A Look Back at the Other Pill that Changed Everything


Last week, we looked at the history of the birth control pill, one of the most important innovations of the 20th century. Another pharmaceutical innovation in the latter half of that century changed the way we think about the human condition. A new documentary short in the New York Times’ “Retro Report” series looks at the cultural and medical impact of Prozac and the entire class of drugs that followed in its wake:

In the late 1980s and the 90s, Prozac was widely viewed as a miracle pill, a life preserver thrown to those who felt themselves drowning in the high waters of mental anguish. It was the star in a class of new pharmaceuticals known as S.S.R.I.s — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Underlying their use is a belief that depression is caused by a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Pump up the levels of this brain chemical and, voilà, the mood lifts. Indeed, millions have embraced Prozac, and swear by it. Depression left them emotionally paralyzed, they say. Now, for the first time in years, they think clearly and can embrace life.

If some users deem Prozac lifesaving, others consider it sensory-depriving. A loss of libido is a common side effect. Some writers and artists, while often relieved to be liberated from depression’s tightest grip, also say that Prozac leaves them mentally hazy. In his 2012 book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb offered this: “Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s ‘spleen,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.”

As someone who suffers from a depressive illness and takes medication to combat its debilitating effects, I feel the need to editorialize a bit. I find Taleb’s argument supporting the myth that mental illness enhances creativity to be very dangerous. Nobody can deny that those who possess extraordinary creative gifts are also frequently troubled by mental health complaints; but in my experience, alleviating those symptoms has actually improved my creativity and my ability to take action with my ideas. More importantly, alleviating those symptoms has saved my life.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we look at the painful past through rose-colored glasses. Just because our grandparents walked uphill to school in the snow (both ways) doesn’t mean we have to. I, for one, am grateful for the dent that anti-depressants have put in the universe.


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