Whenever I return to the U.S., I’m always surprised by how many more people I know seem to be taking prescription antidepressant drugs. The reason I’m surprised is that the circles I travel in aren’t full of depressed people; instead, I’m meeting people who seemed to be doing fine, but are now taking Paxil, Wellbutrin, or Zoloft.
Of course, the standard disclaimer applies — people who are depressed should get the help they need, etc. etc. But nowadays it seems that any American going through a tough phase is tempted to Zoloft themselves back into good cheer. Yale psychiatry researcher Charles Barber lays out the facts in the Washington Post:
The use of antidepressants in the United States has exploded in the past couple of decades, and drugs such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, which didn’t even exist 20 years ago, are household names, almost household staples….
In 2006, an astonishing 227 million prescriptions for antidepressants were dispensed in the United States — up 30 million from 2002. Altogether the United States accounts for about two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants. Other proven and practical approaches to managing milder forms of depression, such as diet changes, exercise or cognitive behavioral therapy, haven’t gotten the attention they deserve in our high-tech zeal for the drugs.
The drugs are popular because they produce results. But that’s doesn’t explain the staggering number of subscriptions:
The television ads make it seem so easy: An agonized man or woman stares listlessly into space or slumps on a bed or couch, holding their head in their hands. Then they take a pill and suddenly morph into a happily engaged and joyous being, back on the job or walking in a park, awash in sunshine, surrounded by grandchildren, a golden retriever nipping at their heels, while lush music plays in the background.
And with this, we find ourselves at a crossroad of cultural differentiation between the United States and Europe, or so we might think. Europeans accept bad moods as a natural part of life and don’t immediately reach for a shiny new pill to suppress them (instead, they reach for time-tested favorites such as alcohol). The distrust of mind-altering pharmaceuticals is part of the rhetoric of "authenticity" which Europeans cultivate. Europeans are allowed to be themselves, we hear, while Americans willingly re-engineer even their brain chemistry — the irreducible essence of their beings — to conform to an ideal of superficial, commerce-friendly geniality.
My reaction to this is similar to my reaction to many another stereotype: there’s a kernel of truth, but not much more. There’s clearly a cultural emphasis on displaying a bright mood in the U.S. Let me invoke the critical cultural bellwether of bike stores. My local bike store in Austin has a sign behind the counter saying "Be Happy – Be Nice – Be Cool." In Duesseldorf, my local bike store’s website warns you that one of its employees is "often unfriendly and in a crappy mood."(g)* Not for nothing did an American write "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Further, Europeans (especially northern ones) often strike Americans as being unusually ‘genuine’ and tolerant of mood swings and personal idiosyncrasies.
But how wide is the alleged U.S.-European divide on personality manipulation? European countries have very high numbers of mental health professionals per capita, after all, and in all European countries, the use of prescription anti-depressants has also been dramatically increasing, even among children. European newspaper columnists have a problem with wolfing down a mass-produced hamburgers in 20 minutes, but ordinary Europeans certainly don’t, judging by the long lines you see at McDonald’s franchises over here. And I suspect that pepping up your mood and performance by taking a simple pill which has few side-effects will probably prove just as tempting…
* This description is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. The bike store, Rad Ab (g) in the Friedrichstrasse, is way cool.