University College London last week reported an astounding finding in the study of clinical depression. Researchers concluded “there remains no clear evidence that serotonin levels or serotonin activity are responsible for depression.” The longitudinal study spanning decades “suggests that depression is not likely caused by a chemical imbalance, and calls into question what antidepressants do.”
What’s more, “most antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which were originally said to work by correcting abnormally low serotonin levels. There is no other accepted pharmacological mechanism by which antidepressants affect the symptoms of depression.”
Although many have questioned the efficacy of antidepressants for years, this new revelation affirms some additional suspicions. Do we really ever stop and ask why so many people feel the need to take antidepressants and are we completely at peace with possibly changing the chemical makeup of the bodies and minds of people?
The United States is the world leader in the use of antidepressants (1 in 6 Americans is prescribed some form of antidepressant) with Iceland and Denmark following close behind. Are Americans really that depressed or are significant numbers of them being persuaded by the drug companies and advertisements to take the “elixir” that will give them freedom from pain?
We’ve all seen the commercials: “depression hurts,” they say, often showing people in a disheveled state, presumably suffering from anhedonia. They can’t find pleasure in anything, least of all in their daily lives and relationships. But then, the miracle drug is prescribed to save the day. The people are happier and walk with a pep in their step.
Amazingly enough, they don’t even live in the same garbage dump of a house now that they’ve taken an antidepressant. Suddenly, they live in houses by the lake or by the sea; they frolic with their dogs or kiss their cats; they play tennis or ride a bike. Maybe they just needed to get rid of that ’70s wood paneling junking up the old house? That and the formica countertops would make anyone depressed.
Ask your doctor if this drug is right for you, although it’s not clear why you should talk to your doctor about a drug, the possible side effects of which include nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and worst of all, thoughts of suicide and suicide itself. Isn’t that proof enough that an antidepressant may not be as effective as advertised?
And if your current antidepressant is causing you to imagine jumping off of Brooklyn Bridge or it’s just not enough, there’s a pill for that, too. The side effects for this one are even worse, and include stroke, weight gain, and involuntary body movements.
How is it that despite the full disclosure of the side effects by the drug companies, people still rush to take antidepressants? For most, the result is just a numbness to the world as well as to their interior lives. There is no reason to examine life since the drug has essentially made you “dead” to the world, and you operate in a perpetual fog. Even if the drug proves to be helpful for a time, why have people become convinced that it is something that must be taken for the rest of their lives?
What complicates the issue of antidepressant usage in the United States is that most people who consume the pills are not even bothering to see a therapist. A primary reason for that is that they have been told that it all comes down to this supposed chemical imbalance in their brain, and that the environment, family life, work, or past have nothing to do with their feelings of depression.
This is why the research conducted at University College London is so important. Although the researchers did not get into possible existential issues caused by antidepressants or whether Big Pharma has been lying to people for decades about the efficacy of these antidepressants, the results suggest some pretty clear implications. For many people, it turns out that the reason they are depressed rests on the fact that their life choices have created problems that they just don’t want to face. In other words, they are looking for a way to escape feeling any sadness or pain.
Avoidance of pain is a hallmark of modern, Western society. People want to feel happy all the time without bothering to understand that happiness does not necessarily mean cheeriness. It’s something deeper and more meaningful than that. A life without sadness would also be a life without joy. When smart phone applications became available, Apple ran an advertising campaign boasting the slogan, “There’s an app for that.” It comes from the same impulse as “there’s a pill for that.” People want a quick, easy, and on-demand solution to the problems that need to be addressed with some soul searching or critical reflection.
Life is not life without experience, and that includes all of its facets. If we do not desire to feel alive, then we are just a disembodied mess. In Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, “Wings of Desire,” we witness two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, roaming around Berlin, a city divided by the Wall. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is an angel who finds beauty in looking out for people. He sees their weaknesses and frailties as signs of truth and beauty, and he desires the same human fate for himself.
Cassiel thinks that Damiel is crazy for desiring to be human but Damiel pays no attention to that. He makes a choice to leave his angelic existence and chooses mortality. In the moment when he falls to Earth, he is hit on the head with his angelic armor, and the first thing he feels is pain. He’s also slightly bleeding, yet he is fascinated by this.
All of the pain is worth it for Damiel if it means to taste the coffee, smell the air, see the graffiti adorning the Wall, and most of all, fall in love. He does come to feel pain and sadness but he never lapses into despair. Similarly, Western society demands to free itself from pain but such freedom is always just an illusion. Our lives demand attention, and sometimes painful reflection. This is something no pill or an app can provide.