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2/23/10

What We Have Come To: Big Pharma, & Psychiatry


Back when my father had heartburn, he drank water, maybe with a little baking soda. Sometimes it went away, sometimes it didn't. If not, he lived with it until he felt better. Commercials nowadays treat it as a medical disorder. First there were Alka-Seltzer ads with somebody groaning "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Now you are urged to visit your physician who might diagnose your problem as gastroesophageal reflux disease (“Ask your doctor whether you might be suffering from GERD”). Or maybe you are diagnosed as needing Zantac.

Pharmaceuticals have become big business. This is not news. Another change, though, has not been trumpeted. I refer to the medicalization of mood and personality. Today, if you are shy you suffer from a psychiatric disorder. Never mind that shyness is a common personality trait. The psychiatric industry has a new view of normalcy as driven by our aggressive, competitive society. But you find shyness as a virtue among certain American Indian tribes. These Indians think of it as not wanting to steal attention from another.

The psychiatric bible, the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, reflects the politics of each era. It once identified homosexuality as "sociopathic personality disorder," but that category has been deleted partly because of pressure from gay-rights groups. Veteran's groups lobbied to have post-traumatic stress disorder included. Self-defeating personality disorder was lobbied against by women’s groups, and was deleted.

Then there is depression. Today, few scientists accept that it is caused by a lack of serotonin. Yet, that is what Big Pharma would have the public believe. Some suspect that Big Pharma cooked the studies to validate antidepressants as safe and effective, and that the Food and Drug Administration has too easily approved them.

At one time melancholy and despair were viewed as existential problems. Sophocles said that wisdom is the residue of suffering. Now an existential dilemma has been pathologized. Take a pill and you'll feel better. Rather like the soma pills in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. (I acknowledge that some people are depressed profoundly beyond an existential dilemma.) More

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