Put On a Happy Face
The latest news on anti-depressants is a bit depressing. Neuroscience Magazine reports that the major drugs likely treat stress rather than clinical depression, and the serotonin they’re trying to increase may be located in another part of the brain. Independent studies suggest that anti-depressants work only modestly better than placebos.
The news hasn’t stopped the anti-depressant juggernaut: 120 million pills were dispensed last year in the U.S., a new record. There was a time when Prozac stood alone; today it has at least a dozen well-funded competitors. But it still ranks high in sales and was good enough for Anna Nicole Smith and her dog Sugarpie, as well as Anthony Soprano.
As a best-seller declared, we are, for better or worse, a Prozac Nation. It’s hard to believe it all began just over 20 years ago.
“Eternal Sunshine.” “Happiness in a blister pack.” “Neurological Eldorado.” Within two years of hitting the market in 1988, American doctors scribbled an astonishing 65,000 prescriptions a month. Baby Boomers gobbled them up.
Before Prozac, one treated depression with the proverbial stiff upper lip. Or tranquilizers, usually Valium. Easier, a trip to your favorite tavern. The few anti-depressants available were dispensed in “mental hospitals,” usually located on the outskirts of town, and could have serious side effects.
Prozac failed at just about everything before becoming a wonder drug:
- An anti-obesity agent—ineffective
- To alleviate psychosis—a worsening of symptoms
- For high blood pressure—marginally helpful
“What’s left?” frustrated researchers wondered. “You know, that last test group seemed pretty darn cheerful.”
Eli Lily, the lucky patent monopolist, distributed eight million brochures and 200,000 pre-introduction posters. UPS trucks worked overtime to deliver physician samples. Eager consumers asked for it by name from day one. Soon, Prozac for children appeared and a beef-flavored version for animals.
Prozac did more than relieve depression—it delivered a sense of “well-being.” People bopped around resurrecting the James Brown ditty “I Feel Good!” Called a “facelift for the character,” no wonder commentators suggested spiking the drinking water. In fact, scientists report that many urban reservoirs today contain significant traces.
Not all was “eternal sunshine” and roses. A few patients committed suicide. Lawyers used a “Prozac defense” to explain criminal behavior, including mass murder. Pundits blamed Prozac for social mediocrity—jokes circulated about users mindlessly watching boring TV and wearing smiley faces.
A common side effect—reduced sex drive—would soon be counteracted by another modern miracle drug, Viagra.
Currently, there’s a laundry list of anti-depressants but Prozac remains the public symbol of the industry.