A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Antidepressant Prozac introduced

Since the introduction of Thorazine, various drugs to treat mental illness have been developed. Psychiatrists have prescribed them, and they have been found to work with varying degrees of effectiveness for different people and conditions, while causing a range of side effects. There has been a new antidepressant on the market every two or three years.

In 1987, the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) was introduced. It had been tested by the FDA and found to be an effective antidepressant with fewer than usual side effects. Doctors began to prescribe it to depressed patients. The results were astonishing. Patients reported feeling "better than well." It not only eased their depression, but seemed to give them a new look at themselves. Prozac users felt they were discovering their own true personalities for the first time, uninhibited by a vague weight that had bogged them down before. It seemed to make cautious people more spontaneous, the introverted more outgoing, the timid more confident. In short, it seened to improve people's personalities, at least in making them more socially attractive.

Within two years, pharmacies were filling 65,000 Prozac prescriptions per month -- in the United States alone. Within five years, 4.5 million Americans had taken it. This was the fastest acceptance ever for a psychiatric drug. And because it seemed to go beyond treating illness and actually improve people, to be a facelift for the character, it gained the status of a celebrity. As Peter Kramer wrote in Listening to Prozac, "Prozac enjoyed the career of a true celebrity -- renown, followed by rumors, then notoriety, scandal, and lawsuits, and finally a quiet rehabilitation."

Reports emerged that some patients felt more suicidal on Prozac. Lawyers began to defend murder suspects by saying that whatever they did, it was under the influence of a drug -- Prozac. There was a backlash to the use of the drug, followed by a smaller backlash to the backlash, until Prozac left the front pages and returned to the pharmacist's formulary. Still, it had opened a new window on an old question about personality and mental health -- how much of it is biological, and how much experiential?

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