The Medicalization of Unhappiness

I take this title from a past issue of ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. These words come from European doctors who are protesting against the overuse of antidepressants and other medication to deal with emotional problems. They have no objection to prescribing medication for serious conditions such as clinical depression, but they object to the casual prescribing of medication for lesser problems.

I am in full agreement with these doctors.  I have noticed how, over the last 20 years or so, that more everyday normal problems of life are being medicated. For example, depression is a normal part of life, as is anxiety and stress. At times, all of us experience these emotions. We cannot avoid this. However, more and more, there is growing pressure to appear happy. If we are not happy we are considered defective and at fault for this, and we are considered lesser people because of our unhappiness. So why not take a pill to make us happy and ‘normal’?

There are many reasons why we shouldn’t do this. A number of them are the same reasons why addiction is also harmful. The main reason is that medication prevents normal human development. For example, if every time I feel depressed or anxious I take a pill, I am learning how to avoid strong and difficult emotions. I am learning that if life gets too hard I can run away from my pain. However, it has been known for centuries that we grow stronger through struggle and crisis. Therefore, if I take the medication I do not develop my emotional coping mechanisms. I do not develop emotionally and spiritually because I can run away from myself whenever I wish.

Another reason that medication is harmful concerns how it affects our feelings. We not only learn to run away but we can become ‘flat lined’ in our feelings. We can feel less passion, love, healthy anger and grief. This avoidance of genuine highs and lows can emotionally remove us from life by cutting us off from others.  As a result, social relationships suffer and people become more isolated. This isolation from our feelings and from others also has a larger social and political effect. It can cut us off from connective emotions such as empathy which can lead to a society where people care less and less about one another. Furthermore, the process of medicating is, in itself, isolating. This medical treatment emphasizes the physical and organic system, but it ignores the emotional and spiritual components of a human being. Other treatments that focus on these aspects of human nature better connect us to the deepest roots of our humanity. Medicalizing and medicating emotional distress does not really heal the problem, it will just mask it.

For example, a client who was a child of an alcoholic family came to me with relationship problems. He had been depressed for many years and had been on an antidepressant for the past few years, which did help him feel less depressed. However, similar to other children of alcoholics, he suffered from other problems such as lack of self esteem, anxiety, anger management, stress and relational dysfunctions. None of these problems were addressed by the medication and these problems they seriously affected his marriage and family. In our work together it was necessary to examine the affects of his alcoholic father, his codependent mother and all the pain and grief he suffered with as a result of his early environment.

Again, I stress that medication is appropriate for serious mental problems. However mental illness, for the most part, is a misnomer. It is more accurately seen as wounds to the emotional, psychological and spiritual core of a human being. This is very much part of the human condition. By medicalizing and medicating these wounds we are not addressing them, instead we are hiding them. As human beings, life confronts us with great challenges. And an evolved and vital existence consists of facing and dealing with these challenges to the best of our abilities.

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