The Gospel According to Prozac
Elise Walters, a devout Christian, woke up every morning with one thought: "I want to die." Despite repeated prayers and counseling with standard spiritualizing remedies to "willpower" her way to wellness, Walters agonized every day with depression. (For reasons of confidentiality, the names of some people on antidepressants have been changed.)
Don Timons, a top executive in an evangelical organization, had a reputation for a bad temper that led to lashing out at coworkers. For Timons, a decade-long depression expressed itself in an anger he felt unable to control. Repeated confessions of repentance for his inappropriate outbursts accompanied repeated pleas to God for help with his rage-to no avail.
Three weeks after having been prescribed the antidepressant Prozac, Timons felt an underlying change that mushroomed into a transformation "akin to how I felt during my conversion experience." Not only did the depression lift, so did the uncontrollable anger.
Walters had a similar experience. A few weeks after taking Prozac, she says, "I felt like living again. And I began to experience God like I never had before."
Can it be that a pill can do what the Holy Spirit or human will could not? Why is it that a drug influencing the levels of a certain neurotransmitter can have such dramatic results in people when prayer and good intentions seem to have been inadequate?
These questions naturally lead to another: Can a pill bring us closer to God? Carlos Ramirez believes so. Diagnosed earlier this year with depression, Ramirez has been on Prozac for eight months. "It totally revolutionized my relationship with God. For years I had pleaded with God to change me. My depression was having a destructive effect on my marriage and on my ability to trust God. I can say now not only is my marriage more stable, but I feel closer to God than I ever have."
Prozac was introduced to the world in 1988 and has since raised obvious questions about depression and the unregulated use of antidepressants. But the drug is also a metaphor for advances in biopharmacology that are enabling scientists to pinpoint the chemicals and areas in our brains where our different personalities, quirks, and abilities are defined and to potentially adjust them based on our personal needs or wishes.
With such biopharmacological methodology in place, Christians must ultimately address a hard question: Are Prozac and similar antidepressants potentially a shortcut for people to feel good without the character-forming discipline of faith and religious belief?
Prozac's popularity is due to its remarkable success in curing clinically depressed patients. Prozac and its fraternal drugs, Zoloft and Paxil, use a flouxetine compound that helps the body increase its levels of serotonin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that has been linked with feelings of well-being. Depressed individuals typically have low levels of serotonin available to their brain cells because of its rapid absorption by other cells throughout the body.
Although earlier antidepressants have been as effective as Prozac in treating depression, Prozac has comparatively milder and fewer side effects-which may include edginess, nausea, insomnia, weight gain, and failure to reach orgasm during sex; the side effects of the older antidepressants include dryness of the mouth and eyes, sensitivity to bright light, blurry vision, constipation, anxiety, weight gain, cardiovascular problems, and various sexual dysfunctions.
Sixty to 80 percent of clinically depressed patients benefit from Prozac or similar antidepressants. ("Clinically depressed" means those who have a variety of symptoms, including low self-esteem, deep sadness, eating/sleeping/ sexual disturbances, or suicidal feelings.) It is not surprising, then, that, with 17 percent of the population suffering from major depression at some point in their lives, nearly 1 million Prozac prescriptions are filled each month in the United States alone.