The Tranquilizing Of America -
How Drugs Have
Changed Society
By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive
"Kids are different today," I hear every mother say, "Mother needs something today to calm her down." And 'though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill She goes running for the shelter of her mother's little helper. And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.
-- "Mother's Little Helper," The Rolling Stones, 1966
Mick Jagger's sarcastic vocals aside, there has been a revolution over the past five decades in the way many people cope with the daily stresses that assault and sometimes overpower them.
Since the 1950s, several generations of Americans have turned to medicine -- with the expectation that new pills would help make them happy, less depressed, better workers, better lovers. This trend started in 1955, when Wallace Laboratories and Wyeth Laboratories began marketing an anti-anxiety drug known generically as meprobamate -- and commercially as Miltown and Equanil.
At the time, Miltown was believed to reduce anxiety and stress without side effects (it was later determined that it could become addictive, as well as dangerous with other drugs). It was also believed to be a breakthrough from previous treatments -- which involved sleep-inducing or potentially lethal sedatives and narcotics.
Within months, Miltown became part of American popular culture. Milton Berle, whose television program was watched by millions weekly, jokingly called himself "Miltown Berle." Favorable articles on the drug ran in TIME, Look and other magazines. A year after Miltown's release, 5 percent of the American population was taking tranquilizers.
Miltown's success prompted the Swiss-based pharmaceutical group Hoffman-LaRoche to leap into the tranquilizer market. That company's response to Miltown was from a different chemical family -- the benzheptoxdiazines, substances used for dyeing products. The result, chlordiazepoxide, went on the market in 1960 and was called Librium after the word "equalibrium." A search for an improved version of Librium led Hoffman-LaRoche chemists to Diazepam -- which was stronger and required smaller doses. It was marketed as Valium.
Until the appearance of Prozac in the 1980s, Valium was the largest-selling pharmaceutical drug in history. By the middle of the 1970s, more than 60 million Valium prescriptions were written each year. But Valium's unhealthy side was also revealed at that time -- it, too, turned out to be addictive. Several well-publicized cases of celebrities' struggles with the drug brought Valium sales back closer to Earth by the start of the 1980s -- when an anti-ulcer medicine took over as the most widely prescribed drug in America.
The 1980s also brought in a new generation of anti-depressants, the SSRIs -- or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Those drugs, which include Prozac, remove depression's chemical source by keeping serotonin -- which is linked to mood -- from being too quickly reabsorbed by brain neurons. They are also considered much safer than the earlier, tricyclic anti-depressants -- which increase serotonin levels in the body.
The popularity of Prozac, as well as the increased use of the stimulant Ritalin to control attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, has underscored America's growing use of drugs to control depression, emotional problems and other unwanted behaviors. At a recent meeting of the Pediatric Academic Society, the results of a poll of 600 doctors were released. Nearly 75 percent of the doctors surveyed said they had prescribed an anti-depressant to patients under the age of 18.
"America is a technical culture, and if anything we're wedded to the notion that there is some sort of magic answer to even human ills," says Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. At the same time, he notes the invaluable contribution these drugs have made to society within the past 20 years.
"People realized the nature of mental illness ties into everybody's life, ties into the stressors and strains everyone experiences. By the '80s you find that individuals are much more willing to tell you that they are depressed -- that taking an anti-depressant is not like admitting to having syphilis."
But more openness about America's use of legal drugs has also exposed fears surrounding the medications. Following the recent massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, authorities revealed that Eric Harris -- one of the two teen-agers who hunted down classmates before committing suicide -- had been prescribed the SSRI known as Luvox, an anti-depressant medication commonly used to treat patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Soon after that announcement, the president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Rodrigo Munoz, said there "is little valid evidence to prove a causal relationship between the use of anti-depressant medications and destructive behavior. On the other hand," he added, "there is ample evidence that undiagnosed and untreated mental illness exacts a heavy toll on those who suffer from these disorders, as well as those around them."
That sentiment is echoed by Whybrow.
"There are a group of people in the world, probably a large percentage between 10 and 20 percent, who have a vulnerability to behavioral dysfunction," he says. "Modulation of that vulnerability through psychopharmacology has been a godsend to them and their families."
Television comedian Milton Berle helped make Miltown a household word in the 1950s.
In 1957, sales of Miltown were at $28 million.
By the middle of the 1970s, more than 60 million Valium prescriptions were written each year.
In 1978, an estimated 20 percent of all American women and 14 percent of American men were taking Valium.
With its introduction in the 1980s, Prozac was proclaimed a wonder drug by the media, as well as by some researchers.
According to the research firm IMS America LTD, Prozac is prescribed 350,000 times each year to children under the age of 16.
During its first week on the market, more than 436,000 Prozac prescriptions were reportedly filled.
The average psychiatric consultation lasts more than 40 minutes. The average consultation for internal medicine is 10.
One of the students blamed for the massacre at Columbine High School had been prescribed the anti-depressant Luvox.
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