Happy Pills In America – Our Complex Love Affair With Designer Consciousness

From Medical News Today a review of the book “Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac

I am excerpting part of the article without comment.

The spectacular increase in the use of psychiatric drugs over the past 50 years involved what a University at Buffalo historian calls “a massive break with what we consider ‘normal’ mental health,” one linked to myriad social and cultural changes in America.

Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac” (November 2008, Johns Hopkins University Press), a new book by David Herzberg, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of history, considers a wide range of psychiatric medications hailed in pharmaceutical marketing as “wonder drugs” and the social changes they provoked. Notably, he examines how we came to see “normalcy” in light of their mood-altering capabilities, and how we continue to respond to the barrage of drug advertising aimed directly at consumers.

“Patients have always demanded sedatives and stimulants from their doctors, who generally obliged them,” Herzberg says, “but after World War II, something new happened. A vast and powerful system of commercial medicine anchored by pharmaceutical companies brought the values and practices of the consumer culture to psychotropic medications.”

He says these values and practices were used to market scores of prescriptions for the pharmacological treatment of depression, mania, anxiety and a host of other thought, mood and attention disorders, many of which were, at that time, unfamiliar to the general public as common illnesses.

“This system drastically changed the way we viewed normal mental health by dramatizing emotional problems to promote pharmaceutical solutions.
As a result the products sold well, made the drugs themselves household names and the conditions they treated part of the public conversation about health,” he says.

“The the real transformation brought about by the cultural celebrity of these drugs, however, is in the political dimension of happiness.”

First, he says, medications helped make “happiness” (defined in relatively narrow terms by commercial medicine) an obligation of middle-class citizenship. If, as the marketing assured us, we could be “happy” with pharmaceutical assistance, then the implication is that we should be “happy,” a process has been bemoaned by those who say that we no longer appreciate a broad range of subtle moods.

“Second,” Herzberg says, “the availability of these medications opened up new arenas for contesting, challenging and, ultimately, remaking what that ‘happiness’ could entail, often in directly political terms.” (all emphasis minecontinue article)

First published 3/2009

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