- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

I have to wonder about the pursuit of happiness and good behavior through modern medicine — Prozac for the woebegone and Ritalin for the irrepressible.

An advantage of age is perspective. I graduated from high school in 1964, in King George County, Va. The students were a mixture of country children and the children of scientists and naval personnel at nearby Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory.

We were a healthy lot from frequent exercise. Psychologically we seemed sound. Nobody had heard of anorexia, bulimia or depression. The girls liked the boys, the boys liked the girls, and the girls seemed to like themselves.

The girls made better grades, the boys scored better on standardized tests, but the difference was not great. There were no drugs. No antidepressants, no marijuana, no Ritalin, no crystal meth.

What happened? Today, huge numbers of people are attempting pharmaceutical solutions to problems that either barely existed in 1964, or were regarded as just part of life: Nobody is always happy. Maybe 15 years ago, I began to notice that a lot of people were taking Prozac, Depakote, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, lithium or Paxil.

The chemistry was interesting: tricyclics versus other things, interaction of various neurotransmitters and so on. But the salient point was that these people seemed unable to get through the day without chemical intervention.

Having noticed the reliance on these drugs in adults, I then watched as daughters of a friend were diagnosed with a shifting string of disorders and dosed with one drug after another. They in turn reported that many of their friends were being drugged on the recommendations of various therapists and psychiatrists.

The problem is not that these drugs are somehow fraudulent, though they may be greatly overprescribed. I once watched as a friend, who had been miserably depressed practically forever, began taking Wellbutrin. Shortly, she was cheerful and energetic, and remains so unless she stops the drug.

Then there was the forced administration of Ritalin to boys purported to have “attention deficit disorder.” I use the quotation marks because it appears far from clear whether such a thing exists. Boys are fidgety and physical and frequently bored out of their skulls in school. I was. Whether this is a psychiatric disorder looks highly debatable.

If you Google on “Ritalin usage,” you find reports of enormous increases in the prescription of Ritalin to children, chiefly boys. For example, from the World & I: “This year some six million children in the U.S. — one in eight — will take Ritalin. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 85 percent of this drug.”

It begins to look as if we are using chemicals both as a means of social control (boys on Ritalin) and as a cure for unhappiness.

What is going on? I travel a good bit but do not find such use of drugs elsewhere, and certainly not the doping of children. The antidepressants on average are far less common abroad.

But more important, how much do we want to use biochemistry to alter our brains to make us happy? Alcohol, nicotine and cocaine of course do just that and have for at least centuries.

Maybe Prozac is just better booze. Does it matter how you become happy as long as you do? Is there anything wrong with chemically-induced studiousness? I wish I knew.

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