Violent pill-poppers give us the blues

There’s no happy pill for these nine days of hell.

A mental patient stabs a New York City cop in the skull on April 17 in an unprovoked attack that leaves him clinging to life. Five days earlier, cops shoot and kill an armed man who storms a Harlem pharmacy in search of narcotics. That same day in Bluffton, South Carolina, a gun-wielding robber makes off with 800 prescription painkillers. Three days earlier — on April 9 — a Texas man on the anti-anxiety drug Xanax is arrested for killing a police officer in Dallas. And on April 18, a Maryland man brandishing a syringe steals prescription drugs from a Baltimore CVS.

It’s no accident that depressed America’s obsession with prescribed psychoactive relief has erupted into a violent, national crime surge. Or that medicated people are turning into fiends to find their fixes.

The days when crooks swiped pocketbooks and held up banks have gone the way of the dodo as John Q. Public wages his own drug war on sanity. The proof is in the figures. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in every 10 Americans aged 12 and above takes antidepressant medication, non-Hispanic whites pop more pills than others to thwart the blues, women take antidepressants more often than men, and less than one-third of people taking such medications have seen a mental health professional in the past year.

Their cravings — a potential trigger for violent, suicidal tendencies — are a boon for the pharmaceutical industry, whose sales topped $300 billion in 2010, even if the recalls gave it the mopes: Paxil, Celexa, Luvox, Sarafem, Darvon, and Lexapro were among the popular prescribed antidepressants taken off the market by the government last year, states RxRecall.com.

Man has been depressed since he was first able to think, feel, or realize that he couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. In the Fourth century BC, Hippocrates made an early reference to distress and melancholia as a state of “aversion to food, despondency, sleeplessness, irritability, and restlessness.” And Galen (131-201 AD) claimed that melancholia was a form of “fear and depression, discontent with life, and hatred of all people.”

Our attempts to ward off the blues have left their desperate stain on the battlefield, too. The Union Army popped around half a million opium pills during the Civil War, World War II troops used methamphetamine to keep awake, Japanese Kamikaze pilots used high doses of speed before suicide missions, and U.S. troops in Vietnam sought relief by smoking heroin cigarettes.

Later, when researchers traced the cause of our bummers to low levels of serotonin in the brain, scientists invented medications they claimed elevated those levels back to normal. The result has been a depressing overdose of misinformation from an industry that, to this day, can’t test accurately the amount of the critical chemical, thereby depreciating its knowledge of what a normal serotonin level is, and diminishing its ability to find a cure for our doldrums. Even the chemist behind the creation of Valium — Leo H. Sternbach — shied away from the “happy” drug because it made him dopey.

It’s depressing enough that there isn’t a silver bullet for one of the world’s oldest disorders, but the medical industry’s attempts to treat it with dubious medications are sending Americans right around the bend.


Shavana Abruzzo's column appears every Friday on BrooklynDaily.com. E-mail her at sabruzzo@cnglocal.com.

More from Around New York