In 1994, when Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote “Prozac Nation,” an autobiographical account of her struggles with severe depression, which was later adapted into a feature film under the same title, her story was considered an extreme case of a troubled life. What she described then, however, was already a widespread phenomenon that has now morphed into a national malaise and beyond.
Antidepressants and painkillers rank among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States today. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics published a report that identified about 11 percent of the American public as antidepressant users, a 400 percent increase since the 1980s when previous surveys were taken.
Worldwide, consumption of antidepressants has been dramatically on the rise over the past decade, and there are no signs of abating. On the contrary, the pharmaceutical industry predicts ever-increasing demands in the U.S. and globally.
According to the CDC report, people who take antidepressants do so not only to treat depression but also anxiety and other disorders in response to stress. In fact, about 8 percent of those taking antidepressant drugs had no current symptoms of depression at all.
Women between the ages of 40 and 59 make up the largest group of antidepressant drug users – about 23 percent. Females in general are more likely to take such medications than males; whites do it in greater numbers than other ethnicities; most users stay on antidepressants for two or more years; less than half ever seek professional help in form of hospitalization or counseling.
Experts have offered a wide range of explanations for the growing demand for psychotherapeutic drugs. The heightened economic struggles over the last few years have added substantially to the stress levels vast parts of the population are exposed to. In the media, pharmaceuticals of all kinds, including antidepressants, are aggressively marketed, and many insurance plans cover them. There is also suspicion that many doctors tend to over-diagnose when it comes to psychological disorders, even in cases where they appear to be temporary and mild in nature.
The truth is that antidepressant drugs are not harmless and can cause a number of unpleasant side effects, among them nausea, weight gain, loss of sexual desire and erectile dysfunction, insomnia, fatigue, agitation, suicidal thoughts, and even greater anxiety.
Experts recommend to switch between different types of antidepressant drugs if debilitating symptoms persist, but they also warn not to take such steps without consulting one’s physician.
Generally speaking, taking medications against depression or anxiety should not always be the first measure to find relief. A health-promoting lifestyle that includes eating a balanced diet, regular exercise, and enough sleep can be very helpful in dealing with many disturbances, both of body and mind. That does not mean to underestimate their seriousness, but at least it can provide a much-needed foundation for recovery.