Please don’t worry. This is not going to be some kind of dumb rant against pills or the pharmaceutical industry. I just want to show you how what was considered normal in psychiatric health care 50 years ago, is seen a very different light by us today.
And by implication, how what we now think is normal, may be considered weird 50 years from now.
50 years ago, a popular tranquilizer was the drug Nembutal. It is based on pentobarbital, which as a barbiturate is rather dangerous. It’s not only addictive, easily creating drug-dependency. An actual overdose will simply be lethal. It has long remained in use as a strong tranquilizer, for example to reduce anxiety. But in modern psychiatry it has largely been replaced by other, hopefully less dangerous drugs. It is now mainly being used by veterinarians: for euthanizing animals.
In the USA, it has recently also been used as a simple way to carry out executions, replacing more complex mixtures of lethal drugs. In March 2011, Ohio prison inmate Johnnie Baston was the first to be executed by a single-drug dose of pentobarbital (see this Washington Post article). In July 2011, when already 18 people had been executed in this way, the Danish pentobarbital producer Lundbeck announced that it would no longer accept the use of its drug for execution purposes (see this Guardian article).
Flashback to 50 years ago. Here is an old advertisement that shows how back then, this same drug was promoted (and used) for psychiatric treatment of children:
For us today, this advertisement looks just weird. Not just because it presents the use of Nembutal to tranquilize children as something normal. It also looks weird by itself.
It shows a friendly slogan “when gentleness is important”. But this strangely conflicts with the crude, caricatural, in modern eyes almost disrespectful and disturbing way the child is depicted in the image. The kid looks like a little Frankenstein, a little monster. One look at him and we’re supposed to understand immediately why, yes of course, this boy does need a gentle Nembutal treatment, real quick, before he… (fill in your darkest Dracula fantasies here).
I’ll happily leave all other interpretations of this weird advertisement to you.
Now, instead of flashing back 50 years, flash forward, to 50 years from now. To 2062. How will people then look back to today’s practices of easily diagnosing unruly, not-concentrated children as “ADHD” and sedating them with medication, instead of taking adequate educational steps?
Frankly – Frankensteinly – I think those people in the future will find this way of treating children just as unbelievable and weird, as we find this old Nembutal advertisement.
We can repeat this same time-travel thought experiment for many other primitive practices within psychiatry, such as the still far too easy and liberal use of electroshocks. What will people in 2062 think of the fact that I, a depression patient, got electroshocks even after I got a heart failure during one of those treatments?
There are many more examples of still-existing psychiatric primitiveness: again, I’ll leave this little bit of thinking to you.
The point is: if we can clearly guess how 50 years from now people will find us weird, then why should we wait those 50 more years before making some simple, obvious improvements in psychiatry? Let’s be a little more critical about what we’re doing today! Let’s work a little harder! Let that future begin now!
• note: OK. I admit, maybe this whole demonstration here was a little on the demagogic side. But in essence, I don’t think it’s untrue.
Maybe I’m just too impatient? And now I come to think of that, would this impatience be one more cause of depression?