MASS SOCIETY AND MASS DEPRESSION: Depression Is Becoming Epidemic in Consumer Societies

By Levine, Bruce E. | CCPA Monitor, May 2008 | Go to article overview

MASS SOCIETY AND MASS DEPRESSION: Depression Is Becoming Epidemic in Consumer Societies


Levine, Bruce E., CCPA Monitor


Ten years ago, Martin Seligman, eminent psychologist and then president of the American Psychological Association, told the National Press Club that there had been more than a tenfold increase in the rate of depression in the United States since the 1950s. It was, he said, an epidemic.

Today the World Health Organization (WHO) ranks depression as the world's fourth most devastating illness (in terms of total years of healthy life stolen by death or disability). The WHO projects that, by 2020, depression will be second only to heart disease as a global contributor to early death and disability. It is already No. 2 for one subsection of the population: people aged between 15 and 44, of both sexes.

Beginning in the late 1980s, many mental health professionals became convinced that depression was primarily caused by a deficiency of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Neurotransmitters are naturally-occurring chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells. The birth of this idea was a boon for pharmaceutical companies, making it relatively easy for them to sell a range of neurotransmitter-enhancing drugs-collectively known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSFIs-such as Prozac, as a fix for depression.

There are certainly depressed people who believe in the efficacy of their antidepressants. But even antidepressant advocates admit that these drugs can bring with them a litany of adverse effects, including blurred vision, nausea, dry mouth, sweating, constipation or diarrhoea, rashes, anxiety, tremors, dizziness, drowsiness, and sexual dysfunction. Some can also worsen depression and mania over time, as well as triggering hallucinations and increasing the risk of suicide, addiction, and accidental overdose.

Then, in 2002, Prevention & Treatment, an electronic journal sponsored by the American Psychological Association, reported that Prozac, Zoloft Paxil, Effexor, Serzone and Celexa-drugs that together accounted for $8.3 billion in worldwide sales that year-failed to outperform placebos in the majority of the trials submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) during the drugs' approval processes.

In this controversial piece of research, published under the title The Emperor's New Drugs, the psychologists conducting the review used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain 47 studies that had been used by the FDA for approval of the six antidepressants prescribed most widely between 1987 and 1999. They found that, of the 47 trials conducted for the six drugs, only 20 of them showed any measurable advantage of drugs over placebos.

By the mid-1990s, mental health officialdom had begun a slow retreat from the neurotransmitter-deficiency theory of depression. The American Medical Association Essential Guide to Depression in 1998 stated: "The link between low levels of serotonin and depressive illness is unclear, as some depressed people have too much serotonin." And in February 2007, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health admitted to Newsweek that the primary cause of depression was not low levels of serotonin or any other neurotransmitter.

The focus on neurotransmitter levels was a red herring that diverted all of us from examining those unsustainable aspects of our lives and of our society that create the conditions in which depression can take hold. Even before researchers had disproved the notion that low levels of neurotransmitters caused depression, it should have been apparent that the origin of the dramatic rise in depression rates in so-called developed countries would be rooted in something that had in fact greatly changed-such as the basic nature of those societies.

I have been a practising clinical psychologist since 1985, but one need have only common sense-something often lost in professional training-to understand depression. Depression is simply one of many human "strategies" to shut down overwhelming pain. …

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MASS SOCIETY AND MASS DEPRESSION: Depression Is Becoming Epidemic in Consumer Societies
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