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Sarah Starr

HSTY 243


Happy Pills

In his book Happy Pills in America, David Herzberg provides a comprehensive history of

pharmaceuticals and emphasizes the social, cultural, and commercial influences which guide

their production and stigma rather than the biochemistry of the substances themselves.

According to the author, Americans are coming to expect happiness as another component of

the American Dream alongside other, more typical, middle class advantages. This is a

compelling argument, but Herzberg misses an opportunity to explore other relevant nuances of

current discourse, such as the reasons for drug abuse and the motivations of the

pharmaceutical industry.

One of the lasting difficulties of addressing depression, anxiety, and other mental

disorders is determining a definitional protoype/template of a disease, or the best diagnostic

criteria of a disease or illness. This is easy to determine in something like an infectious disease,

where the etiology and symptomology are consistent and identifiable. However, in mental

illness, these aspects vary widely between individuals and across cultures, making it difficult to

distinguish major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder from temporary stress

and sadness which occurs as a normal part of life. Because of the blurred lines between healthy

and ill, it falls to physicians to provide proper diagnoses and supply or restrict access to

medication when necessary; antianxiety drugs which are often abused can only be obtained
with a prescription, after all. The problem is when physicians, who are still human and fallible,

succumb to patient requests, intense advertising campaigns, and other such pressures to

overprescribe, inadvertently contributing to the overuse/abuse of drugs in this consumeristic

American society which is driven by the search for happiness. Herzberg summarizes this driving

force well when he says, happiness itself came to be part of a new psychological standard of

living. Along this line, the author fails to expand on the differences between abusing drugs to

ameliorate negative emotions and abusing drugs to get high, which medications are being

used for which purpose, and the innate biochemical properties of different medications which

may make their users more or less prone to addiction.

Additionally, although there are definite flaws and corporate motivations behind the

production and marketing of drugs, Herzberg is at times overly critical of the medical and

pharmaceutical industry. Many physicians have not been persuaded by the aforementioned

influences to overprescribe, many drugs are a step forward in the advancement of medical

technology and actually help the patients who use them, and pharmaceutical companies do

have to create effective products in order to promote business for themselves (advertising is

not enough; people will stop buying their drugs if they do not actually work). The author tries to

address the drug epidemic by arguing for universal access to good medical care as a

reasonable alternative to investing in more drug wars. While this is a wonderful ideal, this is

not the current reality of the world, and is not a means to an end.

I would like to leave off on a note regarding the future discourse surrounding the

treatment of mental illness. In chapter 5, Herzberg discusses the transition that took place in

the 1980s from the age of anxiety to the age of depression and how this influenced the
creation of new antidepressants and their cultural stigma. In the current day and age, it seems

as if we are once again transitioning to an anxiety-dominated culture which is catapulted

forward by the pressures of modern society (incredibly fast technological and cultural growth,

as well as our current state of political turmoil). It would be wise to keep an eye on these

developments moving forward, and plan for the next hurdle in addressing the mental health

crisis in America.