The consequences of psychiatric medication on recent generations
Psychiatric medications, while life-saving for some, have had some unintended, but significantly detrimental outcomes to many others.
Around 1954, the world as we knew it changed when clorpromazine (better known by its trade name: Thorazine) hit the market. Prior to this time, most psychiatric patients experiencing severe symptoms were relegated to institutions for most, if not all of their lives. Although there had been treatment for severe psychiatric conditions prior to 1954, they were harsh and, at times, abusive and torturous. The discovery that Thorazine could reduce many of the symptoms experienced by significantly mentally ill individuals revolutionized the mental health field, psychiatric practice and changed our overall approach to understanding the cause of mental illness.
In the decades that followed Thorazine’s deep impact, research and practice innovations explored additional medicines that impacted many parts of the human psyche. Drugs like Lithium seemed to temper the extreme high moods associated with manic-depression (now called Bipolar Disorder) and Imipramine had initial promise to lift the cowering lows of depression. Just over 30 years after Thorazine revolutionized mental healthcare, a new generation of medications arose with Prozac leading the way and continuing the lofty promise of a cure. In addition to the hope of controlling prevalent illnesses like depression, Prozac and its cousins also promised fewer of the dangerous side effects the earlier generations carried.
Throughout this history, and even now, at their very best, psychiatric medications can only reduce symptoms. They do not treat or cure the underlying cause of mental illness (which remains unknown). To those for whom the medications are effective, they only achieve symptom reduction and usually only partially and/or temporarily.
Who Prescribed That? And for What?
As psychiatric medication has become more available and well-marketed, many consumers have been prescribed them. Research has shown us that many (if not most) of the prescriptions for psychiatric medications are written by non-psychiatrists (i.e. primary care doctors, OB/GYNs), who lack the specialized training to recognize the complex manifestations of mental illness, diagnose them accurately and recommend appropriate treatment. All too often, these interactions involve a short conversation about superficial and subjective experiences or, at best, a checklist the physician goes through. If the patient achieves a score above the predetermined cutoff, they are offered a prescription.
In many cases, patients reporting what may sound like depressive or anxious symptoms do not qualify for formal diagnoses and would benefit by less invasive methods (e.g. counseling/therapy). For those patients whose situations are less clear, a referral to a mental health specialist (e.g. licensed clinical social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist) is warranted to conduct a full evaluation. Understandably, many of these same patients resist or refuse to consider an evaluation or counseling even when it is offered. This may be due to additional costs, greater time investment and a number of other reasons. Instead, they prefer the promise (albeit false) of a quick fix via a daily pill that will ameliorate their ill feeling and the healthcare system is often willing to oblige.
Although side effects, inherent limitations in effectiveness, misdiagnosis and overuse of unnecessary medications are each concerning in their own right, there is a much greater and more detrimental impact on society; one that has been left largely without discussion.
Difficult Emotions are Normal
Because medications can only offer a reduction in some symptoms for some sufferers part of the time, the inevitable outcome is the creation of a problematic psychological deficit for those who are prescribed unwarranted medications. When a person experiences normal, albeit painful, emotional experiences, the result is learning and growth. Through the difficulty, the person learns new information about themselves, the world, other people, what is effective or not, and ultimately, how to manage, cope or solve discomfort. Put another way, when we are uncomfortable, we are naturally motivated to find a way out of that discomfort (sometimes we find destructive ways out, like substance abuse, but often we find healthy and productive ones and grow more mature and well rounded).
Of course, when a person is suffering from a true depressive, anxiety or other disorder, the associated symptoms may be (but not always) so debilitating as to inhibit this natural learning process. But given the rampant misunderstanding and over diagnosis of mental illness by professionals without a proper understanding, the natural process of learning new coping and problem solving skills is inhibited (or fully stopped) because the appropriate signal that something is wrong is artificially, chemically removed. The psychiatric medication has numbed or removed the experience of uneasiness, sadness, discomfort, pain, etc. leaving the patient to conclude there is no problem; thus, there is no need to learn, grow, change or advance. This is akin to walking around on a broken ankle with generous amounts of opioid painkillers in one’s system. “It doesn’t hurt; I must be fine.”
For example, imagine a person is hiking in their favorite woods, enjoying a beautiful Fall day. As they stroll through the trees and soak in the sunshine and fresh air, their serenity is interrupted by a 1000 pound, growling Brown bear. Despite what the person may know about bears and how to react correctly, the normal and appropriate response is fear and anxiety. These are admittedly unpleasant and undesirable emotions; further, most do not willfully seek them out in their daily lives, but they are nevertheless normal and expected. Now imagine that the person immediately reaches into their backpack to take a large dose of muscle relaxers, benzodiazapines, or other sedative to reduce or eliminate those unpleasant emotions. This would inhibit their natural responses and ability to accurately and successfully assess and navigate the situation. Assuming they survive the bear incident, what is the long term impact of handling normal emotional experiences in this way?
