SSRI retrospective: Prozac and mood as pathology

In the late 1980s and the 90s, Prozac was widely viewed as a miracle pill, a life preserver thrown to those who felt themselves drowning in the high waters of mental anguish. It was the star in a class of new pharmaceuticals known as S.S.R.I.s — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Underlying their use is a belief that depression is caused by a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Pharmacological merits aside, the green-and-cream pill was also a marvel of commercial branding, down to its market-tested name. Its chemical name is fluoxetine hydrochloride, not the most felicitous of terms. A company called Interbrand went to work for Eli Lilly and came up with Prozac. “Pro” sounds positive. Professional, too. “Ac”? That could signify action. As for the Z, it suggests a certain strength, perhaps with a faint high-techy quality.
(X is a pharmacological cousin to Z. Both letters are somewhat unusual, worth many points in Scrabble. It is surely not a coincidence that a striking number of modern medications contain either Z or X, or both, in their names, like Luvox, Paxil, Celexa, Effexor, Zantac, Xanax, Zoloft, Lexapro and Zocor, to name but a few. Not surprisingly, confusion can set in. Zantac or Xanax — remind me which one is for heartburn and which for panic disorder?)
Pendulums, by definition, swing, and the one on which Prozac rides is no exception. After the early talk about it as a wonder pill — a rather chic one at that — a backlash developed, perhaps unsurprisingly. Grave questions arose among some psychiatrists about whether the S.S.R.I.s increased chances that some people, notably teenagers, would commit suicide or at least contemplate it. No definite link was confirmed, but that did not end the concern of some prominent skeptics, like a British psychiatrist, Dr. David Healy. He has dismissed the notion of S.S.R.I.s as saviors as “bio-babble.”
Some users consider it sensory-depriving. A loss of libido is a common side effect. Some writers and artists, while often relieved to be liberated from depression’s tightest grip, also say that Prozac leaves them mentally hazy. In his 2012 book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb offered this: “Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s ‘spleen,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.”
Then, too, S.S.R.I. critics express doubts that these drugs have proved themselves significantly more effective than placebos. Some among them question the very concept that serotonin levels, on their own, cause depression or prevent it. One psychotherapist in that camp is Gary Greenberg, an author of several books on mood disorders. Writing in The New Yorker last year, Dr. Greenberg said that scientists had “concluded that serotonin was only a finger pointing at one’s mood — that the causes of depression and the effects of the drugs were far more complex than the chemical-imbalance theory implied.”
“The ensuing research,” he continued, “has mostly yielded more evidence that the brain, which has more neurons than the Milky Way has stars and is perhaps one of the most complex objects in the universe, is an elusive target for drugs.”
More broadly, this retrospective on Prozac introduces a discussion of whether the medical establishment, and perhaps society in general, has gone too far in turning normal conditions, like sadness, into pathologies. And have we paved a path — shades of soma — toward wanton reliance on drugs to enhance life, not to conquer true illness?

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