Societal Effects of Neuropharmacology

The picture of a drugged society may come to mind when wide spread use of neuroleptics is considered. Walker Percy has written of a society dependent on drugs for their happiness (Percy, 1987). In the 1950s, mood altering drugs such as thorazine and thalidomide were in popular use (Klass, 1975). A controversy resulted when it was discovered that thalidomide caused birth defects when pregnant women took the drug. These drugs may now be seen as a symptom of social decay more than a cure for disorder. In such a perspective, it may be seen that thorazine has been used to ensure "coping," by individuals who found it difficult to fit into society. If emotions and behaviors were not conductive to the environment, then a chemical aid was needed to correct that deficiency (Breggin, 1991).

The use of tranquilizers in the 1950s may be understood when the social circumstances are taken into account. During the 1940s, America was at war and much of the young male population was removed from jobs and entered into the armed forces. The domestic economy needed workers for factories and other sectors that were drained of workers. There was a vast resource available to serve as a substitute, and that was American women. Through a government campaign, women were encouraged to take the vacant job positions. Posters with characters like "Rosie the Riveter" advertized that women could take the jobs as well as men (Honey, 1984). This campaign worked, and women filled the previously male occupations. During the war, eight million women were part of the workforce. When the soldiers returned after the war, they also returned to their previous careers. Two million women were forced out of their jobs, and expected to become housewives (Halberstam, 1993). Their role was transformed to that of a homemaker, the potential buyer of the new appliances of the culture of consumerism. This loss of opportunity and status may be what caused the maladjustment among the suburban housewives. Instead of considering this societal cause, women who were not happy were encouraged to think that the fault was theirs. They were told they were the exception to the rule of blissful normality, which lead to feelings of guilt (Halberstam, 1993). Halberstam (1993, p. 590) reports that in the middle 1950s pop sociologists Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham declared that "feminism is a deep illness," (Halberstam, 1993 p 590). Many of the unhappy women received prescriptions of Thorazine or other tranquilizers (Breggin, 1991). If the notion that feminism was a form of illness became popular opinion, the tranquilization of people based on political beliefs would become likely.

Seymour Halleck has said that whether the psychiatrist wills it or not, "he assumes a political role when an attempt to modify a person's maladaptive behavior" is made (Block, 1984, p. 14). In the Soviet Union, the abuse of psychiatry to further political goals has been made intentionally. Maria Spiridonova of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was seen as a threat to the early soviet government. In 1918, after Spiridonova continued to launch political attacks after a prison sentence, the Moscow Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced her to be isolated in a sanitorium, where she would be banished from political and social life (Block, 1984).

During the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a proportion of political dissenters such as Alexander Volpin, Nikolai Samsonov, and Fyodor Shults were charged with political offence, diagnosed as mentally ill and not responsible for their actions. Instead of being sent to prisons, the dissidents were sent to institutions where they had even less rights than prisoners and were often given tranquilizers (Block, 1984). The basis for their diagnoses was on grounds as contrived as "split-personality," a diagnostic category which includes anyone having an interest in more than one specific field, and the condition of having an "exaggerated opinion of oneself," (Medvedev, 1971). In reaction to these events, the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights was formed in 1968. Some of the members of this group ended up in the same institutions against which they were protesting against (Block, 1984). Thus, the conditions of normality and sanity were defined by the group in power. This parallels the less extreme treatment of American women in the 1950s.

There is another side to the societal effects of neuropharmacology. The advent of neuroleptics has allowed the transition of thousands of psychotic patients from mental hospitals towards integration with society. These mental hospitals had been for the most part custodial in function. The discovery of drugs that are effective in the treatment of psychotic illnesses may be the most important psychopharmacological event of the latter part of the twentieth century (Iversen, 1975).

For millions, pharmaceutical agents have provided relief from the symptoms of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, states of anxiety and other unwanted conditions (Heston, 1992). The people who have voluntarily used such medications believe the opportunity to use psychopharmaceutical agents to be extremely beneficial (Sneader, 1985).