In a study released this year by the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers concluded that antidepressant use in America has almost doubled in a ten-year period. That’s an increase from about 13.3 million to 27 million people taking prescribed medication for symptoms of depression. During that same period pharmaceutical companies increased direct-to-consumer advertising spending from $32 million to $122 million. In light of these numbers it could be argued that advertisers have managed to sell the idea of depression – and its attendant cure – to an easily swayed public. And while that may explain part of the increase, it can’t account for all of it. It’s difficult to deny that a pall of sadness and anxiety has fallen over modern life. Maybe it’s the stress of living in these hard economic times; maybe it’s the chemicals in the air, the additives in the food or the pollutants in the air we all breathe. Or maybe it’s the distance, physical and psychological, that is rapidly growing between us. As the world is gripped by rampant health scares and communication is increasingly mediated through screens, we’re becoming unwilling, and perhaps unable, to simply reach out and touch one another. And if we lose that fundamental element of our emotional language, there’s no pill in the world that will soothe the existential ache.
A friend leans in to kiss your cheek. A family member approaches you for a warm embrace. A colleague puts forth his hand for a firm and dedicated handshake. In each instance you momentarily freeze up and assess the situation. Have they been vaccinated? Where are they coming from? Were they recently in China? Are their hygienic habits up to snuff? And in the end you stiffen up, offering a courteous head nod instead of physical contact.
Every era has its epidemics. In the 14th century the bubonic plague wiped out one third of Europe. Transmitting from one person to the next via the inhalation of infected droplets, the plague caused its victims’ bodies to decompose while they were still alive. Smallpox erased entire civilizations. Hundreds of years later cholera devastated nearly every major city on Earth.
Over time humans learned to react more quickly and effectively to epidemics. Transmission became easier to control, and powerful vaccines are now readily available for anyone wishing to avoid infection. Researchers are working around the clock, fighting viruses in real time to ensure that current airborne threats never reach their full potential. The number of deaths caused by H1N1, H7N7 and H5N1 are negligible, and yet these acronyms continue to loom large in our lives.
In the 21st century the epidemic has become a preemptive psychological condition. Its symptoms show up in our Twitter feeds and our 24-hour news tickers, infecting our emotions and thoughts rather than our skin and blood.