COVER

Prozac’s prophet

‘Dr. Feelgood’faces charges that he is too quick to recommend the drug

CHRIS WOOD May 23 1994
COVER

Prozac’s prophet

‘Dr. Feelgood’faces charges that he is too quick to recommend the drug

CHRIS WOOD May 23 1994

Prozac’s prophet

‘Dr. Feelgood’faces charges that he is too quick to recommend the drug

The fit physique that he once boasted as a U.S. marine fighting in the jungles of Vietnam has thickened with the passing years. The beard that he recently shaved off was salted with grey, and his left knee gives him trouble. But as psychologist James Goodwin, 47, warms to his favorite subject, he displays a youthful enthusiasm. Leaning forward, touching his listener on the knee to emphasize his points, Goodwin recalls his own bouts of depression, his thoughts of suicide, and his conversion in 1989 to a new family of antidepressant drugs. “It was astounding,” he says. “The symptoms that I began to see—complaints of violence, of low self-esteem, of chronic irritability, eating problems, hypersexuality— would respond to short-term therapy and this new medicine called Prozac.” Goodwin acknowledges that, since then, he has recommended Prozac and similar drugs, known as SSRIs, for the vast majority of his clients. “In my wildest dreams,” he adds, “I have this fantasy about pouring SSRI in the water.”

It is a fantasy that alarms some of Goodwin’s neighbors in the small orchard town of Wenatchee, Wash. Tucked into the Columbia River valley near the middle of the state, Wenatchee has long claimed to be the Apple Capital of the World.

Lately, however, many of its 50,000 residents have begun to feel like they live in the world’s Prozac capital. Since January,

The New York Times, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America and the British Broadcasting Corporation have all devoted attention to Goodwin’s almost evangelical zeal for the drug.

That zeal may soon be checked, however. Spurred by complaints from several former clients and fellow psychologists, a state panel has ordered Goodwin to appear before a hearing later this year to defend himself against charges that he over-relies on SSRI-type drugs in his practice. If found guilty, Goodwin could lose his licence to practise psychology.

Goodwin has his defenders. Among them is Susan Barker, 34, the director of the Wenatchee area visitor and convention bureau. Last summer, Barker was unable to shake feelings of hopelessness and despair following the birth of her first child, Natalie. “Three good things could happen in a day and one bad thing,” she recalls, “and I would

consider it a bad day.” Anxiety attacks frequently left her dizzy and breathless. In September, Barker sought help from Goodwin. In addition to weekly counselling, he recommended Prozac (as a psychologist, Goodwin cannot prescribe medication; clients must request the drugs from a physician).

Since then, says Barker, “I’ve gotten control of my emotions back. I enjoy some of the bright things in life.” She credits Goodwin for the change and no longer needs regular counselling. “I’ve graduated,” she says.

But Goodwin’s enthusiasm for Prozac and related drugs clearly goes far beyond their application to postpartum depression. In his sunlit office overlooking Wenatchee’s modern community centre complex, Goodwin picks up a yellow legal pad. In the foliage of a crudely drawn tree, he prints words like “sex,” “violence,” and “eating”— areas in which his clients have problems. Goodwin labels the trunk of his metaphorical tree “depression,” and continues: “Now, let’s put Prozac in the root feeder.” He adds

what looks like a hypodermic needle to his sketch. “Now everything begins to change.” Reflecting on his own experience, Goodwin volunteers that, until he began taking the drug, “I was hypersexual.” Under its influence, he says that he has been able to contain his impulses. “It was such a relief,” he adds.

In fact, Goodwin maintains that using Prozac would make three-quarters of the population “healthier.” Comparing the effects to that of eyeglasses, he calls SSRIs “lenses for our central nervous system” that allow people “to think much more clearly.” With amiable laughter, he acknowledges that his view echoes drug guru Timothy Leary’s advice to Americans of the Vietnam era to expand their minds by using LSD. “Tim Leary,” he says, “was a fine psychologist, but he went off the deep end.”

Heidi Summers claims that the same is now true of Goodwin. Directed by a court order in September, 1992, to seek mediation in a dispute with her ex-husband over access to their two children, she went to see Goodwin. The encounter shocked Summers, a music teacher and church organist. “He would not discuss my children at all,” she recalls. “He wanted to know about my sex life.” Summers says that on their first encounter, Goodwin diagnosed her as suffering from a major de| pression and insisted that u she seek a prescription for % Prozac. Now 30 and remarié ried, Summers objects: “I didn’t need pills to decide whether my kids should

come home at five or at seven.” Summers lodged a complaint against Goodwin with the Washington Examining Board of Psychology.

Goodwin must appear at a public hearing in Wenatchee scheduled for late September to respond to the complaints against him. But on the central charge—that he relies too heavily on diagnoses of depression and is too quick to recommend Prozac—the married father of two teenage boys is unrepentant. “If I put out a good product and people are healthier and happier, that’s fine by me,” he maintains. “I don’t mind being Dr. Feelgood.”

CHRIS WOOD in Wenatchee