Besides both being products of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, the antidepressant Prozac and the premenstrual drug Sarefem have something else in common.
According to a recent article in Salon by British writer Jamie Davies, except for the color, size and shape of the pills, the content of the two medications is identical. Essentially, the same pill is being prescribed for entirely different mental and physical ills.
Davies notes that Eli Lilly is not the only company that has rebranded a pill. In 1997, the FDA approved the rebranding of GlaxoSmithKline’s antidepressant Wellbutrin as the anti-smoking pill Zyban. The prescribing information for Zyban notes, “The mechanism by which Zyban enhances the ability of patients to abstain from smoking is unknown.”
For me, these pill rebranding cases raise a question about the effectiveness of drugs based on faith in those drugs. 60 Minutes explored this question in a 2012 episode on placebo research. The episode indicated that for most users of antidepressants for mild to moderate depression the placebo effect is largely responsible for the benefits experienced. According to the studies, effective results are due to the patient’s belief or faith, expectation or hope.
Leslie Stahl reported, “The medical community is at war” over the issue. The fact that one’s expectations are often the most significant factor in the healing process has even been called “the dirty little secret.”
The 60 Minutes episode further revealed that most experts in the field now consider that the theory of serotonin deficiency as the cause of depression is “a gross oversimplification and probably not correct.” This is key, because psychotropic medications to address depression are largely based on this theory.
So, when it comes to antidepressants:
• Pills with the same chemical composition are being used to treat entirely different physical and mental conditions.
• At least one manufacturer notes it is “unknown” how the drug works.
• The theory upon which the design of antidepressants is based is “probably not correct.”
Does this sound scientific?
Dr. Irving Kirsch is often at the center of this issue. He’s the associate director of the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter hosted at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center affiliated with Harvard Medical School. His explanation of these research findings led Leslie Stahl to comment, “This is huge.”
I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Kirsch at the 2012 International Research Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health (IRCIMH) in Portland, OR. He told me that he’s received dozens of emails from people since the 60 Minutes episode asking him to help them get off their dependence on antidepressants. “Unfortunately,” he said, “I don’t know enough psychiatrists who are willing to work toward easing them off the drugs.”
Prescribing antidepressants is a deeply entrenched practice in our health care system. Many well-meaning psychiatrists may be reluctant to question the value of these medications since they have invested years in education and practice of the medications’ perceived benefits. Perhaps they think they don’t have any alternatives.
Yet there are alternatives, and I’m a case in point.
When a failed marriage, debt and unemployment brought on depression in my life, I knew of an approach that I could take to treat myself. No drugs were involved, but it did require a degree of humility, patience and, in my case, a willingness to turn to the divine and spiritualize my thought.
Turning to divine help for health conditions may not be everyone’s choice, but it’s more prevalent than many realize. In fact, according to a 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, 56 percent of all U.S. doctors believe that spirituality and religion have a positive and continuing influence on an individual’s health.
I began my treatment with a mental prescription of spiritual facts that many researchers today recognize as healthful and beneficial. For instance, I reversed the negative ideas that I had accepted about myself and others and replaced those depressing thoughts with gratitude, forgiveness, hope and love. I worked to incorporate these mental qualities into my daily actions and as I did so, my innate understanding that my life had purpose and meaning began to return. My expectancy of complete freedom from depression also grew.
The change didn’t happen overnight, but as a clearer understanding of my intrinsic worth and unbroken relationship with God returned, the symptoms of depression dissipated and were gone.
Everyone’s situation is unique. Yet, raising our health expectations beyond faith in and dependence on antidepressants is not a pipe dream. In seeking non-drug options to depression, many are finding that a spiritual approach may hold the best hope for treating depression and other forms of mental illness.
This article was first published on Blogcritics.org.