Do you remember the old Zoloft (Sertraline) ad where the sad egg no longer chases the birdy, and whenever he moves, the thick cloud above follows him? Pfizer did a masterful job of taking a very complex phenomenon and simplifying it down to a concept that two-year-olds can understand. In fact, the visual props made such an impact on my husband that he continues to ask me, years after the original commercial, if I am a “sad egg” whenever he senses that I’m experiencing symptoms.
In the late 1980s and 90s, Pfizer wasn’t alone in dumbing down depression to a simple “chemical imbalance,” a shortage of neurotransmitters (messengers between neurons) like serotonin that can be replenished with a class of drugs called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
According to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, the rate of antidepressant use in this country among teens and adults increased by almost 400 percent between 1988-1994 and 2005-2008. Antidepressants were the third most common prescription drug taken by Americans of all ages in 2005-2008 and the most frequently used by persons ages 18-44 years. About one in 10 Americans aged 12 and over takes antidepressants.
But what if the explanation that led to the popularity of SSRIs isn’t true?