How Prozac Turned Depression Medication into a Cultural Phenomenon | Retro Report

How Prozac Turned Depression Medication into a Cultural Phenomenon | Retro Report


It’s the hottest psychiatric drug in history. Prozac, the wonder drug that works wonders. At the end of 1987, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a new antidepressant, and Prozac hit the American market. Advertising and word of mouth
helped boost the drug’s reputation and Prozac became the “it” drug of the 1990s. Models in the latest fashions are said to
look Prozac deprived. Before long, the name was on everyone’s tongue. I was on Prozac for a long time. And, it seemed, everyone was using it. Six million Americans using Prozac right now. The greater the drug’s popularity,
the more it seemed to symbolize. Prozac moves from being a successfully launched pharmaceutical product, to being a true cultural celebrity. You know it’s the holiday season in New
York City when the drug dealers are selling more Prozac than crack. So, how did this little pill
become the icon of an era? For people who suffer depression, it’s been
hailed as a virtual miracle. Almost immediately after Prozac’s launch,
it was clear that it offered a promising alternative to available treatments for depression. I started giving it to difficult patients,
patients who hadn’t done well somewhere else. And people thought, “I could get help
with something I’ve lived with for years.” The drug was an enormous medical breakthrough.
Prozac emerged as a pioneer in a new category of drugs called SSRIs that targeted one chemical
in the brain, serotonin, instead of many. It plays a crucial role in mood, appetite,
and many other brain functions. Many anti-depressive drugs have severe side
effects. It was largely a lack of those problems that has persuaded doctors to prescribe Prozac
to two million Americans. One of those was student Elizabeth Wurtzel. I had been on other medications before that
didn’t work nearly so well but it really changed everything. There was one morning
when I woke up, and I felt like the idea of being alive didn’t seem so awful.
It was an amazing turnaround. The drug led her to break the historical taboo
about depression and write a book about hers. I knew it was pretty safe to tell the story
because I knew a lot of people would relate to it. I think that’s what I was betting on.
If I wrote it, it would make people feel better. Wurtzel quickly became
the Generation X face of the drug. But Wurtzel’s book was not the only one
that captured the public imagination. Psychiatrist and author Peter Kramer wrote his from the
perspective of the treating physician. People who do well on it may say
“This is my real self.” The transformation is not away from the self but towards some ideal self. He then went on to speculate about how Prozac
might change us in ways never before expected. I thought, “What will happen if we can do this
with people who have never been depressed, you know, if you could put someone on the medicine and he or she would become more socially adept?” And I coined a term, “cosmetic
psychopharmacology,” where the analogy was cosmetic surgery, so a medical procedure done for something
other than treating illness. Kramer’s narrative about Prozac being able
to change people’s essential selves took hold. Many claim that it transforms them, makes
them more calm, confident, more productive – somehow better than well. I’ve found that taking this medicine, this drug,
I became a different person. But it wasn’t just the promise of a personal
metamorphosis that made Prozac a household name. Here we go. Here comes the Prozac. Prozac’s popularity wasn’t just the result
of a medical breakthrough, but also of a marketing one. Prozac’s marketing helped popularize the
idea that our moods are neurochemical and that there are things we can do
to change them. Prozac took the mystery out of the science. 
It talked about how the drug worked. Another way the drug’s benefits were sold
to the public was through its name. Eli Lilly hired branding agency Interbrand
to come up with a memorable one. Prozac has two syllables. The first syllable
“P-R-O” was designed to suggest “professional.” The “A-C” is designed to communicate activity. Coupled with the “Z”, it just sounds much
more powerful, and more effective as a name. But it wasn’t just the name that gave Prozac a leg up. One of the first places that news about Prozac
appears is in popular financial magazines, things that are reporting on its potential
blockbuster status, how it’s going to make a ton of money for its producers, and it kind
of creates this buzz. It was remarkable. 
I mean, the New York Magazine had this pill on its cover. I don’t think anything like that had happened before. As media coverage of the drug grew, stories
about its link to suicide began to circulate. In 1991, the FDA convened hearings on the issue. I finally admitted myself to a stress center. I begged them “Lock me up
because I’m going to die and I don’t want to die.” No conclusive link was found, and the sale
of Prozac continued. This medicine had the career arc of a celebrity,
that it was sort of over-hyped and then demonized and, you know, trying to find its level through the press. Ever since Prozac was introduced five years ago, it has developed what amounts to a cult following. Before long, as other SSRI’s began to eat
away at Eli Lilly’s market share, Prozac ads began appearing in general interest magazines
rather than just medical journals, targeting patients, particularly women,
instead of just their doctors and commercials ran on TV for the first time. People wanted control, they wanted to talk
about their successes, their personal successes. And Prozac spoke to that. And it also introduced something new for sale. Since the 1950s, consumer goods like cars and washing machines had become symbols of success and happiness. Now, there was something else. Prozac is saying that happiness itself is
available for purchase and can be one of these things that defines what it means to be in
America and have that American dream. And the more people who claimed their share
of it, the better Eli Lilly’s bottom line. In 2001, with the patent set to expire,
they launched a new drug for a new problem. Sarafem is not really a new drug. It’s just
a new name for the popular anti-depressant Prozac, now repackaged with a distinctly feminine
look. Some accuse the drug manufacturer of trying to create a new market for Prozac by
grossly exaggerating premenstrual problems. Soon the airwaves were full of ads for other drugs promising to treat problems most of us didn’t know we had. You do have a whole bunch of new pharmaceuticals
coming out to enable people to do things that they like to do, so to be able to eat a bunch
of cheeseburgers, or to be able to have sex, you have drugs like Viagra coming out.  
These are responding to genuine human needs and desires, but those needs and desires hadn’t
always been configured as illnesses the way they were during and after the Prozac era. I think Prozac made people very aware of the
possibility that medicines were going to step out of their bounds and be used by people who maybe had some quality that wasn’t rewarded socially to move to some state that was better
socially rewarded.

One thought on “How Prozac Turned Depression Medication into a Cultural Phenomenon | Retro Report”

  1. It may work for some but as someone who's used it before it didn't work for me. Chemically, it takes a while to get off due to its long half life. Anti-Depressant medication doesn't make you happy, it just makes it easier to live your life to make your self happy or treat an underlying mental health issue.

    Prozac should be used as a secondary treatment type not the first line of treatment for typical depression.
    To this day i still search for the right drug combination but until this year i figured out why the drug never worked, I had been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Atypical depression is hard to treat in some people but medication isn't always going to instantly fix your problems.

    But that's just my opinion.

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