Are pills the solution to all that ails us? It is a question that seems to come up often in our modern society and one that is sure to crop up anew following a banner year for newly approved pharmaceuticals in this country.
This “Is there a pill for everything?” question came to mind recently based on coverage of a news report in the Guardian, which revealed that researchers in this country are working on a new treatment for the problem of loneliness — a pill.
In the medical world, there is a clinical term for nonmedical problems’ being defined and treated as medical conditions. It is called “medicalization.” Many human problems and conditions have been medicalized and assigned disease terms in the 20th century — and rightly so, based on cultural changes and scientific advances. Following a year when drug approvals hit an all-time high in this country, we can expect a continued supply of new treatments for diseases and conditions, many based on seminal discoveries. Some say there has never been a better time for pharmaceutical research.
Still, some argue that in a world where pharmaceutical companies become actively involved in sponsoring the definition of diseases and promoting them to both prescribers and consumers, financial principles can start to outweigh social ones. According to Stat News, the pharmaceutical industry spent a whopping $7.6 billion on advertising last year. Critics think this undermines the societal role of doctors, driving patients to ask for particular drugs by name and in effect shifting the conversation to the consumer and the drug company. One area considered most vulnerable to such marketing efforts is psychological health.
As noted by Christina Victor, a professor of gerontology and public health at Brunel University London, in a byline piece in The Conversation, the rationale for this pharmaceutical research of loneliness has to do with how it negatively affects our brains and other systems in the body as well as the belief that drug treatments might help prevent or reduce this effect. The researchers argue that, while this might not solve the underlying problem, it would at least help limit its effects.
What a pill will not address is the fundamental issue for lonely people: insufficient meaningful relationships. Suggesting a similar pharmacological treatment as what’s used for depression and anxiety puts loneliness in the same bucket as those conditions. Says Dr. Victor, the problem is that the medical connection is a limited one and ultimately an approach that unnecessarily medicalizes a normal part of the human experience.
According to Dr. Victor, anxiety and depression are mental health disorders that can have a variety of emotional and physiological causes. They have clear clinical and diagnostic signs and symptoms. Loneliness, on the other hand, is caused by social problems related to insufficient interactions with other people. There exists no established process to clinically identify lonely individuals. She believes going straight to a pill and its inevitable side effects is premature at best.
According to the Guardian report, recent estimates suggest that anywhere from 22 to 75 percent of American adults are persistently lonely. Fewer Americans are marrying or having children. The average household size is shrinking. Modern life seems designed to make us feel untethered.
“The solution to loneliness lies not in doling out a pill and turning an important human experience into something needing medical treatment, but in creating communities and opportunities that enable people to build positive social relationships,” writes Dr. Victor. We should be wary of well-intentioned developments that oversimplify the complex nature of loneliness, she adds.
Since 2016, Julia Bainbridge has hosted the podcast “The Lonely Hour,” exploring the way our modern life is designed to disengage us from one another. “We are such a medicated, comfortably numb society,” Bainbridge tells The Guardian. “Living is hard sometimes,” she adds. “It puts us up for the possibility of rejection, but putting yourself up for that, engaging in that way, is part of a really important piece of human development.”
For some time now, loneliness has been associated with excessive smartphone use. Bainbridge notes that, in addition to filling the blank spaces in our day, our cellphones double as a crutch to lean on when we are socially anxious or uncomfortable. As a result, we increasingly find ourselves isolated.
How do we find a solution to this problem? According to the folks in Silicon Valley, they have an answer: artificial intelligence and your smartphone. Mental health apps are appearing on the scene that offer the opportunity to text with a therapist or coach any time of day to better understand your situation and how health professionals might intervene. Other apps allow users to talk with a chatbot (artificial intelligence) to help them feel less alone.
We will see where all this goes, but I am for anything that can get us to focus on building meaningful social relations with real people. This seems a more humane and appropriate way to combat loneliness than resorting to pills.
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