Harm: The Drug of Choice

Aphorism #1: Take everything with a grain of salt.

I remember back in the early nineties when the internet was beginning to take off, there were internet safety classes with delightful puns like ‘Get Street Smart on the Information Super Highway.’ No one says ‘information super highway’ anymore, but I somehow retained the hardy and cautious cynicism that was encouraged at the seminars. That said, when I was asked to produce an article on alternatives to psychiatric drugs I went to the internet first.

There is a site called Prozac Survivor devoted to collecting and sharing information on anti-depressant use. Available on Prozac Survivor is a list of adverse reactions reported by patients using Prozac and similar drugs. Among the collection of physical reactions such as nausea, loss of appetite, rashes, breathing or lung problems were stand-out reactions such as: “mood swings; altered personality,” “pulling away from loved ones and others (isolating oneself),” “wanting to ram other cars or driving irrationally” (my personal favourite), and other notable reactions such as mania and psychosis.

Depression is a real condition and one that can have damaging and long-term effects on people’s lives. In the late nineties it was being touted as the ‘Plague of the 21st Century,’ but as I look at the spectre of Bird Flu and the ongoing destruction of HIV/AIDs in Africa I find that claim dubious. However, it is said that that 9.5 percent of the US population aged 18 and older in a given year, have a depressive disorder. In the end, that’s a huge number of people.

It is because of this social and psychiatric prevalence of clinical depression that it is so worrying. The most popular treatments, namely anti-depressants such as Prozac, are known to cause such varied and sometimes ironic symptoms in its users. Prozac Survivor’s list of ‘adverse reactions’ demonstrates that Prozac is clearly not a healthy option for everyone. However, it is increasingly easy to get a prescription for anti-depressants. I have heard of people being offered some form of anti-depressant after one appointment with a doctor.

Aphorism #2: Do no harm.

The idea that medical professionals would be dealing with the rising numbers of depression cases by proverbially throwing mud at the wall is disconcerting. While Prozac may work with some people, it seems unrealistic to think that one medication can handle all the physical and mental aspects of depression.

The causes of depression are wide and varied. The physical roots of depression have been found in nutritional deficiencies, Hypoglycaemia, Candida (yeast infection), AIDS and Multiple sclerosis, just to name a few. This completely excludes the myriad social, economic, and personal elements in play as well. There is no one universal cause of depression.

Merely blocking a patient’s reuptake of norepinephrine and serotonin at the nerve endings shows a willingness to use a one-fold solution to deal with a complex and multifaceted disorder. Simply disarming neurotransmitters cannot be considered an adequate and universal cure. In some cases, a ‘chemical imbalance’ may be the cause of their depression but reordering the chemical makeup of the brain can be dangerous when less drug-awayable problems are afoot in parts of the body other than the brain. It is like taking the batteries out of a smoke alarm.

The French writer Sébastien-Roch Nicolas De Chamfort once said that medicine has plenty of drugs, few good remedies, and hardly any specific cures. In the case of the spectre of depression it seems a valid point that there are no absolute conclusions in medical science. In which case I refer you to aphorism #1.