Pop Some Happy Pills – It Just Might Work

Developed societies lead to developed demands. Because our basic needs for survival are practically assured for us, we now have time to fret about other, more emotionally afflicting matters: how our bodies look, how successful we are, where our lives are going, the kind of person we’re becoming, and so on.  Hollywood and mainstream media blast us with lifestyle lectures via commercials and movies on what the perfect woman looks like, how the perfect man acts, and so perfection has now become the general standard. Technology does not make any of these qualms easier for us; instant communication, faster travel, deadlines and meetings demand that we finish our work faster, better, and more efficiently. Many of us have become disappointed and disenchanted with life.

So is it any surprise that the number of Americans taking antidepressants doubled in just one decade, from 13.3 million in 1996 to 27 million in 2005? With this constant exposure to perfection, it’s a wonder the entire nation isn’t on happy pills.

This raises an important question: Do antidepressants work?

Last month, Rachel Begley wrote an article in Newsweek titled “The Depressing News About Antidepressants.” In it, Begley discusses why she believes antidepressants work no better than placebos in helping people to deal with depression. She bases her argument on twenty years of research, but also on the results of case studies done by drug companies. One example she cites is a string of 38 manufacturer-sponsored studies in 1998. The studies showed that the demeanor of patients on a placebo improved about 75 percent as much as patients on an actual drug. According to this, three-quarters of the benefit from antidepressants appears to be nothing but a placebo effect.

In researching 47 company-sponsored studies in 1998, an associate of Begley’s discovered that of those 47 studies, 40 percent remained unpublished, translating to 22 percent of all antidepressant case studies that never see the light of day. Begley didn’t comment on the outcome of these omitted studies.  If this is the case, though, it means that antidepressant companies have something to hide from us. It’s true that antidepressants don’t work for everybody, and they can take weeks to kick in. Begley’s research shows us that happy pills and sugar pills don’t differ all that much in their function.  If this truly is the case, then drug companies stand to gain a lot in peddling these defunct products to people who believe they desperately need them.

The same week Newsweek ran Begley’s article, it published a rebuttal by Dr. Robert Klitzman titled, “A Doctor Disagrees.”  Klitzman relates his crippling depression after his sister died in the 9/11 terror attacks.  “I stared at the white ceiling, unable to get out of bed…,” Klitzman says.  “My body [had given] out… For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like doing anything — reading, writing, or even listening to music.”  Klitzman says he was skeptical about antidepressants, but tried them anyway. After a while, he says, he began to feel better, and as a result his perspective on disease and treatment changed.

“Just as Tolstoy wrote that ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ I would argue that every unhappy individual is unhappy in his or her own way,” Klitzman went on.  He finished by saying that antidepressants helped him overcome his depression, and he believes others can also benefit.

Let’s assume for a second that Begley’s research is correct – that the drugs are no better than placebos.  Does this matter? Placebos, like Santa Claus, can still affect people whether or not they are real. Begley related that she was reluctant to blow the whistle on antidepressants simply because she saw how much they were helping her friend in dealing with his own depression. Revealing the truth means ending the magic.  If antidepressants truly are no more effective than sugar pills, then the question becomes whether or not people are willing to pay money to pretend something lackluster is really wonderful and life-changing.

This is not to say that drugs are the only way to deal with depression. Both Begley and Klitzman state that drugs are usually best saved as a recourse for moderate or serious depression. Antidepressants are not appropriate for sadness that results from occasional disappointments. Many people feel there is a stigma in admitting to depression and seeking somebody to talk to, and as a result too many people won’t allow themselves the help they need.

However, when the data was assembled five years ago, 27 million Americans admitted they sought antidepressants. If we are to follow the trend from 1996 then that number has undoubtedly increased since 2005.  So if you’re feeling discontent with life or depressed in general, don’t impede yourself in seeking help just because you think you’d feel abnormal for it. There are more than 27 million Americans who took to antidepressants to help feel better. Millions more utilize psychotherapy – which, if you think about it, is nothing more than sitting down and having a nice, insightful chat with somebody.

If depressed people are able to feel happy by taking antidepressants, does it really matter if they don’t work chemically? In the end, the pills do what they’re supposed to do. They make people happy. And what is any amount of money compared to a person rediscovering the ability to really, truly feel happy again?

AE Anteater is a fourth-year English major. He can be reach at emailremoved@uci.edu.