FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Exploiting Styron’s Ghost

“I’ve been through a lot, good and bad, I’ve seen government rise and fall and scientific theories rise and fall, and I think there’s a breadth of mind which, provided the brain is healthy comes with age.”

— Oliver Sacks

Eli Lilly got FDA approval to market Prozac in December 1988. The company’s marketing genius, Ed West, had a brilliant strategy for making it a blockbuster: Market not the drug but the disorder “Clinical Depression” —a supposedly widespread “mental illness” that, by the way, Lilly’s new “Selective Serotonin-Reuptake Inhibitor” could supposedly treat.

Lilly’s peer-reviewed publicists determined that shame was preventing millions of Americans from getting a Depression diagnosis (and proper medication). ‘Overcome your shame’ worked as a sales pitch then and it’s working still —witness the publication in the New York Times August 5 of “The Great God of Depression,” an article about the novelist William Styron by a woman named Pagan Kennedy. It begins:

Nearly 30 years ago, the author William Styron outed himself in these pages as mentally ill. “My days were pervaded by a gray drizzle of unrelenting horror,” he wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article, describing the deep depression that had landed him in the psych ward. He compared the agony of mental illness to that of a heart attack. Pain is pain, whether it’s in the mind or the body. So why, he asked, were depressed people treated as pariahs?

A confession of mental illness might not seem like a big deal now, but it was back then…

That’s Big PhRMA’s line and it’s false. Discussion of melancholy has always been acceptable among those who could afford to discuss it. The reason people didn’t make “a confession of mental illness” until Prozac came along is that they didn’t define their sadness as mental illness.

In the 1990s I reported on the marketing of Prozac for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and with Alexander Cockburn, wrote a comprehensive piece on the subject  that was rejected by the Los Angeles Times.  Based on 100 phone interviews (in response to a classified ad in the San Francisco Bay Guardian), we concluded that “Clinical Depression is invariably a function of loneliness and/or insecurity —plain words that suggest social rather than chemical causation.”

We noted that William Styron and Mike Wallace filled an important niche in Lilly’s marketing campaign, being prime examples of men who were famous and respected and well-to-do… and yet prone to Clinical Depression! We knew that both Styron and Wallace were suffering from loneliness, broadly defined. Styron’s beloved mother died when he was 13 after a many-years-long ordeal with cancer.  Boys who watch their mothers suffer and then lose them can feel the loss forever. That’s not an illness, it’s lifelong grief. Mike Wallace’s handsome, talented son Peter died at age 19 in a mountain climbing accident. Was his enduring grief an illness?

Psychiatrist Frederick Goodwin, former head of the National Institute of Mental Health explained in a phone interview that an episode of major depression is one of “relentless duration —week after week. You can have a grief reaction that can be every bit as intense as a clinical depression. But it doesn’t last. Depressions stick around…” A key to defining depression, Goodwin reiterated, was “duration, measured in weeks and months rather than days.”

Cockburn and I wrote: “Weeks and months? Is that ‘relentless duration? We don’t know about you and your friends and patients in Washington D.C., doctor, but in our circles grief reactions last for years, decades, lifetimes, generations!”

Reading Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness I was surprised to learn that William Styron didn’t see himself as a man who had been through years of an anguish that lasts. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, is excruciating. His most famous, Sophie’s Choice was grim, to put it mildly. My favorite, Set This House on Fire, is the lightest but it’s pretty heavy. His memoir Darkness Visible is stylishly written and almost light in tone until page 83 when Styron describes the death of his mother and the tone changes and he expresses unresolvable loss, grief, and rage.

I met Styron and his wife Rose in the mid-60s through their neighbor on Martha’s Vineyard, Lillian Hellman, who I was interviewing for a possible biography. From my glimpse of the Styrons’ social circle, I doubt they had many friends who were cynical about Psychiatry. Bill needed a friend and he got a Brain Scientist.

Pagan Kennedy writes:

“His famous memoir of depression, ‘Darkness Visible,’ came out in October 1990. It…  demonstrated that patients could be the owners and describers of their mental disorders, upending centuries of medical tradition in which the mentally ill were discredited and shamed. The brain scientist Alice Flaherty, who was Mr. Styron’s close friend and doctor, has called him “the great god of depression” because his influence on her field was so profound. His book became required reading in some medical schools, where physicians were finally being trained to listen to their patients…

This past year, I have been working on an audio documentary about Mr. Styron and Dr. Flaherty (a longtime friend of mine).

Pagan Kennedy(@Pagankennedy) is the co-producer of “The Great God of Depression,” a serial podcast from PRX’s Radiotopia; the author of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”; and a contributing opinion writer..

Darkness Visible played and evidently will continue to play a big role in the marketing of Depression. Styron makes the diagnosis classier.

The Anti-Depressant Epidemic

We tend to think of the 1990s as the Prozac Decade, but sales have continued soaring ever since. Between 1999 and 2014 antidepressant use in the US rose by 65%, according to a US Center for Disease Control and Prevention study.

By 2014 about one in  eight Americans over age 12 reported recent antidepressant use. Women were about twice as likely as men to be using. A quarter of the people who had used in the past month had been on anti-depressants for 10 years or more.

When the CDC report came out, CBS news asked a New York psychiatrist named Ami Baxi to explain the steep, steady rise in anti-depressant use. Baxi credited FDA approvals for more indications and  “a sign of decreasing mental health stigma,” where more people feel comfortable asking for help against depression and anxiety.

 

More articles by:

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
Elliot Sperber
Eddie Spaghetti’s Alphabet
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail