Antidepressants as the Latest Object of Our Affection

A History of Psychoactive Drugs

Mary Sykes Wylie

wylie-openerIn the fall of 1987, a story appeared in the business section of The New York Times about a new antidepressant drug, fluoxetine, which had passed certain key government tests for safety and was expected to hit the prescription drug market within months. Just this brief mention in the Times about the prospective appearance of the new, perkily named Prozac propelled Lilly shares from $10 to $104.25—the second-highest dollar gain of any stock that day. By 1989, Prozac was earning $350 million a year, more than had been spent on all other antidepressants together in 1987. By 1990, Prozac was the country’s most prescribed antidepressant, with annual sales topping $1 billion. And by 1999, Prozac had earned Lilly $21 billion in sales.

But back in the 1970s, when Lilly, a company then known for producing antibiotics, began working on it, Prozac didn’t look so promising. Serious depression—which warranted hospitalization, perhaps electroshock, or a gaggle of psychiatric medications, many with appalling side effects—was viewed as a debilitating but rare condition, thought to affect only 1 in 10,000 people. Less paralyzing depression symptoms were regarded mostly in psychodynamic terms, such as “depressive reactions” or “depressive neuroses.”

So Lilly had planned to market its new drug for hypertension or maybe anxiety, but fluoxetine just didn’t seem to work at lowering blood pressure, and the tranquilizer market had nose-dived after people had learned to their horror that Valium and Librium— “mother’s little helpers” —were turning perfectly respectable middle-class ladies into addicts. Lilly then tried using it as an anti-obesity agent, but that didn’t work either. Nor did it relieve symptoms of psychotic depression: it actually made some people worse.

And then, according to psychopharm folklore—maybe because they had nobody left to try it on—they gave fluoxetine to five mildly or moderately (stories vary) depressed people, all of whom felt much better. Bingo! Therein lie the origins of this little med with the zippy brand name, which set in motion a vast antidepressant empire, as well as the longest, most remunerative gravy train in psychopharmaceutical history. By 2008, 11 percent of Americans (25 percent of women in their 40s and 50s) were taking one of about four dozen brand-name antidepressants. These antidepressants were the most commonly prescribed medications in the country (now, in 2014, they’re a few percentage points behind antibiotics) and brought $12 billion a year to the pharmaceutical companies.

How did this happen—and by what scientific, psychiatric, marketing, sociological alchemy? As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time Americans had fallen hard for a haphazardly discovered, but perfectly legal, medically approved psychoactive agent that was easy to take and provided quick relief from certain relatively blurry categories of physical and mental suffering. Over the last 150 years or so, we’ve seen successive waves of mass infatuations with psychotropic drugs—morphine, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and antidepressants. While all these drugs are different, the story arc they follow—their rise, triumph, ascendancy, and gradual decline or sudden collapse—does follow a roughly predictable course.

 Read the rest of Mary's Feature in the July/August Issue of the Networker: Open Wide!: Do We Know What Big Pharma is Giving Us?

Topic: Psychopharmacology | Anxiety/Depression

Tags: antidepressants | big pharma | depression | depression symptoms | EFT | prozac

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Sunday, July 27, 2014 12:17:04 AM | posted by sheila ryan
I agree with some of the comments. The article seems to compare prozac to medications used in the past that were addictive. I have been helped by prozac and have seen many clients lives moved forward with antidepressants. I work in the Addiction world and often the right antidepressant saves people from returning to drug or alcohol abuse.

Saturday, July 26, 2014 9:51:52 PM | posted by Me
I'm not pleased with what I'm reading if you compared that situation now to back in the 60's & 70's its alarming as to what they did to the people then & for you to sit here & state that EVERYONE runs to seek antidepressants is BS some have depression so bad it affects there way of life & NOTHING helps not even medication... Idc about her stocks I care about the people & getting help for them not running around just putting them on any pill just because... Don't forget to mention Trauma histories, war veterans, PTSD... Dam! If it helps it helps stop putting up BS like this I wanna read real stories of how its helped or how it didn't or how the guy that just shot up the mall & killed 10 people because he was off meds know one was paying attention but they noticed he was withdrawing, quiet, scared, alone.. Post what DOES help post the reality of the real shit that's going on in our world & lives things have gotten worse Mary & you know this what they didn't know then they know now!! RIGHT & we continue to learn its the way of the world GOOD OR BAD it is what it is not EVERYONE is gonna choose a natural path because they can't.. Your extremely judgmental in your post & I'd no longer like to read what you've got to say.. Dig deep don't be so surface like all the rest...

Sunday, July 20, 2014 5:48:57 AM | posted by HAL DARST
So the interesting pictures of synaptic gaps, and reuptake channels that these little wonders supposedly modify - was that "explanation" created post-public consumption. I've always wondered when I read about the supposed effects of drugs - both prescription and illicit - how do they KNOW that stuff? How do they know it inhibits re-uptake? And how can they be certain it doesn't alter other meaning, though perhaps not yet discovered, synaptic channels and transmitters?
- Hal Darst

Friday, July 18, 2014 6:53:42 PM | posted by Last Name Colleague
Excellent article on an important topic. As a psychotherapist I've seen people be helped by anti-depressants. As a neurofeedback trainer, many of my clients come because medications have not helped enough, not helped at all, or the side effects are intolerable. Others come because they want an alternative to taking the medication route, or because they want to conceive and are taking a medication that could harm the child. It's wonderful to have an option to offer.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the article in the next issue. It's important for us and our clients to have as big a picture as possible.

Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW
New York Neurofeedback

Friday, July 18, 2014 4:49:48 PM | posted by Don Acorn
Nice historical account Mary but let's not throw out the baby with the bath. Prozac helped me with my clinical depression a great deal. I probably owe my life to it. Psych Networker seems hell-bent on painting all psychotropics as all bad for all people all the time but that bias is just as erroneous as the current national marginalization of psychotherapy. As a practicing psychotherapist with 40+ years in the business I consider both psychotherapy and psychopharm to be tools in the box: Both are helpful some of the time for some people. Unfortunately at this stage of our evolution we are unable to predict what will work for a given person. Don Acorn LCSW LADC CCS