Medicating Normal: Why so Many of Us Are on Drugs
A new PBS documentary scratches the surface of America's prescription problem
Zachary Siegel is a journalist focusing on drugs and runs the Substack Substance.
“Medicating Normal,” a new PBS documentary about the profit-driven dark side of psychiatric medicine, opens with a bracing scene. “This all started off with a bad relationship and some test anxiety and stress in grad school,” Dave says, staring at the camera with a deadpanned, flattened affect. “And now I’m a totally dysfunctional, highly suicidal individual. The only thing that’s happened between then and now is that I’ve been exposed to some very strong psychiatric medications.”
Dave, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, is one of the five “high-functioning” Americans that the film follows. At least, they used to be high functioning, the documentary suggests, until psychiatrists prescribed numerous medications to treat varying degrees of mental distress. Now, they’re trying to live life without meds or attempting to taper off completely.
Each person appears to be having a “normal” response to difficult life events. Shalamar couldn’t get a good night's sleep because her job at a restaurant kept her working until three in the morning. A psychiatrist prescribed her lorazepam (Ativan), which she stayed on for six years, unaware that she’d become physiologically dependent. To taper, she used a razor blade to shave down her pills, bit-by-bit. A military veteran named Angie struggled to metabolize the grief and horrors of war. She was forced into medical retirement at age 25, losing her career and identity as a soldier. When she continued to deteriorate and felt none of the medications were working, the doctors blamed PTSD rather than the medicine prescribed to treat it.
“I was never like this,” says Angie, curled up in a blanket, crying on the couch. “That’s the scariest part because I don’t know… is this my normal? Did Effexor do this to me? Did Cymbalta do this to me? Did Geodon, Abilify—which one, which one did it?”
The premise of “Medicating Normal” will sound uncontroversial to regular readers of Mental Hellth: Psych meds can be beneficial in the short-term for all kinds of psychological suffering, but patients are rarely made aware of long-term risks like tolerance and physiological dependence. The problem, the film argues, is systemic. The pharmaceutical industry games the pursuit of science and hijacks academic medicine to reap profit. Oftentimes, there’s no long-term outcome data to even speak of because Big Pharma has little incentive to create lengthy clinical trials that last more than a handful of weeks.
“Medicating Normal” offers a simple, effective critique of Big Pharma, and how profits override our own well-being. The film is clear-eyed about the limitations of psychiatry, especially considering a wider media sphere that too often treats Big Pharma talking points as scientific fact, and hails neuroscience as holding the key to unlocking life’s problems. But in its focus on “high functioning” Americans, who have families, careers, and resources, the film also misses out on a deeper critique of capitalism and mental health. The film rightly indicts Big Pharma’s business practices, but the academics and experts wary of “overprescribing” had little to say about why mental health treatment remains so inaccessible, and how the everyday reality of American life causes so much pain and suffering.