The prescribing and use of antidepressants is rising. Interestingly, it seems the biggest rise occurs in countries that are traditionally perceived as the happiest.1 In trying to find an association between suicide rates2 and happiness (or depression), no real association can be determined. One thing is clear, however: not only is the use of antidepressants rising, but the rise is accelerating.3
Unhappy Americans, unhappy Canadians
So how do the statistics play out for the USA and for Canada? As it turns out, one out of 10,000 people annually commit suicide in the USA. In Canada, it is a hair higher (about a hundredth of a person higher). Of course, the USA has a larger population (many more groups of 10,000 people), so it will have an absolute number of suicides that is larger than Canada’s and with it, the amount of diagnosed depression. Within statistical error, this means that although the numbers are different, the suicide rate is about the same for the two countries above the Rio Grande. Mexico, interestingly, doesn’t even amount to half the number of people ending their lives as in the countries north of it.
Even though reconciling statistics between the prevalence of depression and suicide rates may be impossible (one’s denominator is 10 times higher than the other’s), it is true that the biggest cause of suicide is depression,4 so suicide is the ultimate endpoint in judging the severity of depression.
One of the biggest ironies of our innate sense of self-preservation is that suicide, worldwide, is more prevalent than murder (including wars)!5
Happy Americans, happy Canadians
Eleven out of a hundred Americans use antidepressants. (The denominator again changes by a factor of ten.) Canadian statistics indicate that less than nine out of a hundred take them,3 so the Canadians take them less, both in absolute numbers and at a lower rate. (Since 2012, the antidepressant gap between English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians has disappeared.4)
Can these statistics on antidepressants have any meaningful relationship to the amount of depression there is in the two countries? The simple answer is no. Antidepressants are now being used for things other than depression, such as mild depression, social anxiety disorder, general anxiety, phobias, and even non-psychological conditions like chronic pain and vulvar pain syndrome. Suddenly, the disconnect among statistics becomes evident, because some people with phobias, for instance, may in fact be very happy. Some people with anxiety in Quebec may use anti-anxiety medications, while some in Idaho may use antidepressants, instead. The variables are too numerous.
You’ve got to base some things on something
Even with the confusion of the statistics because of the overlap of symptoms and diagnoses, there is one determination that is telling. The use of antidepressants, rising now and accelerating, means simply that more people are taking them. Why?
Besides using antidepressant medications for off-label indications, as above, other reasons come into play. Depression does not have the stigma it once did, now that Hollywood stars, popular politicians, and other personalities readily admit to it, albeit from the advice of their depressed publicists. The destigmatizing of antidepressants has eliminated the taboos, even cross-generationally, as parents do not find it difficult to treat their children who struggle with depression.
Why are so many Canadians and Americans reaching for the antidepressants?
All of the things antidepressants are used for are impediments to modern life. We were never meant to live the lives we lead. In the past, the men hunted and gathered, the women managed the children. The sun went down, they had sex, and then they slept till dawn. Today we have television and binge-watching, parties and dances, reading and media exposure to catch up on. And sometimes sex until dawn. We are living both daytime and nighttime lives, which is new for our species. Our technology and societal dynamics have outpaced our brains’ evolution. Something had to give, and that something turned out to be the mind.
When coping fails, we become trapped between flight and fight. Anxiety, depression, social phobias, and even sociopaths and psychopaths soon follow. Thankfully, it is not very populated at the extremely negative end of that bell curve where the psychopaths and sociopaths live, but the entire spectrum is rising nonetheless. The psycho-impediments are getting in our way and we need to live our modern lives, because going back to the caves isn’t an option any longer, pending what Kim Jong-un decides to do with his toys. When some of us become dysfunctional, antidepressants help organize this evolutionary confusion. Kim Jong-un, are you listening?
Brave New World
In Aldous Huxley’s 1931 dystopian classic, “Brave New World,” he told the story of everyone drugged by the government into both happiness and compliance, which became the same thing.7 Is that what’s happening today? Thankfully, no. Until mood is actually legislated, we’re not in that type of danger. (Again, I think of Kim Jong-un.)
Nevertheless, is this a sad commentary on our times? Probably not. In the past, people with diabetes just died. Infections killed at genocidal rates. Today, many people would be dead or incapacitated without the fruits of modern medicine. Not everyone has diabetes or gets life-threatening infection and not everyone has depression, either. But the reality is that the world is better off with these extra people in it. Canadian and American societies are better off due to more people functional and contributing because of medical intervention. (Imagine the world with the extra things that Vincent van Gogh, Alan Turing, or Ernest Hemingway could have given.)
In this way, we benefit from the antidepressants as much as we do from antibiotics, insulin, and the countless other “corrections” to our bodies and minds. Otherwise, we might as well go back into the caves.
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