Prozac RevolutionMay 27th, 2009

As many as one in five adult Americans may now be taking antidepressant drugs. The most popular of these medications alter brain chemistry in a way that makes life seem generally more pleasant. Prozac and a half-dozen related formulations, called SSRI’s, are so effective in the relief of psychological misery that their introduction in the 1990’s was heralded as a revolution. Today, these drugs, nearly as addictive as narcotics, remove some or all of the pain of every day living for a huge proportion of the medically insured population, but the revolution that comes with mass medication may extend beyond mental hygiene.

We’ve all wondered how a nation of seemingly well-functioning citizens could have gotten itself into such a mess in so short a time. During the years of the Prozac revolution, we’ve lived out a delusion that we could grow without limit, pollute without interruption, and win any war, and we’ve injured the nation and made the rich much richer and ourselves much poorer in the process. Could it be that the apathy and laziness of thought that allowed us to get sheared and plucked in this way are simply the natural political consequence of drug-induced contentment?

Those who still depend on non-wonderdrugs for mood enhancement have been surprised by the complacency of the vast majority of our neighbors. Faced with military disaster, national humiliation, the constant threat of unemployment, and the collapse of culture, they don’t seem to be upset. How did “I’m not going to take it anymore!” get transformed into “What, me worry?” Maybe it was the Prozac revolution.

There are several rare conditions that leave people unable to experience pain. They are very destructive conditions. If you ever bit your cheek after a dental procedure, you know how much damage you can inflict under anesthetic, without even knowing it. Pain keeps you from harming yourself, and people with chronic loss of feeling typically break bones, sustain wounds, and die young. That might be what’s happening to us.

We may have dulled our collective capacity to feel psychological pain. That would be lethal for self-government, which depends on the acute sensitivity of citizens to the social and political climate that surrounds them. When we become unable to make the critical decisions that determine our fate, others will make them for us, and, exploiting our stupor, they’ll loot our belongings while they’re at it.

We may have made ourselves numb to the pain that ought to accompany the stranding of soldiers in dangerous places, the incessant blare of advertising, the bombing of children, the failure of the world economy, the imprisonment and torture of innocents, and the desperation of so many families near and far, not to mention the high probability of an environmental catastrophe not long after most of us are due to expire.

Antidepressants make it possible for us to continue as if things were fine. Ensuring that things will get worse. But that’s OK.