The consequences of a drugged society

This will be the first of a few posts about mental health- from a philosophical, political, and personal viewpoint. I think the issue of mental health is often ignored in parts of Western society- the mentally ill have been marginalized in one way or another.

In 2002, a film featuring Christian Bale was released, called Equilibrium. In short, it’s a terrible movie. However, its premise raises some interesting notions about mental health, and the attempts to keep humans from being self-destructive.

The decades preceding the setting of the film are wracked with large-scale war, racial hatred, and a deterioration of global society. It is determined by the new ruling class that the cause of these tragedies was human emotion. A perfectly rationally constructed society is only as good as the humans themselves. Humans, therefore, are the weak point in the structure, and need to be strengthened.

This is accomplished in the movie by a strict regimen of mood-regulating medicine, created and distributed by the government. Also, things that may arose emotion such as music, literature, and art are heavily censored and destroyed.

Christian Bale plays an agent of the Tetragrammaton, an agency devoted to eradicating dissent, destroying forbidden culture. There is a small segment of society that refuses to take their medicine, and would rather die than live a cold, clinical existence. The first scene shows Bale taking out a dozen resisters- in the buildup we see them with a stockpile of paintings- some of which would look very familiar to a modern Westerner.

The point I am making by mentioning Equilibrium is the concept of medication and social control. In the sociology class I am presently taking, we discuss Foucault and how governments enforce social control and develop power of their citizens. The point is made that though punishments are less barbaric than they were a hundred years ago, the government has a much greater ability to mold people into a desired state. Surveillance, extending law enforcement to a national and international range, and mass public education helps cultivate certain values over others, and make sure that they are adhered to in later life.

 Equilibrium  makes the point that mass medication is a way to create and maintain an authoritarian society. The United States has not done such a thing (unless you believe a certain subset of the conspiracy community). But medication has been used to create acceptance of a society that is not compatible with human behavior and human limits.

The use of sleep medications like Ambien has skyrocketed, as the pressures that are put on millions of people affects the circadian rhythm and creates restlessness. Childhood mental and emotional disorders are often grossly overdiagnosed, as problematic behavior is considered to be grounds for medication. The fact that many kids no longer have these symptoms (even without medication) at 25 shows that society is attempting to create an ideal model of a child.

That more psychiatric medicine is being created and prescribed than every before, even though mental health issues plague the United States, is an irony that is not lost on me. The thing is, in the aggregate, all this medication is not solving very many problems. Societies have mostly imaginary ideas of what ‘normal’ is, and use various means to make as many people as possible fit the criteria. However, humans are not that simple. The appropriateness of behavior is largely a relative, perspective-based thing. Drugs have their use, and I’m glad for the ones that keep me sane, but throwing them at a gaping problem that has developed over decades is futile. Just like using medication to prevent war, using it to make people interact better, feel less alone, and more energetic about the work that they do is probably a flawed and unrealistic method for solving a problem.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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