Can there be a ‘cosmetic’ psychopharmacology? Prozac unplugged: the search for an ontologically distinct cosmetic psychopharmacology

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‘Cosmetic psychopharmacology’ is a term coined by Peter Kramer in his 1993 best-seller, Listening to Prozac. It has come to refer to the use of psychoactive substances to effect changes in function for conditions that are either normal or subclinical variants. In this paper, I ask: What distinguishes an existential ailment from clinical depression, or either of those from normal depressed mood, melancholic temperament, dysthymia or other depressive disorders? Can we reliably distinguish one from the other? Are the boundaries of illness and disorder really so distinct? If not, how can we know that treatment of ‘depression’ with Prozac in any given instance constitutes a cosmetic as opposed to, say, a medical or clinical use of psychopharmacology – a distinction that seems to turn on our ability to clearly differentiate the clinical from the cosmetic. If we cannot reliably distinguish between such conditions, can we even have a cosmetic psychopharmacology that is not a form of malpractice, broadly speaking? What if we unplugged Prozac from all the amplitude and hype that resulted in Listening to Prozac becoming an instant best-seller and simply asked whether or not we can clearly distinguish an appropriate cosmetic use of Prozac for ‘depression’ from an inappropriate cosmetic use of Prozac, and both of those from Prozac's appropriate clinical, that is, non-cosmetic uses? If we cannot make these distinctions, perhaps it is too early to say there can be such a thing as a cosmetic psychopharmacology.

Keywords: Prozac; cosmetic psychopharmacology; depression; drug cartography; melancholia

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: April 1, 2005

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