Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Casualties of the Drug Lords” first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Touchstone.
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Column: The Leading Edge
Casualties of the Drug Lords
by Phillip E. Johnson
On June 27, 2004, the Boston Globe published a story about the suicide of 16-year-old Kaitlyn Kennedy, who jumped off a stool at night with a rope around her neck in despair at her inability to resolve an off-and-on relationship with a controlling 20-year-old boyfriend. She knew that the relationship was unhealthy but couldn’t bring herself to cut the tie completely.
After observing Kaitlyn’s growing depression and self-destructive behavior, her frightened parents had sent her to a therapist, who prescribed the antidepressant drug Zoloft, beginning with a minimal dose and gradually increasing it to near the maximum level. When Kaitlyn was hospitalized briefly after deliberately cutting herself to draw blood, a nurse observed that she was increasingly agitated, irritable, and anxious, but did not link her condition to the drug. The parents learned later from medical records that their daughter had talked of her plan to hang herself.
On the day before the night Kaitlyn hanged herself, leaving a confused but loving note to her parents that seemed in places to be like that of a teen contemplating running away from home for a while rather than suicide, her father had shown the therapist a newspaper clipping about the risks of suicide among teens taking antidepressants. The therapist was unimpressed, and the parents, with an understandable desire to establish responsibility for an otherwise inexplicable tragedy, blamed the drugs she was taking and contemplated a lawsuit.
The causal connection between antidepressant drugs and teen suicide is suspected rather than proven, but the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about it the month after Kaitlyn’s suicide. Great Britain, citing the suicide risk, has banned most of the drugs for young people.
Kaitlyn’s story caught my attention because a knowledgeable friend had recently remarked to me that he is appalled by the scale on which powerful drugs are being prescribed for teenagers with emotional problems, and because I know that the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession is sufficiently corrupt to make any informed person suspect that doctors are not necessarily well-informed about the drugs they prescribe, and even that drugs are sometimes prescribed less for the benefit of the patient than for the profit of the drug manufacturers.
On the same day that the Globe reported Kaitlyn’s suicide, the New York Times published an article headlined “As Doctors Write Prescriptions, Drug Company Writes a Check.” It began with this disclosure:
These checks and others issued to doctors by drug companies, it continued,
Pervasive conflicts of interest stemming from pharmaceutical company payoffs extend from the modest level of routine medical practice up to the most exalted heights of biomedical research at prestigious universities and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Senior supervisors and institute directors at the NIH are the most highly paid employees of the federal government, taking home paychecks larger than those of Supreme Court justices. The Los Angeles Times shocked Congressional oversight committees by reporting in late 2003 that some of these senior biomedical researchers had accepted hundreds of undisclosed consulting fees and stock options totaling millions of dollars from companies whose products the government doctors were evaluating for efficacy and safety.
The NIH is desperately trying to mollify Congressional outrage with belated efforts at reform, but there is no easy way to change a biomedical culture in which researchers assume that it is only fair that they should share in the profits of the companies whose products and practices they evaluate.
Other current news stories contribute to a widespread impression of institutionalized corruption in biomedical research. A story in the London Guardian in 2002 reported that “scientists are accepting large sums of money to put their names to articles endorsing new medicines that they have not written—a growing practice that some fear is putting scientific integrity in jeopardy.” No one familiar with biomedical scientific practice was surprised.
It is notorious in scientific publishing that articles supposedly by independent researchers are often written in the public relations offices of the drug manufacturers. It is also notorious that the companies don’t like to publicize drug trials that produced less than satisfactory results, and so doctors who prescribe medicines may know only about the favorable reports and not the evidence to the contrary even if they have done their best to keep up with current research.
Journal editors try to compel authors to disclose conflicts of interest, but nobody knows how to persuade professors to be content to live on their salaries when they see their colleagues getting rich by taking easy money and doing the bidding of the companies who pay them. Scientists like to believe that they are incorruptible, and so disclosing conflicts may seem to them like meaningless paperwork.
The True Culprit
The financial corruption is real, and its consequences are incalculable, but there is a spiritual corruption that goes deeper than that, and this may have been the true culprit in Kaitlyn’s suicide. I refer to the philosophical materialism that is a sacred dogma in Darwinian biology. This philosophy decrees that the mind is merely an artifact of the physical brain, there being nothing else that it conceivably could be.
It follows that all ailments of the mind and spirit are reflections of some flaw or imbalance in brain chemistry, and that the logical remedy is to prescribe a drug and then, if that does not seem to help, to increase the dose until it does. Undoubtedly there are psychiatric problems that can be helped greatly by drugs, but once a dominant philosophy has decreed that all phenomena are the direct or indirect result of chemical conditions, over-reliance on chemical remedies is virtually certain to follow.
Kaitlyn seems to have needed two kinds of guidance. At a practical level, she needed to learn how to set boundaries in her personal relationships and how to terminate relations with a person who would not respect those boundaries. At a spiritual level, she needed to learn that people exist for a purpose, and that periods of unhappiness are normal low points that can be overcome and need not prevent any individual from leading a gloriously fulfilling life.
But materialist biology encourages the assumption that we live in a purposeless world in which the goals of life are reduced to the pursuit of pleasure on the one hand, and the avoidance of pain or insecurity on the other. When youth have been educated to see the world that way, the misery and anxiety of an insecure sexual relationship can make their lives seem not worth living. The same biologists who are advising the drug manufacturers for hefty fees are using their cultural power to demand that educators teach Darwinian evolution to every schoolchild in the land, with no criticism of fundamental assumptions allowed.
We are shocked when we read of teen suicides. Perhaps we should be surprised that there aren’t a lot more of them. •
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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