There are some stories I don't really want to write up because the subject is sickening. This is one of those. Let's look at Kaitlin Bell Barnett's Growing Up Drugged, which appeared last Saturday in Salon. It's a book excerpt, so the story wanders around more than I would have liked. I've tried to select some choice bits to quote.
For the first time in history, millions of young Americans ... have grown up taking psychotropic medications that have shaped their experiences and relationships, their emotions and personalities and, perhaps most fundamentally, their very sense of themselves. In “Listening to Prozac,” psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s best-selling meditation on the drug’s wide-ranging impact on personality, Kramer said that “medication rewrites history.” He was referring to the way people interpret their personal histories once they have begun medication; what they thought was set in stone was now open to reevaluation. What, then, is medication’s effect on young people, for whom there is much less history to rewrite? Kramer published his book in 1993, at a time of feverish — and, I think, somewhat excessive — excitement about Prozac and the other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants, or SSRIs, that quickly followed on its heels and were heralded as revolutionary treatments for a variety of psychiatric problems.
... All told, the psychopharmacological revolution of the last quarter century has had a vast impact on the lives and outlook of my generation — the first generation to grow up taking psychotropic medications. It is therefore vital for us to look at how medication has changed what it feels like to grow up and to become an adult. Our society is not used to thinking about the fact that so many young people have already spent their formative years on pharmaceutical treatment for mental illness. Rather, we focus on the here-and-now, wringing our hands about “overmedicated kids.” We debate whether doctors, parents, and teachers rely too heavily on meds to pacify or normalize or manage the ordinary trials of childhood and adolescence.
My cohort lives with some powerful contradictions. On the one hand, we have grown up with the idea that prolonged sadness, attention problems, obsessions and compulsions, and even shyness are brain diseases that can—and ought—to be treated with medication, just as a bodily disease like diabetes ought to be treated with insulin. The 1990s, sometimes called “the Decade of the Brain,” encompassed a period of unprecedented growth in understanding how the brain works, which generated enormous enthusiasm about the prospects for discovering the underlying mechanisms behind mental illness, enthusiasm that many say was overwrought and premature.
My peers and I lived through — had indeed been the vanguard of — the psychopharmacological revolution. Prozac was not the first of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants, but it was the first to hit the U.S. market, gaining FDA approval at the end of 1987. Thanks to national education campaigns trumpeting depression as a major public health issue and few other new psychiatric drugs being introduced, Prozac made a huge splash. Other SSRIs such as Zoloft and Paxil followed a few years later...
Starting in the early 1990s, new kinds of antipsychotic medications were released. Originally used for schizophrenia, these “atypical antipsychotics” were increasingly prescribed to stabilize the mood swings of childhood bipolar disorder and to quell irritability associated with autism and behavior disorders. Longer-acting formulations of the stimulant Ritalin, which had been used in children since the 1950s, appeared, as did other drugs for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
By the mid-1990s, the prescribing of psychotropic drugs to children was front-page news in major newspapers. When I entered college in 2001, college counseling centers were reporting an overwhelming influx of patients, including growing numbers who arrived at school with a long history of mental illness and medication.
OK, that's enough. There's plenty more I left out. If you want more, go over to Salon to read Kaitlin's article in its entirety.
I view the over-medicating of America's young people as an unmitigated disaster. We have grown up with the idea that prolonged sadness ... can—and ought—to be treated with medication, just as a bodily disease like diabetes ought to be treated with insulin. If you're sad, there's usually a good reason for it. That cause very likely lies in your external environment. It is not likely to be due to an inherent chemical imbalance in the brain unless that imbalance has an environmental cause. Prolonged sadness is likely telling you that something in your life has gone horribly wrong. And why are more and more kids "diagnosed" with attention deficit disorders? And autism? And then given huge doses of medications at an early age which even fully-formed adults would be wary of?
Are we really supposed to believe that earlier generations had these high incidences of mental disorders but they remained undiagnosed? You've got to be kidding me. No way.
Let's boil this down as far as possible. There are two possible explanations, and neither is good.
The diagnoses are mostly correct. That points to an environmental cause, which may be physical, psychological, or some complex combination of the two.
The diagnoses are mostly incorrect. In this case we are medicating millions of young people only because of our desire to manipulate their behavior. And in doing so, we have created a generation of brain-damaged prescription drug addicts.
There is plenty of blame to go around. There are the evil pharmaceutical companies which push these drugs. There are the evil Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) who are eager and willing to pay for the quick fix. There are the doctors (mostly pediatricians) who prescribe these medications. There are the teachers who are glad to see "problem children" in the classroom on drugs. There are the parents who often push for drug-based solutions to the slightest "problem" with their super-competitve child. And finally there is the disaster which is called American "culture"—I am using that term loosely—in which the preferred solution to any real or perceived problem is always the market-based "technological" solution, in this case psychotropic medications for young people whose brains are not fully developed.
This story fills me with nausea and disgust. I don't want to keep writing it. I've made all the important points I wanted to make except for one.
We have arrived in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World right on schedule. Maybe if all these young people weren't so heavily dosed on these drugs, they would realize that the "consumer" society in which they live is totally sick, completely screwed-up, a physical and psychological disaster for them and every other "happy" participant.
And that's all I have to say.
Bonus Video — Another Brick In The Wall