a growing toxicity

air freshnerIf moving to the US tends to put people at risk for psychological afflictions, clearly a strange cultural malaise is at work. And the problem appears to be getting worse.

Social epidemiologist Myrna Weissman at Columbia University, along with a lengthy list of collaborators, has explored this question in detail, looking at the US as well as other countries. Reporting in 1992 and 1996 in JAMA – the Journal of the American Medical Association – Weissman and colleagues found that more and more Americans are becoming depressed, they are getting depressed at a younger age, and the severity and frequency of depression is rising.

These results are neither small nor spurious. Each generation born in the twentieth century has suffered more depression than the previous one and since WWII, the overall rate of depression has more than doubled. A more recent study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2000 and conducted by another team of researchers, showed more than a doubling of depression in women from 1970 to 1992. Psychiatric drug use has skyrocketed as a result. American schoolchildren today are taking four times as many psychiatric meds as all of the rest of the world combined.

What’s going on? The commonly sold narrative is that every instance of the blues, and certainly every case of clinical depression, is the result of some in-born biochemical imbalance – treatable only by serotonin drugs like Prozac. Yet these studies make it clear that something larger is at play. If your brain is indeed out of balance, the source of the trouble may very well reside in your cultural environment, not in your genes.