Junkie Nation

Are antidepressants depressing the vote in America? (Wikipedia Photo)

Are antidepressants depressing the vote in America? (Wikipedia Photo)

I was standing outside a small-town courthouse, chatting with a clutch of town and county officials, on a fall evening a few years ago, when the conversation turned to their constituents. We were on a break from a sparsely attended candidates’ forum inside, and I asked them what was on the voters’ minds that year. After a little bit of this and a little bit of that, they reached sudden and enthusiastic consensus (after making sure that no one from the local paper was in earshot): in general, the voters don’t give a shit.

Now this is at a level of politics that big money has not been able to lock down, simply because in a race for a few thousand votes to get elected to the county commission, there’s nothing on which to spend big money. At this level, votes decide, but the voters don’t care. The only way to get a crowd at a political debate is to open with Beyonce. At higher levels, where money rules, it might seem reasonable to think that money has driven people out of politics. In presidential elections since WWII, about 40% of those registered to vote have not bothered to do so, never mind those who did not bother to register. But if money locked them out, why have they also abandoned politics at the level where they could still rule?

We still have a free-ish press, capable if it wants to of informing us about the depredations of politicians and the financiers they are in bed with, the abuses of industry, the cataclysmic advance of of climate change, all the existential threats toward which we are drifting, rudderless and leaderless. You can look it all up. So where’s the outrage? Where the rallies, not just of protest but of support for making a change?

Whacked out on drugs, it turns out. And I’m not talking about “controlled substances” bought in dark alleys: more Americans are addicted to legal prescription drugs than the illegal kind. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  American doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions in 2012, one for every man, woman and child in the country, just for highly addictive painkillers. That represents 80% of the world’s supply. Of the 41,000 drug-overdose deaths recorded in 2011, 41% involved narcotic painkillers.

That’s just one category of medicine misuse. One in every 10 Americans — one of every four middle-aged women — is on an antidepressant medication. A recent study found massive over-diagnosis of depression by doctors wielding the power of the prescriptive pen.

Shall we turn to the young people, then, to save us? According to the Health Care Institute, in 2010 the average teenager in America is on 1.2 prescriptions for drugs that affect the central nervous system to try to counter the effects of attention deficit disorder, depression and the like.

In all, the Mayo Clinic found last year, 70% of us take at least one prescribed medication (primarily antibiotics, painkillers and antidepressants), 50% of us take two, and 20%, five. In 2000, only 44% of Americans were on a prescription. (And you thought all those ads saying, “Call your doctor…” weren’t working?)

Obviously, taking an antibiotic will not interfere with the discharge of your civic duties. Just as obviously, not everyone on one or five prescriptions is impaired by them. The extent to which the collective mind has been addled by all these chemicals is hard to divine. But if the scale of seriousness runs from no downside at all on the one hand to 113 overdose deaths every single day on the other, (this death rate has been rising steadily for 20 years and is now the leading cause of injury death in the United States) it seems reasonable to assume that we are dealing with a substantial chunk of our citizenry that is not playing with a full mental deck.

Anecdotal evidence: The National Transportation Safety Board has recently reported that four of every ten pilots killed in the crash of their airplanes in 2011 had drugs in their system, prominently including painkillers and over-the-counter sleep aids. The rate of occurrence is quadruple what it was in 1990. The substances that impair the ability to fly a plane surely have some effect on the ability to guide a country.

More anecdotal evidence: Half of all older adults — you know, the kind who vote — take sleeping aids. A study just published in the British Medical Journal says taking sleeping pills for three months increases by over half the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s patients don’t vote.

I used to blame the mass narcotic television for the dereliction of the American voter. Maybe those trips to the medicine cabinet during commercial breaks should get some attention as well.


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4 Responses to Junkie Nation

  1. Avery says:

    Why are we forcing pilots, who take responsibility for the lives of our loved ones, to work under such stress that they need painkillers and sleeping pills? How did we go from 0.01 mental health meds per American child to 1.2 on average?

    In the 1970s, American society was in a period of “malaise”. It seems to me that the malaise was simply shut up and internalized.

  2. J.R. says:

    “That’s just one category of medicine misuse.”

    This is simply unjustified conjecture. What you didn’t report or investigate is why painkillers are so commonly prescribed.

    Recently, I became somewhat aware of how many people are suffering from the same condition I have (collapsed disks, spinal stenosis). There are millions of suffering people with this condition (maybe you should be asking “why” for some insight on what is going on with our spinal health). Many have had to use pain killers.

    And it’s not all “addiction” as you allege (straw argument).

    Americans ARE suffering in many ways. With health care so problematic, it’s not always possible to get any medical assistance (unless you’re an illegal alien).

    The “41,000” deaths – did that include DELIBERATE suicides via drugs? Or do you even know? I’ll hazard a guess that it probably does – which makes your figures useless.

    I found your article poorly researched and reaching erroneous conclusions. Over-presciptions ARE a problem, but you simply glossed over the real facts, cherry-picking what you wanted to “prove”. Suggest you go back and rewrite this.

  3. Andrew says:

    As a fellow sufferer of back pain from disk problems not to mention shoulder pain from a current injury I would like to bring up some thoughts. Since when are we all entitled to pain-free living? In my personal quest to “solve” my back pain I have found only one real effective prescription. Physical fitness and dietary health. Along the way I received many big prescriptions for heavy duty painkillers and I learned very quickly that I could exist at maybe half my normal mental capacity with no pain (ie: the Vicodin coolada option) or I could exist at full mental capacity with manageable pain via exercise and health.

    In the end its simply a matter of laziness. Is a person willing to face their health problem head on and seek a solution that comes from personal will and hard work, or would they rather dose themselves silly with meds and carry on happily? Us Americans love to dose ourselves with everything. Food, booze, illegal drugs, legal drugs, tv, money. We believe that we can achieve things (pain free living for example) by consuming products. We believe that a scrip from our doctor has magical healing powers. It doesn’t. It has the power to numb the mind and dull the senses. God forbid your doctor should prescribe hard work and determination over a money making product.

    This is not to take away from the truly suffering who need pain medication to handle their illnesses or injuries. I’m directing this at the regular people. I doubt many people over the age of 25 can claim nothing hurts. I doubt many people with a demanding job can get to sleep. To believe that a mass produced chemical from the scientific geniuses that brought us god knows how many disasters is a better solution than the natural selection produced human brain and body (the full power of which we barely utilize) it simply stupid. To all the regular people, stressed out, hurting from nagging injuries and poorly rested I say suck it up and drink more water. Eat vegetables and local foods and do those goddamn exercises that the physical therapist told you to do. You know, the ones that you never do. Go on the internet and research ways to improve yourself to counter the effects of life. Try out meditative exercises PROVEN to help you fall asleep.

    Or, go drink a bunch of beers, take a sleeping pill along with a percocet and wake up useless and vapid. Option 2 comes with a clause stating you may never complain about anything again until you migrate back to Option 1.