I had a friend in college tell me once that she was glad she never got into doing drugs. She then took a long pull on her third Mountain Dew of the night and put a cigarette back up to her lips. I raised my eyebrows in quiet irony.
Ours is a largely medicated society — be it legally, or illegally. How many of you are sipping your second cup of coffee as you read this? (I’m finishing my first and about to go for seconds.) Of course, in small doses certain, relatively benign stimulants like caffeine seem to pose no more problem for users than being strongly habit-forming, and maybe imposing themselves into our lives to the point that we’re groggy, grouchy, and less focused prior to our morning cup of joe. (There’s evidence that suggests caffeine can be both good and bad for your heart, depending on the dosage.) But increasingly, despite a decades-long war on (illegal) drugs, use of drugs in American culture is up considerably these days, and involves use of legal, non-medicinal stimulants and depressants; illicit substances; and both the legal and illegal use (or abuse) of prescription and over-the-counter meds of all kinds.
I come from a generation that was largely encouraged to differentiate between legal prescription and over-the-counter drugs that could make you well and illegal, unregulated, untaxed abominations that would fry your brain. The implicit logic followed the tradition of commercials like this one:
But that was before some cities passed ordinances allowing the medicinal use of marijuana to treat a wide variety of ailments. Now the lines aren’t so clearly demarcated. And likewise, while abuse of certain prescription drugs has always been a problem, at the time the above commercial ran, society was more concerned about kids getting hooked on crack cocaine than it was about the potential for an illicit trade in antidepressants, attention-deficit drugs, and painkillers. Those things can be abused or misprescribed too. Even when prescribed properly, these drugs, too, can alter your brain chemistry in unexpected ways, or impact parts of the brain other than the ones they’re supposed to stabilize.
Here’s an infographic from Spina Bifida Info. It describes the impact that different classes of prescription drugs have on your brain. Some shocking numbers from the chart: prescription drug overdose deaths have more than tripled in the past decade, the abuse of opioid painkillers has risen more than 400%, and unintentional poisoning deaths involving psychotherapeutic drugs grew 84% in the first half-decade of the new century. Moreover, Peter Wehrwein cited in the Harvard Health Letter a 2011 National Center for Health Statistics study which found that antidepressant use among U.S. teens and adults had risen by nearly 400% between 1988-1994 and 2005-2008.
Some of these stats are chilling, but are little surprise to me. I don’t know how those of you from earlier generations will react to this chart, but most members of my generation have probably encountered — like I have — twelve-year-olds who know as much about antidepressants as the Physician’s Desk Reference, high school athletes with easy access to steroids and opiads, and college peers who pass around Adderall before a midterm study session. People are abusing substances like these because they’re easy to get (with increases in prescriptions like those for antidepressants), they have less of an overt social stigma attached to them, and they’re in many ways much easier to conceal in the medicine cabinet.
It’s enough to make you think about what you’re putting into your brain, no matter the legality of the source.