An epidemic is occuring in America. It's pervasive and widespread, and yet for the most part we are generally unaware of it. It's depression, which a staggering 5% of Americans over the age of 12 reported as having in 2005.
While most people think of depression as not being "in a good mood", it's a disorder which tends to effect all parts of a person's life. Living with depression is very difficult, and many people can not summon the will and energy to maintain their health in general. Most critically, depression has led many people to commit suicide and suicide rates increased 30% among middle aged people from 1999 to 2010.
Despite this increasing wave of depression, we have very limited tools to fight it. The main method is psychotherapy, which typically involves counseling with a trained health professional. While psychotherapy can be effective, it often takes time, and in the intravening time anti-depressants are often used to bolster someone's mood to give time for the psychotherapy to take effect. However, their use can be surprisingly dangerous.
Which brings us to our first drug.
Antidepressant is actually a broad label, applying to a wide range of chemical compounds. Nonetheless, if you've taken an antidepressant within the past 30 years it's likely to be a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) in the form of Zoloft or another major pharmaceutical brand.
SSRIs prevent serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain, from being re-absorbed into brain cells. This is thought to improve someone's mood by increasing the levels of serotonin in their brain and it's by this principle that most antidepressants function.
SSRIs are not a cure for depression, if you stop taking them they cease being effective and typically they need to be taken daily. Along with that, they have serious side effects. These include increased suicide risk (though ostensibly on of the main points of taking these medications is to prevent suicide) and nearly double the chance of bone fracture. On top of all of this, if you stop taking SSRIs your body goes into withdrawl, the symptoms of which are similar to withdrawl from opiods like heroin and hydrocodone.
Given this, it's unsurprising that a large number of Americans take antidepressants (11% of people over age 12) and of those nearly 60% of those people have taken antidepressants for two years or longer. Perhaps most worrying is that in the approximately two decades between 1994 and 2008 antidepressant use increased 400%.
We must come face to face with the facts. SSRIs do not work for the majority of the people taking them. Those people continue to struggle with depression or become effectively addicted to them even though this is white-washed to a "syndrome" that occurs when you stop (a wording that many alcoholics and herion addicts would likely find comforting if not helpful).
A Challenger Appears
Sometimes the truth is far stranger than fiction, and it's undoubtedly the case in this story.
Interestingly, one of the most effective drugs to fight depression is incredibly widespread. It can be found on every continent with the exception of Antartica. It's use even after a single dose can improve mood for months and it's overall harm on the body is less than that of perscription antidepressants. Despite all this, to take or produce this drug is incredibly illegal in most places on the planet.
In 2011 researchers at UCLA found that administering psilocybin to terminal cancer patients reduced symptoms of depression for at least six months. Similar results have been observed in studies conducted at John Hopkins and NYU.