Columns / Discourse / November 2, 2011

Voice of Reason: The psychiatric numbing of America

Last year I received exactly one letter to the editor about this column. It was not the week I accused Republicans of having a less intelligent defense policy than Lady Gaga, nor the week I advocated legalizing methamphetamines, but the week I dared suggest mental illness may have played a role in last year’s shootings in Tucson, thus providing an intriguing look at what gets Knox students riled up.

I however, am undeterred, and this week I’m crossing the mental health Rubicon once again, this time to talk about anti-depressants. To put it succinctly, there are too many Americans on Prozac, Zoloft and their numerous cousins.

In 2002, about 25 million Americans took one of these drugs at least once, the majority of whom had no diagnosed mental health problem and received them from doctors who were not psychiatrists. This “worried well,” to use the phrase of Charles Barber’s “Comfortably Numb,” whose numbers I am using, make up about eight percent of the population, though the number of Americans who have ever taken such drugs may be as high as 80 million.

Yet curiously, the U.S. Surgeon General reports that only 2.6 percent of the American public suffers from any mental illness, let alone a condition that Prozac and Co. is approved to treat. To make the figures even more suspect, the Surgeon General also found that about half of Americans with serious mental illness were not receiving any treatment at all.

These numbers clearly reveal a massive gap between who is in need of these drugs and who is actually taking them, which should be provoking far more alarm than it is.

Why this discrepancy? To start with, there has been a massive push to free the wonder drugs from their approved uses to treat such conditions such as shyness that were once considered outside the purvey of psychiatry. A University of Georgia study found that as many as 75 percent of antidepressant prescriptions were written for uses that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Why? Because it’s incredibly profitable.

“Big Pharma” has realized that anti-depressants are, in the words of Barber, “The most profitable product in the most profitable industry in the most profitable country in the world.” It should come as no surprise that they are marketed like crazy as a result.

It is tremendously easy to put the blame all on the big corporations, but most of these pills are hardly being forced down people’s throats. A good chunk of the blame lies in the American happiness cult.

As early as the 1970s the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorized that the old Freudian superego, bastion of law, religion and morality, now demanded instead constant enjoyment of life. Society now demands that everyone should be happy all the time. Shyness and general melancholy are not personality traits now, but imperfections that must be wiped out chemically. Those who don’t feel their lives are fairy tales now do not just accept that life isn’t always great, but rather that something is wrong with them that requires a chemical solution.

Not shockingly, the World Health Organization found 26 percent of Americans believe themselves to have a mental illness, compared to about eight percent of Italians and five percent of Nigerians, putting American at the head of the world list. Either the United States is the worst place in the world to live, or there is something else rotten in the states of America.

Luckily, the remedy for this all is very simple: If a qualified psychiatrist hasn’t diagnosed you with a mental problem, you should assume you probably don’t have one, and thus don’t need to harass your family doctor just because you saw the happy Zoloft blob’s life get better on TV.

Happy blobs don’t get side effects, but humans suffer from such unhappy side effects as sexual dysfunction, insomnia, anorexia and heightened suicide risk. Hopefully we can one day reach a point where the threat of those is enough for Americans to leave the psychiatry to the professionals.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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