Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Popping pills in print

Edited by Jill Wright,

Having spent a good deal of my professional life writing daily and weekly columns in The Australian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Review, I can sympathise with the sort of pressure Lisa Pryor is under to produce something entertaining for her column in the Good Weekend (for which, as it happens, I used to write feature articles).

I was, however, more than a little concerned when in her last column she disclosed her recipe for coping with the demands of work, study and parenthood: "caffeine and antidepressants"

She described the antidepressants as "a little bit of neurochemical assistance" that helped her "actually enjoy the glorious disaster of raising two small children while studying medicine full time".

"I am not depressed," she wrote. "I am antidepressed."

She outlined another benefit of the pills: the fact that she was quite candid about sharing the recipe with other women at social events gave her "the power of showing vulnerability". It served as a "conversation deepener" that made others feel safe to do the same.

"In my experience, nothing drags chat beyond the stale terrain of weather and property prices more quickly than blurting this out," Pryor opined. And what many people blurt out in return, is that "they are similarly medicated or have been".

This disclosure in print prompted former Labor leader Mark Latham to write a typically outrageous, completely over-the-top column in the Financial Review which claimed that "left feminism is akin to a psychoneurotic disorder" and speculated as to why women like Pryor would want to have children in the first place. 

That provided fuel for a third columnist, Annabel Crabb, to fill her allotted space in the Sunday paper, and for columnists in The Guardian and elsewhere to do likewise, culminating in a petition for the Financial Review to remove Latham's column ... an act which journalist/businesswoman Mia Freedman endorsed in yet another online column, on the grounds that, among other things, Latham was shaming people who suffered from mental illness. Really?

Amid all that busy word-spinning, nobody expressed any concern about a soon-to-be-practising medical doctor (apparently Lisa has finished her studies) advocating what seems to me - if her description of herself as not being depressed is correct - to be an unambiguous abuse of antidepressants. 

Nobody mentioned the marginal effectiveness of antidepressants over placebos, or their long-term risks. Nobody wrote about suicidal thoughts, weight-gain, diabetes, prolonged withdrawal symptoms etc., and disturbing research that suggests long-term use actually shrinks the brain, to say nothing of numerous instances where people on anti-depressants have killed themselves and/or others.

Nobody was at all concerned that despite her denial that she was "endorsing medication" Pryor's column could be seen as doing precisely that. If the statement "even though it has worked so well for me" isn't an endorsement, what is it? It's scarcely a caution. Let's be quite clear about it: Pryor's column is an endorsement for the long-term use of antidepressants.

In my opinion it was an error of judgment to deal with the topic in such a flippant way. The irony is that Pryor has written previously about the dangers of  psychiatric drug interventions with young people, and for that matter has written a Small Book About Drugs that makes some quite sensible points about (recreational) drug use.

Perhaps it's not as entertaining, but it would be ever so much more helpful if columnists could write about the fact that there are much safer and more effective ways for busy young mothers to cope with the competing demands of work and family, without getting a little help from "neurochemical friends". Some friends. Some journalism.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.