‘OFF LABEL': Tribeca Film Captures Our Insatiable Appetite for Prescription Drugs
(NEW YORK) -- Andy Duffy's first encounter with the world of drugs was as an Army medic at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where he forced resistant prisoners to endure excruciating pain.
Sgt. Duffy says superior officers ordered him to inject the veins of prisoners with 14-gauge needles to hydrate -- and to intimidate -- them during hunger strikes.
"These needles are used for really massive trauma…not in the veins but to put a hole through the chest to relieve pressure," he said.
The Iowa City boy had signed up just days after his 17th birthday -- March 19, 2003 -- in the midst of war lust after 9/11.
Then in a 2006 attack by rebels, shrapnel tore apart his lower right flank and back as Americans readied to hand the prison over to Iraqi authorities. "They mortared us instead," said Duffy.
Many of his fellow soldiers never made it back. Duffy did in October of 2006, but with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a mountain of prescription drugs that he says only made him worse.
"It was obvious altering the chemicals in my brain was not the answer," he said. "My [PTSD] was not an imbalance, but from an experience."
Now, Duffy's journey is told in a quirky but powerful documentary about eight Americans whose lives are ruled by pharmaceutical drugs.
In the film OFF LABEL, directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher investigate the epidemic of skyrocketing use of medication, following such disparate characters as human guinea pigs in drug testing, a former pharmaceutical rep and a mother who blames a drug study for her son's suicide.
Though the characters never interact, "they speak as one voice, coming up from the depths of the margins of American society," said Palmieri.
The documentary, which follows the directors' 2009 film October Country, premieres April 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
The directors owe much of their research and inspiration to Carl Elliott, associate professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota and author of Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.
"It is an astonishingly moving, lyrical film that also manages to be very funny," said Elliott, who has been critical of America's insatiable appetite for drugs. "I loved everything about it. There is more humanity in this film than anything I have ever seen or read about pharmaceuticals."
The film is dedicated to Mary Weiss of Minneapolis, whose son Dan Markingson was admitted in 2003 to a psychiatric hospital with delusions and was prescribed the antidepressant Seroquel by his attending physician, who was involved in the marketing study of that drug.
Weiss said she believed her son was going to hurt himself and begged doctors to take him out of the study.
"He was legal age, so we couldn't," says Weiss in the film. "But he was deteriorating and gaunt and believed he was plagued by devils. He was psychotic."
After five months in the trial, at age 27, Markingson slashed himself to death in a gruesome suicide. "They let him die," says his mother.
Today, because of her efforts, "Dan's Law" was passed in 2009 in Minnesota to protect patients from medical conflicts of interest in clinical trials.
Both Weiss's son and Duffy "speak to crisis side of the issue," said director Mosher. "There is real damage to people and these are the strongest examples. Both of them are the most harrowing examples of abuse of trust by doctors."
The documentary looks at the situation from the industry side, following Michael Oldani, a medical anthropologist who once worked as a drug rep for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
"Ultimately, we are all implicated, not just the pharmaceutical companies or drug reps or doctors prescribing meds for people," said director Palmieri. "In the end we do need medicine, but the system we all participate in is kind of crazy, where the quick-fix approach is easier, but not necessarily better."
It was that approach at the Veterans Administration that victimizes people like Duffy, according to the documentary.
He was prescribed dozens of antidepressants, sleep aids and anti-anxiety drugs in place of psychological counseling to get over his flashbacks, nightmares and sleeplessness.
Today, at 26, Sgt. Andy Duffy finds psychological support working with fellow veterans.
Even a chimp in a zoo gets behavioral therapy when prescribed drugs for depression, according to the film.
"I was on four meds at a time," Duffy told ABC News. "The drugs were preventing me from moving forward. I basically was numbing myself to escape things."
He ballooned in weight from 140 to 196 pounds and was tired all the time. "I had much more suicidal thoughts with all this medication," said Duffy.
But the VA had contracts with certain drug companies that prevented doctors from adjusting his drugs and long waiting lists to see a psychologist.
"Literally, if there is a medicine that saves a life -- at the VA, if they don't have a contract, you probably are not going to get that drug."
"It was easier and cheaper for the government to dispense out meds," Duffy said.
In a moment of clarity, Duffy went off all medications and was able to quiet his demons by finding the support he needed from other war veterans.
Today, he is going to school to study social work and is active with Veterans for Peace and formed his own group, Veterans Relief.
"I realized that what I really needed was talk therapy," he said. "And it helped me so much. There were so many guys out there with the exact same problem who understood where I was coming from.
"They didn't just give me a sterile answer and shove me on the street with a bunch of pills in my pocket."
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio