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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Schubart: Depression

Seventy per cent of all Americans are taking some form of prescription medication, and ten per cent of them are on anti-depressants. Among women between 40 and 50, the number is twenty-five percent. In fact, antidepressant use has quadrupled in just the last thirty years. This may be partly because Pharma spent 240 million dollars last year lobbying Congress to deter regulation and competition, three billion marketing to consumers and twenty-four billion marketing drugs to health care professionals. And we just gobble them up, spending $330B in 2013 or about $1000 for every American.

But finally, Pharma’s highly selective publication of research trials on the effectiveness of anti-depressants is coming under scrutiny. In an official 2017 statement, the United Nations concluded that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes that must be abandoned.” And it goes on to suggest that we move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances’ to focusing more on “power imbalances” since much of what we now call “depression” may simply be the normal emotional response to poverty, powerlessness, and abuse.

Real pain serves a purpose in our lives, it warns us that something’s wrong, either physically or situationally. So it’s important to distinguish between the pathology of a clinical mental disorder and simple grief, and begin treating the root causes of our grief rather than medicating it.

Our compulsion to swallow a pill for every discomfort we encounter denies the human condition. All religions and philosophies acknowledge the existence of pain and suffering as an integral, and often restorative, part of life. But we’ve come to prefer to medicate our grief, loneliness, situational anxiety, or discouragement as “depression.” And this makes us complicit in our own addiction.

Pharma markets physical and emotional pain relief and we eagerly consume it. The plague of addiction includes opiates but also extends well beyond. It’s become cultural, enriching Pharma and impoverishing us as humans.

As William Blake said 200 years ago:
“Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the World we safely go.”

Update 2/13/2018 The audio version of this commentary has been updated.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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