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Book of Matthew: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of healthcare, part 2

Published: January 23, 2009
Section: Opinions


the_hoot_1-23-09final_page_04_image_0002In Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World, the government of the World State, in an effort to keep order, distributes a drug known as soma to the general public. A pacifying, hallucinogenic drug, soma is popular among citizens and is taken regularly as a means to combat unhappiness or—with a high enough dose—to send the user into a hallucinogenic state known as a “soma-holiday.”

Huxley’s soma is, of course, fictional. But its description always reminds me of very real antidepressants, such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil. Like soma, antidepressants were originally developed in order to help people live happier lives. They are popular drugs: readily prescribed by doctors, heavily advertised, and taken by 11 percent of American women and 5 percent of American men. But unlike soma, antidepressants are not perfect drugs. Quite the contrary. While citizens in Brave New World can take their daily ration of soma without any harmful side effects, real people who take antidepressants take a serious risk with every pill.

Before I argue against the usage of antidepressants, I would first like to say a few words about depression. This, however, is not an easy thing to do. Depression is a mysterious condition, one that has plagued humans throughout our existence, yet one that we still barely understand. As far as scientists and doctors can tell, depression can be caused by any number of factors, including physiological reasons (such as a neurochemical or hormonal imbalance), or the result of a traumatic experience (such as post-traumatic stress disorder).

The symptoms of depression, on the other hand, are slightly clearer because they are easier to observe. Those who suffer from depression tend to experience bouts of misery, despair, exhaustion, feelings of guilt, anxiety, lack of interest in activities once enjoyed, difficulty sleeping, lack of confidence, difficulty thinking clearly, withdrawal from social situations, and even physical aches and pains.

If this list sounds like a generic list of symptoms from a medical website, that is because A) it is, and B) due to the varying nature of depression, everyone who experiences it feels symptoms with different degrees of severity.

In short, depression is difficult and complex. There is no way around that. But do the available drugs live up to the task?

The most common types of antidepressants on the market today are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The job of these drugs, as their title suggests, is to delay the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter: a chemical used to relay signals between a neuron and another cell, and helps to control mood. “Reuptake” refers to the process by which serotonin is either destroyed by an enzyme or taken back by its cell after being released. By delaying reuptake, SSRIs temporarily maintain serotonin levels and, in theory, control mood.

There is a problem with this theory, however. It is based on shaky scientific data. While people who suffer from depression do tend to have lower levels of serotonin, recent studies have shown that these lower levels are simply another symptom of depression, rather than its cause. This means that most modern antidepressants act not as a cure for depression, but as a pharmaceutical “band-aid,” which merely covers up its effects.

While there is nothing wrong with relieving symptoms, many people who take antidepressants find that the harmful side effects of the drugs outweigh the benefits of relief. Some of these people, out of frustration, abruptly cease taking the drugs, and subsequently suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms, which in many cases end up being worse than their original depression symptoms.

There are, of course, those who can take these drugs and feel some improvement, but a question still remains: what are the consequences of artificially adjusting the chemical composition of our delicate brains over a period of time? This question has not yet been answered, and is not likely to be for some time because, quite frankly, the profit-driven pharmaceutical companies who manufacture antidepressants have shown little interests in carrying out long-term tests and exposing results that may end up harming their profit margins.

Luckily, there are other ways to combat depression that bypass the pharmaceutical industry altogether. Therapy can help many people release pent-up emotions that may have been causing them stress. But even simpler solutions are diet changes and increased exercise, both of which are proven to improve a person’s mental state. And let’s face it, in our overweight, unhealthy society, better food and more exercise couldn’t hurt.

In short readers, I will leave you with a warning. Depression is indeed a serious affliction, and I’m sure that all of you, particularly here on a college campus, know somebody who has suffered from its effects. But while some will say that a serious affliction demands serious treatment, and therefore requires the use of drugs, I believe that the risk is too great. Depression is too complicated to simply throw a cure-all, miracle drug at. It requires individual attention and, above all, patience. Although I do not pretend to be a medical expert (or even a med-student), I do believe it is fair for me to advocate a little caution.