Safe spaces are in vogue at the moment, and not only on the Left. Certain bastions of conservative thought also shy away from topics and personalities to whom their readership might have an aversion. But on occasion, someone otherwise spacey and wrong says something worth noting, and that happened recently with the Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. (You might recall her for having previously stated that she looked forward to “meeting President Trump on a ‘field of love.’”) Williamson tweeted something that’s long overdue for discussion: antidepressant drugs and how they’re “over-prescribed” in America.
Almost all of us have suffered through a terrible experience—losing a spouse, a home, a career, parents, or, worst of all, children. It is terrible to know that your child is suffering, either emotionally or from physical pain. And to lose that child in death is worst of all. Many are tempted to simply make the pain go away by denying the experience altogether. That makes many of us an easy mark for anyone selling painkillers that let us deny our suffering.
Humane researchers have tried to make this a reality. Drug companies have piggybacked for their own reasons. And some prescribers have joined in.
I lost a husband in the prime of my life; my children lost their father as teenagers. After it happened, I felt a bottomless hole opening, made all the worse by the fact that we had spent so much of our daily lives together, working side by side, homeschooling our children, enjoying pastimes, sharing books we were reading as well as our love of music and art, and, perhaps most of all, talking endlessly about ideas. Suddenly life went silent and felt empty. Not even its practical urgencies could take away this gaping void. Well-meaning friends called on me. Some suggested I get a prescription” to “get over” depression and blot out the sharp edges, to “get on” with life and leave the past behind. I knew they meant well, wanted to help, but it was insulting to suggest that I could forget, that a pill could “fix” all that and make me “feel better.”
I rejected the idea as politely as I could. I didn’t need to blot out our loss, or put the dire situation in which it had placed us in the background. I found that family ties and the affection from our little dog did far more to console me than a pill possibly could. Instead I did my best to find ways to help our kids through those days with things that had some meaning, such as encouraging them to write.
I once worked as a secretary at a psychological clinic. The psychologists there counseled people of all ages: some specialized in very young clients, some in adults who had suffered trauma, some in seniors. One of the prevailing attitudes among them was a determination to get to the roots of problems rather than simply prescribe drugs. They took satisfaction in spending time with patients, helping them work through the issues that had brought them into pain and depression. Only a very few were referred to psychiatrists for treatment, which would have meant hospitalization and/or drugs.
A few years later, I went to work for another such clinic, which had been started by some of the people I’d previously worked with. But they’d added something. Now, there were two nurse practitioners on staff, who had taken coursework and become qualified to prescribe drugs. The pattern was different—the psychologists were mainly there to refer patients to the nurse practitioners.
I transcribed a lot of case notes. I looked up a lot of drug names. Between these tasks, I began to put two and two together. The drug descriptions tended to scare the daylights out of me, and the case notes showed that almost every client was absolutely dependent on them. In the spring, people would come in to set up their summer appointments before planning vacations—they couldn’t risk missing a prescription.
I would never suggest that under no circumstances should some miracle drug be tried to relieve acute physical or psychological problems—and neither did Marianne Williamson. But I agree wholeheartedly that they should not be the immediate go-to when we are sad or discouraged or disappointed with our lives, or are coping with loss or trauma.
One of the first major drug “breakthroughs” was Prozac. Prozac acts like a stimulant but masks depression. Two books should be mentioned here: Listening to Prozac by Peter D. Kramer, wherein the author promotes the wonder drug, suggesting it as the answer to some of the great problems of human psychology; and Talking Back to Prozac by Peter and Ginger Breggins, in which the authors analyze and raise questions about the drug’s approval process, questioning what it might mean in terms of public safety. Examining their case histories and side effects, Prozac seems fatally flawed, undeserving of the public’s confidence.
For the last several years or so, many of our mass murder episodes have been perpetrated by those who have been on psychotropic drugs, either antidepressants or drugs for attention deficit disorder. (Even drugs to quit smoking can be harmful, such as Chantix, which is 18 times more likely to be linked with violence compared to other drugs, according to Time.) These drugs are being prescribed, urged on parents by frustrated schoolteachers, with the acquiescence of those who stand to make profits, all without regard to the side effects that can emerge in shocking ways.
One side effect, or intended effect, is that the patient becomes “disconnected”—loses his capacity for empathy. This, apparently, is one way to numb him against psychological pain and depression. But it doesn’t bode well for the long term, whether in personal relationships, parenting, working, or socializing. And worst of all, it opens the door to a possible eruption of public violence in the future. This possibility alone should give us pause in accepting drugs as a solution to our pain.
All of which should remind us that everyone—even Marianne Williamson—can occasionally be right. Her comments touched on a real problem. Her focus was on antidepressants, but perhaps more significant are the ADD drugs that pre-K children are started on. One thing is certain: she opened a discussion we must have.
Sally Morris is a Minnesota writer and musician. Her articles have appeared in the Dakota Beacon, the New Americana, and the American Thinker, as well as her local newspaper, where she wrote a series of interviews with World War II veterans. When not writing, she is performing on the Celtic harp.