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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2005 / 10 

Forum to address controversies over antidepressants

October 31, 2005

Choices and Challenges at Virginia Tech will hold a public forum entitled “On Prozac: Debating the New Technologies of Mind,” a day-long series of panels and discussions to be held on Nov. 10 in the Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown. This forum is open to the public at no charge.

In 1987, a new class of antidepressant medications, the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) appeared on the market, promising a cleaner, more effective treatment for depression, with greatly reduced side-effects. The first of these drugs, fluoxetene, better known by its trade name, Prozac, has become emblematic of the explosion in their use. In the United States, antidepressant use tripled in the 1990s. Roughly seven percent of the adult population is currently on an antidepressant. Even more controversially, these drugs are now prescribed to more and more children and adolescents.

The rapid adoption of these “technologies of mind” has not allowed for adequate public deliberation of their benefits and consequences. The Choices and Challenges forum is designed to provide a forum for such discussion.

“The routine use of these medications creates the illusion that their safety and efficacy are known quantities,” says Daniel Breslau, an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and a co-coordinator of the forum. “And beyond the question of their effectiveness, these drugs raise broad and urgent questions about the causes of emotional distress, how to define emotional and mental well-being, and the relation of mind to the brain’s physiology.”

To be informed consumers of mental health services, and informed participants in policy debates, the public needs to hear and engage with a wide variety of perspectives, including those of ethicists, historians, and philosophers of mind.

“Before treating the epidemic of depression as strictly a problem of brain chemistry, we need to explore social and ecological causes as well. That is one important aim of our forum,” said Eileen Crist, an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society and Choices and Challenges co-coordinator.

The forum’s main panel will feature a range of recognized authorities on various aspects of antidepressants, and will address ethical, medical, social, philosophical, and environmental dimensions of antidepressant use. The main panel discussion will take place at 11 a.m. Moderated by Joseph C. Pitt, head of the philosophy department at Virginia Tech, panelists include:

==> Samuel Barondes, director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and author of “Better than Prozac: Creating the Next Generation of Psychiatric Drugs.”

==> Joseph Glenmullen, clinical instructor in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of “Prozac Backlash” and “The Antidepressant Solution.”

==> Valerie Hardcastle, chair of the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, and author of “The Myth of Pain.”

==> David Kidner, associate Fellow for the British Psychological Society and author of “Nature and Psyche.”

==> E. Haavi Morreim, ethicist and professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee and author of “Holding Health Care Accountable: Law and the New Medical Marketplace.”

A series of background and follow-up sessions, beginning at 8 a.m., will fill in with up-to-date materials and allow for audience participation. Session topics include history of antidepressants, the viability of clinical trials, how antidepressants are represented in the popular culture, and alternative perspectives on what many regard as an epidemic—depression.

In conjunction with the Choices and Challenges Forum, the Theater Arts department will present a performance piece, Life on the Pharm, written and conceptualized by Brandiff Caron and Ann Kilkelly, professor in the department of Interdisciplinary Studies. The piece, to be performed on Nov. 9-11 in 30 Pamplin Hall at 8 p.m. each night, will involve the audience in an interactive exploration of issues around depression and its treatment with pharmaceuticals.

The Choices and Challenges Project was founded in 1985, and has presented annual forums on issues of public concern involving science and technology. For more information, visit the website at