymore. We will never see him enjoy these milestones...He’ll never see his sisters go to prom, and to see her awaiting her manslaughter trial on a trip to Disney World with her friends, going to school competitions and going off to prom — it just seems like she doesn’t understand the gravity of the actions that have led to the case against her.” Now, Carter is sentenced to 15 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter, a stark contrast to the maximum of 20 years that once hung over her head.

Exact motives have not been made explicit. In court, psychiatrist and critic of psychiatric medicines, Peter Breggin, testified to the court that Carter's history of taking antidepressants caused her to be "involuntarily intoxicated" by the medication. "She is not forming the criminal intent... She's found a way to use her unique power to help and to help this boyfriend — in her mind but not in his — to not keep making mistakes and not keep hurting himself."

It is important to realize that medicine is not the right treatment for everyone. Psychiatric medication is a controversial topic, even among those in the field. Some patients react better than others, and anybody using medication should be monitored to ensure their safety. Many factors — chemistry, family history, a person's specific needs, to list a few — can cause drastically different results from person to person. That's true for basically any medical procedure, and psychiatric medication is no exception. Current science shows that antidepressants have potential side effects, one of them being increased suicidal ideation. Therefore, it's possible that Carter had an adverse reaction to antidepressants.

That being said, Breggin has been outspoken against psychiatric medicines for decades. Breggin's words reflect a dangerous trend we see in automatically linking mental illnesses with tragedies. Of course, the psychological state one was in during a certain situation is important to consider, but depression does not cause manslaughter. Antidepressants aren't some evil psyche-changing substances that manipulate people into violent behavior. Placing the blame on medication that over one in ten Americans rely on to go about their daily lives is not only a careless conclusion to make but also dangerous. The fact that a psychiatrist who was educated in prestigious institutions and has practiced in the field for decades claimed this in court can serve as further validation for those who carry this mentality.

Additionally, Breggin never actually treated Carter. His conclusions have been drawn from remote speculations, not from directly working with her. Breggins claims that psychiatric medication flipped Carter from being a compassionate "helper" to being "apathetic." Carter began taking antidepressants in 2011, and the couple met in 2012. In the beginning of the relationship, Carter actually encouraged Roy to seek professional help. Between then and the incident, there was no change in medication prior to the incident, so for effects to kick in three years after beginning a medication is rather unlikely. If antidepressants were the sole reason for Carter's change in personality, her change should not have occurred during the relationship.

However, Carter's response to the suicide makes room for a completely different possible intent. After encouraging Roy to die by suicide, she didn't call authorities or even reach out for help. Prosecutor Maryclare Flynn argued that Carter wanted sympathy for being the "grieving girlfriend."

There's no concrete evidence for Flynn's claim. However, past social media activity isn't necessarily helping Carter's case. Although she expressed remorse to her friends — allegedly claiming she herself "chickened out" of attempting suicide — the fact that she continued life as usual by completing her high school career, going to Disney World, and going to tanning salons all after the incident is a bit unnerving. Additionally, there is speculation that she took inspiration from a show she enjoyed, Glee. Parallels between quotes from Lea Michele — both on and off camera — have been made to Carter's words in response to Roy's death. "[Michele's] just been my inspiration and stuff lately I love her haha," Carter told her friend. Glee was a show that she admired. This has led people to question her motives behind pressuring Roy to kill himself or the authenticity of her mourning.

Regardless of intent, Carter undeniably preyed on Roy's vulnerability. Would Roy be alive today if someone had called for help? It's difficult to say. Both Roy and Carter struggled with mental health and needed further care, and Roy had experienced suicidal thoughts leading up to the event. However, Carter may have been the final catalyst who pushed him to end his life, and until we have a cure for such psychiatric illnesses, we must remain vigilant in treating those who are suffering.