More specifically, it is Psychiatric drug use VS Illicit drug abuse
If I have depression, or dysthymia, or an inability to experience pleasure (anhedonia), why do I need to take psychiatric drugs? I can take cocaine, amphetamine, heroin or opium too, they make me happy and feel high too. It reminded me of the patient who took his own life by jumping off from a building. He said gathering with his bunch of friends and taking those pills are his kind of pleasurable activities (case study here), just like women go shopping or people go gym. Yea, right, how about that? Take a few “pills” and I’m better?
Antidepressants like Prozac and Lexapro (the SSRIs) do not provide pleasure, it restores the capacity for pleasure. It is neither excitatory like cocaine nor satiating like heroin. The drug taker doesn’t crave Prozac and does not feel relief when it enters the system. The desired effect, a change in responsiveness to ordinary pleasures, occur gradually and is unrelated to the daily act of consuming the drug. So unlike cocaine which produces quick, strong but short-lasting “high”, people don’t “usually” get addicted to the SSRIs.
Drug addicts use stimulant drugs hoping to cope with intolerable feelings. Without medication, they may experience little enjoyment. Prescribed medication makes drug addicts who kick the street-drug habit feel less empty and better able to enjoy ordinary pleasures. For the addict, the hope is to enhance the ability to “postpone gratification”, something antidepressants may do by increasing the ability to imagine future pleasure. If and when ordinary pleasure becomes appealing (after a drug addict is treated with psychiatric medicine and begins to experience “ordinary pleasure”), it’s hoped that self-understanding and self-control will follow (no longer rely on illicit drugs to achieve “instant pleasure”).
So can we use anti-depressants (and some other medication) to treat stimulant drug addictions? I believe with a combination of behavioural therapies, and supports from the immediate family members, anti-depressants would work. But taking only anti-depressants without strong mental and motivation to quit and sufficient social supports is definitely not enough, not in long-term for sure.
Psychiatric Drug Abuse?
But anti-depressant drugs (focusing on SSRIs here) can also be abused. There are patients whose depression were treated with the SSRIs, once successfully weaned from the tablets, want to restart it, not because they are depressed, but because life seemed brighter when they were medicated. In psychiatry it’s a bit difficult to decide where treatment ends and depression starts again.. but doesn’t this seem a bit like taking illicit drugs? Same applies to people who take excessive anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs / tranquilisers) to make them calm and functional, how do we define when it’s legal psychiatric drug abuse?
There are people who feel more mentally sharp and agile, talk more fluently, and more socially confident when they are on anti-depressants, they continue to take it even when they don’t show any signs of depression at all. Unlike amphetamines which also make people more alert and productive but at the same time is addictive and causing paranoia, most of these SSRIs don’t lead to any significant side effects (and (if) any discomfort tend to go away after first few days). So does this make it morally and ethically fine to take anti-depressants to increase alertness, quickness of thought, and verbal and mechanical fluency, in the absence of illness?
P.S. SSRIs stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, which are newer drugs used to treat depression, but also work for OCD and anxiety disorders. Some commonly used in Malaysia include Lexapro (Escitalopram), Prozac (Fluoxetine), Zoloft (Sertraline), Luvox (Fluvoxamine).
N.B. This post focuses more on major and minor depression, dysthymia and anhedonia.