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Commentary

Antidepressants and the Numbing–Down of America
Sally Satel, MD, AEI Online, 6-30-06

Satel, a practicing psychiatrist and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has written an interesting and thoughtful review of a new book by Ronald Dworkin on how antidepressants may be affecting our perception of happiness and capability for moral reflection. Overall, she remains wary of broad claims that such drugs are dulling our moral sensibilities.

In Artificial Happiness, Dworkin sounds the alarm about societal damage created by "an entire class of people who stupefy themselves regularly and constantly... and live not on society's fringes but its mainstream." Unfortunately, his case relies heavily on sweeping generalizations, cherry–picked anecdotes, and heavy doses of judgmentalism about how people should live, and assumptions about what they feel.

A practicing anesthesiologist with a doctorate in political philosophy, Dworkin says there is an excess of hollow happiness in our culture. This abundance, he argues, is the product of three new movements: psychopharmacology, alternative medicine, and obsessive exercising. All of them flourished along with the decline of traditional "doctoring," an era when family docs took time to talk to patients. Today's primary care physicians embrace and promote these compensatory movements for the purpose of combating the "disease of unhappiness," something their medical forebears did by just spending quality time listening and giving advice.

Unfortunately, says Dworkin, these remedies backfired, seducing patients into an "artificial happiness" that prevents them from taking stock of their lives and changing them for the better...

In my experience, patients tend not to like that anesthetized sensation and frequently stop taking the drug anyway. More important, though, are the vast numbers of people on antidepressants who choose to stay on them because the drug's stabilizing effect on mood gives them the sense of control needed to expand their outlook or improve their circumstances. We hear nothing of them from Dworkin. Although data are difficult to come by, it seems implausible that millions of people continue to take a drug that really makes them paralyzed.



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