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18 April 2011

Laurie Penny: A sad truth about “happy pills”

Governments have long been reluctant to draw attention to the links between mental health and socio-economic factors.

By Laurie Penny

The government insists that meaningful and empowering jobs are there for the taking in the way that a toddler might insist he didn’t eat that lipstick. Meanwhile, 7 per cent of British workers are now reliant on antidepressants. The 43 per cent rise in the number of antidepressant prescriptions in the UK since 2006 has been attributed “to the recession”, as if the mass self-tranquilisation of despairing workers were an inevitable response to the economic downturn.

But the surge in prescriptions indicates not so much an increase in “sadness” but a rise in the number of people taking these drugs on a long-term basis, often to combat stress or anxiety. Calling these drugs “happy pills” is misleading: antidepressants can be highly addictive and have a range of debilitating side effects, not least the numbing of emotional response. They can provide a vital crutch for people in recovery from serious mental illness but Prozac, Seroxat and Citalopram were never intended as solutions to fiscal instability.

Governments have long been reluctant to draw attention to the links between mental health and socio-economic factors – links that challenge the orthodoxy that those who are too unwell to work are merely “scroungers”. Depression and anxiety are blamed almost wholly on individuals. If we are not strong enough to cope with the rat race, we must be personally deficient and undeserving of support.

We are told that no matter how low the pay or long the hours, drudgery will deliver happiness. The dogma driving the current wave of welfare reforms is that out-of-work benefits must be withdrawn on a grand scale, even in a time of mass unemployment – not to cut costs but because work makes people so very happy.

Unemployment can damage well-being but poor mental health has been shown to be just as likely a consequence of what a recent study called “jobs with poor psychosocial attributes”. This is academic code for insecure work in awful conditions: corporate serfdom in offices, call centres and canteens.

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Broken heart

Earlier this year, I spoke to William, a 22-year-old benefits adviser, who was on strike because working conditions in his office had become intolerable. Half the staff, he told me, were on antidepressants just to cope with the strain. “People come to work in tears,” he said, “but they’re terrified of saying they can’t cope because they know just what happens if they have to go on the sick.”

What happens, in an age when the mentally ill are the whipping-children of enforced austerity, is that one must battle a spiteful welfare system for the pittance to which one is entitled and face the possibility of being out of work for a very long time.

Nobody is forced to take antidepressants but with talking therapies woefully underfunded and sickness benefits under attack, many GPs feel obliged to recommend them as the only option.

If you have a broken leg, there is no shame in requiring a crutch – but crutches do not cure. Antidepressants may help British workers keep calm and carry on but change is needed to heal the broken heart of British society.