At this late date, the attribution to the widely used “anti-depression” drug Prozac of a role in the recent murders in Red Lake, Minnesota, should not surprise. The young shooter had recently had an increase in the dosage of this drug, and its role in both incidents of violence and suicide -- especially among young people -- is well-documented. Despite bland assurances by the pharmaceutical firm manufacturing and marketing this emotional dynamite, there can be no “appropriate recommendation” for a drug that did not complete the clinical trials required by law, and that was approved by a panel primarily consisting of persons with ties to the very industry that produced it. All the more damning is the fact that this chemical -- the precise neurological function of which is not even understood by contemporary science -- performed barely better than a sugar placebo in some of its FDA trials.
The by-now infamous rhapsodizing by the pharmaceutical industry’s de facto mouthpiece, Dr. Peter Kramer, takes on an unintended and ghoulish cast when set alongside the procession of murders (here, here, and here), suicides, physical dependence, and less well-documented human tragedies directly tied to the use of this “wonder drug.” What has become of a society that risks not only its mental health, but life itself in order to achieve drugged “happiness”? There is a grim paradox in the pandemic prescription of drugs for “emotional problems” that used to be treated by human concern, companionship, talk, and love. Psychological suffering has not been banished in the manner suggested by Peter Kramer’s idiotic rhapsodizing; instead, it has simply been transformed into a disease mediated by corporate profits, trials, and official denials.
Brave New World Addiction
While the events at Red Lake constitute the most current Prozac headline, there is a greater issue that frames this ostensibly isolated occurrence, which the mainstream media predictably portray as unrelated to corporate practices and products. The widespread, governmentally approved use of drugs to cope with the pain of life in a toxic society is now a major feature of all “advanced” societies. In Great Britain, where Prozac is so widely used that it can now be detected in routine tests of drinking water, one wonders how much the widespread addiction to chemical happiness plays a role in the acceptance of politicians’ bland lies and a widely unpopular war. Here in the “individualist” United States, the corporate version of mental health would seem a perfect fit with the privatization of suffering, a personal problem with neither social origins nor any activist vector. Given that more than $100 billion is spent each year in the pursuit of “mental health,” it seems reasonable to ask whether social investment of such a huge sum might not produce better results. Wouldn’t universal health care, paid college tuition, and restored social safety nets do at least as much for human wellbeing as the private consumption of chemicals and also reduce violent reactions and suicide?
Posing this question produces the answer that reveals the political vector at the root of the Prozac syndrome: the one crucial thing lacking in such an approach is the profit and increasing power of the pharmaceutical corporations and their de facto subsidiaries such as The American Psychological Association. It is the economic wellbeing of the drug manufacturers that deflects social spending into the realm of atomized mini-solutions. While taking substances such as Prozac contribute to a sensation of personal empowerment, they contribute nothing toward the resolution of human problems. The private “triumph of the will” that such drugs simulate is, in a social context, a breakdown and failure of human beings to care for each other.
That is the greater tragedy of Red Lake, located on a reservation where Native Americans live in conditions of routine deprivation and economic depression.
When compared with other groups, the commission found that Indians of all ages are 670 percent more likely to die from alcoholism, 650 percent more likely to die from tuberculosis, 318 percent more likely to die from diabetes, and 204 percent more likely to suffer accidental death. (“Red Lake shooter's bleak portrait of reservation life was accurate,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.com, March 25, 2005)
Unlike the private, interior event that receives so much attention and expense, this is a depression we could certainly cure, if only the political will were present to do so. We cannot save our children from a world that does not care for them by giving them drugs; the solution is not chemical insulation that correspondingly dissolves conscience and compassion, but investment in social structures that provide effective voice and role for these critical human qualities. That is the meaning and message of Red Lake.
Dan Raphael has been an activist since the Vietnam war was heating up, and is a member of the Green Party of the United States.
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