Perhaps a more relatable example is when someone loses a close friend or relative. They are understandably sad, perhaps angry and experiencing any number of other emotions. However, most mental health professionals (and laypeople) would tell the person that grieving is not only normal, but important to the healing process. Through this painful experience, people grow, they learn new skills and adapt to a world without their loved one. It will be difficult, painful and wrought with steps forward and back, but the long-term outcome for most is adequate and healthy adjustment. Can normal grieving become debilitating? Of course, but like the true depressive and anxiety disorders mentioned above, this is the exception and not the rule. Using a chemical method to eliminate normal feelings in these types of situations is not only wrong, it’s dangerous and detrimental.
This problematic trend has been occurring for some time. One of the more troubling aspects is when our children are quickly placed on medications for the reasons mentioned. As is the case with adults, true mental illness does exist in children, but it is even rarer (and much less common than most assume). In many cases, just as with adults, children are assessed by entities without proper training in mental health issues, assessment, diagnosis or treatment. For example, children are often labeled with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) after a questionnaire is completed by their teacher and/or parent, after which their pediatrician writes a prescription. These psychiatric labels (and medicines) may follow them the remainder of their lives, even though no psychiatric professional has ever been consulted.
Besides the potential problems of a lifelong label, children are even more vulnerable than adults to the phenomenon of inhibiting normal emotions and behaviors. Children are extremely dynamic; they are rapidly developing physically, psychologically, socially, etc. Every experience teaches them about their world, the people in it, what is normal, good, and healthy, as well as what is unusual, dangerous and detrimental. Like adults, children experience sadness, anxiety, anger and the entire gamut of human emotions. They have bad days, weeks or years. And just like adults, those unpleasant experiences teach them valuable and irreplaceable lessons, giving them regular opportunities to respond, adjust, cope, problem solve and navigate new challenges.
When those normal emotions are removed from a child’s repertoire by medications that inhibit them and they are taught that such emotions are pathological, their developmental problem solving and coping processes halt. For example, if a child was developmentally normal but never learned the difficult task of how to walk, the absence of that skill would have a cascading impact on the rest of their life. Similarly, if a child, for example, loses a parent at a young age, but is never permitted to have the normal experience of appropriate sadness, anger, regret, confusion and the many other associated features, they have been robbed of a critical, albeit painful and difficult, experience that would allow them to learn about themselves and their world in a way no other experience could teach them.
In time, as the child grows and continues to look to medications to remove uncomfortable emotional experiences, the skills they needed to manage and respond when difficult circumstances arise becomes a greater deficit and liability. Instead of recognizing frustration, fear or anxiety as a signal of a problem needing their attention, they label it wrong, incorrect or “mental illness” and seek to quell it quickly, chemically. Unsurprisingly, as they reach young adulthood, they are utterly ill-equipped to face the growing number of ever-more-complex problems life has for them.
This phenomenon is evident nowhere more than in colleges and universities. While the news media and higher education researchers accurately report the increasing number of mental health issues on college campuses, they have failed to report on one of the major reasons why: these children are not psychologically, cognitively and emotionally prepared to face the challenges college has for them. Any college mental health professional on the front line will affirm this reality.
After a lifetime of being taught that difficult emotions are problematic and interfere with life, college students are often massively overwhelmed by the tidal wave that hits in early adulthood. Not only do they have new, young-adult problems to navigate, but they also have the problems of old that were never addressed – and they are doing it all alone for the first time. In many cases, college counseling centers are overwhelmed by this type of student who has no idea what has happened to them.
Of course, psychiatric medication is not solely to blame for their lack of mental preparation and resilience. In addition to the likelihood of other variables, parenting practices in recent generations have tended to shelter children rather than teaching them age appropriate responsibility and problem management. Yet, one of the significant ways children and adolescents have been sheltered from reality is through the prolific, inaccurate assignment of psychiatric labels and the associated medications that often come along with them.
For over 100 years of American history (and much longer around the world), great thinkers and researchers have learned, theorized and written about the human experience. While each step toward greater health and wellness is assuredly done with the best intentions, none of the respected philosophers in human history advised us that we should avoid, bury, shirk, deny or otherwise seek to destroy human emotion. In fact, the callousness and absence of emotion of the criminal psychopath is among the most disturbing human realities. Society wishes to eliminate, not multiply the psychopathic tendency, yet so often willfully seeks to numb vital emotions in our most vulnerable.
More than a century of brilliant work and basic common sense tells us we should not seek to tamp down human emotion, but encourage each other in recognition, healthy responses and realizing when well-trained professional help is needed to get us over the hump.