Mental-health professionals and a variety of religious ministers and counselors sometimes claim that psychiatric drugs, such as the newer antidepressants, can enhance not only the quality of a person's emotional life but also his or her spiritual life. In my professional opinion, these drugs--Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, and Luvox--can dull self-understanding and derail spirituality.
Antidepressants frequently impair the brain and mind, interfering with the functions we associate with spirituality, including self-discipline, insight, empathy, love, and the full appreciation of life, nature, and God. These drugs not only inhibit sexual function by interfering with physical performance, but more important, they reduce the desire for intimacy or spiritual connection with a loved one. They do this by blunting the brain's capacity to respond emotionally. Individuals have the right to risk impairing their awareness with psychiatric drugs in order to reduce their personal suffering, but I don't believe it's the best solution.
At first glance, it might seem that the drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) as antidepressants should affect spirituality positively rather than negatively. However, when the F.D.A. tests antidepressants in clinical trials, little or no consideration is given to the subjective experience of the individual receiving the drug. Self-ratings by the patients in clinical trials often disclose negative or indifferent reactions to the drugs. To make the drugs seem effective, evaluators rely on their own ill-defined overall impression of whether the individual "improved." Checklists of specific items are also used, but they tend to emphasize clinical symptoms, such as reduced sleep problems or improved eating, which have little or nothing to do with self-awareness or spiritual insight.
Conventional wisdom sees antidepressants as improving biochemical imbalances in the brain of depressed people. If true, we might expect the drugs to enhance spirituality instead of impairing it. But this argument has no merit because there is no available technology to measure these imbalances. We do know from innumerable animal studies, however, that psychiatric drugs work by causing severe and potentially lasting biochemical imbalances. These drugs, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (S.S.R.I.s), block the removal of serotonin from the space between brain cells which, in effect, causes a flood of serotonin. The brain treats this as a toxic intrusion and in response shuts down the serotonin system to compensate for the increased presence of this neurotransmitter.
This chemical process affects, among other things, the limbic system and frontal lobes of the brain. The latter are the flower of human evolution, and their proper functioning is a basis for spirituality development, including the capacity for self-discipline, love, and inspiration. Impairing these functions with psychoactive drugs leads to the antithesis of spirituality, to more concrete, narrow, and simplistic ways of thinking and feeling.
In addition, a large percentage of individuals--often a third or more--develop symptoms related to overstimulation of the brain. Much like people intoxicated with amphetamines and cocaine, they become nervous, anxious, agitated, unable to sleep, and irritable. In extreme cases, people are driven into euphoria and even into a psychotic state called mania.
Mania is a tragic caricature of spirituality. At first, the individual begins to feel "better than ever," and then ends up feeling God-like, with imagined insights and special powers. Unsound, grandiose judgments lead to harmful outcomes. Eric Harris, the Columbine High School shooter, was taking Luvox, a Prozac knockoff, for about a year before the school shootings. On autopsy, an effective level of Luvox was found in his body. Other individuals can develop a drug-induced flattening or dulling of their feelings. They literally become more depressed by antidepressants.
What then are the alternatives to these drugs? It is not up to me or any other single person to suggest "the way." Nor is there a competition between Prozac and psychotherapy. To my mind, the choice is between psychoactive drugs and all of life, all the myriad ways we learn to become more ethical, more caring, and more devoted to life and to higher ideals. There are many spiritual roads to choose from but all the good ones are long and hard. There are no short cuts to enlightenment, and chemical quick fixes can send us falling off the precipice. In the long course of our lives, impairing the function of our brains with drugs can only make it harder to reach personal and spiritual fulfillment.