Taking pills for unhappiness reinforces the idea that being sad is not human

11/08/2013 20:10

Source: The Guardian

If you have a terrible job or home life, being unhappy is hardly inappropriate. Pathologizing it can only make everything worse

I was trouble at school. “Like a monkey at the zoo, Giles is intent on displaying himself from his least flattering angle,” said one teacher in my term report, a document strewn with words like “disruptive” and “unfocused”. Thank God this was in the early 80s, otherwise I bet someone would have suggested Ritalin. For, since the mid 80s, society has decided that adolescent trouble-making is some sort of medical condition. We have given it a scientific-sounding classification, ADHD, securing a sense that a messy adolescence is pathological, some sort of chemical imbalance. Thus the scientists are called in to reinforce generally conservative norms of appropriate behaviour. In the US, between 1987 and 2007, there was a 35-fold increase in the number of children being classified as having some form of mental deficiency.

Of course, there are alternative narratives of my trouble-causing. I hated school because I wanted to live by a different story to the one proposed by the British public school system. Or, maybe, I preferred having fun to reading Chaucer. That may be a less noble account, but hardly pathological, or in need of some medical classification. But deviation from social conformity is increasingly seen to be something in need of a pill. In the UK in 1999, there were 158,000 prescriptions written for Ritalin. In 2010 it was 661,463.

The same thing has happened with depression and drugs like Prozac; though calling it depression is already to classify a particular kind of experience as something quasi-medical, thus leading one to think in terms of medical treatment. Sometimes I am just sad. Sometimes pissed off. Sometimes smothered in darkness. But we often lump all these experiences together simply because pharmaceutical companies have developed a certain sort of treatment. And, once you have a hammer in your hand, it is convenient to see every problem in terms of its being a nail. We have found the solution, now let’s make the problem fit the solution we have available. It’s a form of reverse engineering.


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