Emily Hill asks if miserabilist TV news, rising house prices and terror scares are the real reasons why so many Brits are reportedly scoffing down antidepressants.
Yesterday’s front-page splash in The Times (London) proclaimed that Britain is now ‘a Prozac nation’. ‘The number of Britons prescribed antidepressants is at a record high despite official warnings that many patients may not need them’, the paper reported.
Last year doctors wrote more than 31million prescriptions for antidepressant drugs, and while ‘the exact number of people taking pills for depression is not known’, it is ‘thought to be several million, with many taking the medications over long periods on repeat prescriptions’. The cost to the National Health Service of antidepressants was £291.5million. ‘Depression’, reported The Times, ‘is estimated to affect as many as one in five at some point during their lives. At any moment, 1.5million people aged between 16 and 75 are suffering from depression, and 2.7million from anxiety, although most cases are untreated’.
Yet is the problem here really antidepressants, some kind of ‘Prozac culture’? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the question of why so many people seem to believe that regular doses of drugs provide solutions to their problems?
Commenting on these reports, Libby Purves, in a piece subtitled ‘Hurray for Prozac. But it’s prescribed too easily’, compared the news that ‘Britain is on antidepressants’ to ‘hearing that a crutch-and-splint factory has doubled its profits. You’re glad all those people are being helped to walk upright, but wonder why so many are getting hurt.’ She agrees with a Times blogger that ‘drastically reducing the hours that television is broadcast would be a good place to start’ in combating depression, hailing this sort of ‘turn off the TV and DO something’ ethic as ‘simplistic but bracing’: ‘You can’t help noticing that these worried news items about depression are generally surrounded, in all media, by a sea of gloom about house prices, terrorism and new diseases, and further decorated with ridiculous stuff about “must-have” handbags and how contemptible it is to be a bit fat and not yet famous.’
If sitting in front of 24-hour television news and watching endless bulletins on how the planet is dying of climate change, while eating a comfort donut that the government’s ‘war against obesity’ has made you feel guilty about, is enough to trigger depression, then the real question is why all of us aren’t scoffing down Prozac.
In 2005, the last time the nation flew into a panic about the overuse of antidepressant drugs in the UK, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick argued on spiked that the reason depression is now so prevalent is that the diagnostic term has been altered. The term depression was ‘formerly restricted to patients so severely afflicted by melancholy that they might require hospital admission’, but is now ‘adapted to cover a wide range of responses to existential distress, resulting from workplace dissatisfaction, marital disharmony, bereavement or other losses’.
The real motivating factor behind our ‘Prozac nation’ is not the existence of new drugs or the willingness of doctors to dish them out or 24-hour TV cycles – it is that people are continually educated these days to identify their human grief, feelings of loneliness, heartbreak or simply anxiety at their own personal foibles as ‘depression’. Medicalising every problem and treating natural feelings as a form of mild psychosis has replaced the old framework of seeing problems as something to be overcome with the help of friends. In the past, individuals were encouraged to get through rough times in a pro-active way, through collectivity and community, whether by turning to their trade unions, churches, extended families or their mates in the local pub. As such institutions decline, and claims that everything we experience can be a cause of depression or mental illness are on the rise, it seems inevitable that people will turn to drugs for answers.
As Dr Fitzpatrick concluded: ‘Rather than now telling GPs to stop prescribing anti-depressants, it might be more constructive for doctors and psychiatrists to ask whether it is beneficial either to individuals or to society to label a quarter of the population as being mentally ill.’ Today’s ‘Prozac Nation’ is the outcome of the relentless medicalisation of everyday problems – and if we switched off these messages about everyone being screwed up (rather than our TVs) that might be a first step to helping people get off the antidepressant bandwagon.
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