Is America a nurturing place for people with ADD? How about depression and anxiety? Insomnia?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I’m thinking about them, because someone I grew up with—let’s call him Astor—died this past weekend from a mix of prescription drugs to treat those conditions, plus alcohol.
Astor was always a spazzy kid. He could never stay focused in class, even gym class, and he was constantly getting trouble for jumping around instead of sitting still. I should add that we went to a progressive private school, and it would be hard to find a more welcoming environment in anything that could be considered a traditional education in the basic sense. Astor wasn’t the furthest outlier in our grade, and he had plenty of friends. Still, it was clear that the trouble most kids have sitting still for an entire class were amplified several times over in him.
Did ADD doom Astor? I don’t think so. His mind was far from the type-A, alpha male that are the most frequent subjects of American success stories, but I always figured that there was ample room for a mind like his in video production, gaming, programming or something similar. The American business environment isn’t perfectly suited to people like Astor, but I figured with a little savvy, he could find a good spot for himself.
The questions I had drifted away from America’s economic environment and toward our pharmaceutical mindset. Can’t focus? There’s a pill for that. Can’t sleep? There’s a pill for that too. Depressed? Have an SSRI. Sleepy? Have some coffee, but if this is a chronic condition, talk to your doctor about getting a pill for that. Wound up at the end of the day? Have a drink. And possibly a pill.
Would Astor’s life have been better if the doctor’s who prescribed him his medication also prescribed him exercise? Or mindfulness training? Yoga? Acupuncture?
In his specific case, I have no idea. For the ADD population as a whole, I suspect some of them would benefit from Western doctors having those measures better established in their toolkit. There is resistance to those treatments, because they treat the mind and body as one, and their effects are often hard to pin down. Western medicine prefers to stay away from the mind and stick to the more objectively observable body. That mindset has allowed for incredibly rapid progress in medical research. But does it have negative side effects? Is Astor a casualty of those effects? Again, I don’t have the answers, but the questions are on my mind.
In his essay reversing his stance on marijuana, Sanjay Gupta quoted an alarming statistic: someone dies in the United States from a prescription drug overdose every 19 minutes. Perhaps we should welcome marijuana as a medical alternative to certain conditions. Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states, but for conditions like anxiety, depression and insomnia, the prescription is often seen as an excuse to get high. I don’t know if marijuana would have helped Astor, but it wouldn’t have killed him. There are no known cases of death from a marijuana overdose. If he didn’t want to get high, he could have used a pill derived from marijuana that did not have that effect, but first marijuana would have to be legal, so pharmaceutical companies could make and sell those derivatives.
I am not writing this to bury the prescription drug industry. American prescription drug companies, for all their faults, have saved countless lives, and we shouldn’t forget that. I am writing to ask questions:
How many of the more than 20,000 prescription drug-related deaths every year in America would be prevented by a shift in attitudes that welcomed more mind-based approaches? Are there conditions that are particularly risky to have because of how we treat them? Can we keep all the medical gains of the last three centuries while also not losing the next Astor?
I don’t know. But I hope we can figure out some answers very soon.