A good choice

Some readers of y1 have praised the story’s criticisms of the zealous marketing of prescriptions drugs in American, particularly mental health drugs to children and young adults. A couple of readers have taken issue with it.  For me as a writer, the subject was representative of the larger issue of putting profit ahead of the well-being of our children. It was a vehicle to make a bigger point.

tearsBut as a mother, the idea of routinely prescribing drugs with serious side-effects and unknown long term consequences to children as young as two years old hits home with an emotional wallop of its own. Every once in awhile I come across an article that reminds me why I thought that  pharmaceutical marketing targeting children would provide a good villain for my story.

Gwen Olsen, who worked for fifteen years as a drug rep for Johnson & Johnson and Bristol-Myers Squibb, was recently quoted on Alternet as saying: “Children are known to be compliant patients and that makes them a highly desirable market for drugs, especially when it pertains to large profit-margin psychiatric drugs, which can be wrought with noncompliance because of their horrendous side-effect profiles.”

Great. Adults are allowed to follow their best instincts and listen to their own bodies, and therefore frequently stop taking drugs they find more harmful than helpful. Children can be ordered to take their medicine, and their parents can be scared into making them do so.

It is enough to make a healthy adult want to cry.

How things change: the eye of the beholder

Visit psychsearch.net

Visit psychsearch.net

When I graduated from high school, apparently  homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental conditions. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, because to the best of my knowledge there weren’t any homosexuals in my home town and there possibly weren’t even any in the whole state of Kansas.  It was a rare condition, my mother assured me.

Unbeknownst to me, there were also gay activists in 1974, and they pushed the American Psychiatric Association to remove it from the DSM. It was removed, and since then a lot a of new illnesses have been added. As edition five came out this spring, psychiatrists took a lot of grief for classing so many types of behavior as “illnesses.” For example, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder threatens to turn children with too many temper tantrums into those with a mental disorder and binge eating (defined as excessive eating 12 times in 3 months and I wonder if my ice cream habit puts me over the top here) is now an official mental illness.

On the one hand, classification as an illness does allow those who want help to get their insurance to pay for it, if they have insurance 🙂 . On the other hand, having your idiosyncrasies or your own areas for personal growth classed as a mental disorder could be life altering in negative ways as well.

So what of homosexuality as a form of mental illness? Well, a few months ago Saul Levin, an openly gay man, was named the  new American Psychiatric Association chief executive officer and medical director.

Things do change with time. In the case of Dr. Levin, I’m glad that they have and I wish him the best. In the case of the new mental illness referred to as “hoarding disorder” …… well, I prefer to still consider it one my more charming little eccentricities.

For more on how things change with time, visit my z2 blog here for thoughts on human trafficking and Broadway musicals. Also visit my x0 blog here for thoughts on veggie burgers, humor and empathy.

How happy is your brain?

From Crystalinks.com

From Crystalinks.com

My other blog includes occasional posts about telepathy because the hero of my other novel, x0,  is a budding telepath.  Last night I made an attempt to understand how telepathy might be possible without requiring magic that defies the laws of the known universe. (Please understand that I have no objection to law-defying magic.) I realized that much of my arguement came from my research for y1 into the workings of the human brain. Zane, the hero of y1, is a student of neuroscience because he desperately wants to understand how he can alter his appearance. Once he begins working for a pharmaceutical company dedicated to mental health issues, however, other aspects of the brain begin to intrigue him.  Like, what happens in your brain when you are happy?

A brain works by chemistry and by electrical impulse, and it directs hundreds of chemical substances called neurotransmitters that travel in-between the brain’s cells, delivering messages about thoughts and feelings. I share Zane’s amazement that such a system even works, much less with the precision that it does.

We do know that different substances deliver certain kinds of messages, like a FedEx that only does books or a UPS that exclusively delivers clothing. One of these messengers, serotonin, generally likes to blab to the nearest neuron about anxiety, mood, sexuality, and appetite. Another, norepinephrine, appears to focus on delivering messages about fatigue, alertness, and stress. Dopamine likes to communicate about motivation and reward. The theory behind antidepressants is that the neurotransmitters that like to communicate about feelings should be linked to a person’s happiness. So when people are depressed perhaps it is because they do not have enough of these particular messengers running around to spread the joy.

medicineThe very first antidepressants created in the ‘50s tried to raise the brain’s levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, to play with this mental message system. A second class of anti-depressants was based on inhibiting the enzyme that breaks down these guys in order to leave more of the good stuff in the brain. Basically the same idea. Next came the less side-effect-plagued successor, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI), the most frequently prescribed antidepressants today. First developed in the ‘70s, and continuously improved upon by different pharmaceutical companies, SSRI’s work by stopping the process of reuptake, a fancy name for when a responsible neuron absorbs the neurotransmitter it has sent out, to take the messenger back off the streets once the message has been sent. The theory here is that by keeping the sending neuron from doing its re-absorbing, more of this “happy” chemical stays running around the brain. Again, the same idea.

From Wired.com

From Wired.com

While it sounds great to say that taking this medication is “fixing chemical imbalances in the brain,” the problem is that no one gets to do experiments on a live human brain. Thankfully. And dead human brains don’t send chemical messages and can’t be depressed. Neither really can animals, at least those generally accepted for grisly lab experiments. So no one actually knows whether depressed people have less serotonin in their brains. Or whether they reabsorb it too fast without medication. In fact, no one knows how much serotonin a generally joyful person has. Can one really have too little? Or too much? Because a few antidepressants lower serotonin levels, and they appear to work too.

Trying to figure out what makes for a happy brain is complicated even more because there is no way to tell how much these medications change a person’s serotonin levels, because there is no way to measure those levels in a live human. Which means that, in the end, the only evidence we have that serotonin levels might be related to human depression at all is that in more cases than not, the medication works.

Is it working because it is based on an accurate analysis of how chemicasl in our brains keep us happy? Or not?  That will be subject of another post.