Are We Over-Medicating Ourselves, Sacrificing Our Own Character Development in the Process?

Much of my practice over the years has involved treating individuals with significant disturbances of character. What they need most is to learn self-regulatory skills and self-discipline, but quick-fix medications rob them of the opportunity to make meaningful investments in personal development.

There is little question that advances in medicine and especially pharmacology have dramatically improved the human condition. But questions linger about whether an over-reliance on medications has itself become a problem, “enabling” individuals to avoid making the kinds of lifestyle changes that would not only make them healthier but also improve the quality of their daily lives.

Baby-boomers and their children have become the most medicated generations in history. And some of the statistics available are simply mind-boggling. Many individuals have taken medications regularly throughout their entire lifespan. The average number of prescriptions per patient is presently 14. That figure was 12 in 2004 and 7 in 1994. The number of dollars spent on children and adolescents to treat behavioral disorders has increased over 80% since the turn of the century.

Now, it would be neither scientifically valid nor rationally sound to presume that the numbers alone confirm that our society has become overly medicated. But there are some other disturbing realities influencing the escalating number of prescriptions that should give pause to professionals as well as medical consumers. One factor is the loosening of regulatory control that has enabled the drug industry to become extraordinarily powerful and influential. And the evidence is in that they effectively “push” their formulations to the general public as well as to health care professionals. Another factor is the pressure doctors feel under managed care to take on greater workloads, opt for faster-acting chemical interventions as opposed to longer-term comprehensive care and therapy, and be responsive to their clients’ increasing awareness of and demand for medications to make them feel better.

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As a clinical psychologist, I’m trained to diagnose and treat mental disorders. Part of my training involved assessing those situations in which a client would probably best benefit from chemical therapy as opposed to an alternative therapy. Because psychologists don’t prescribe medications themselves (although there is considerable debate in the field about whether this circumstance should eventually change), they maintain referral relationships with prescribing professionals. I not only value these relationships but also know from experience that there have been several instances in which medication has played a crucial if not the definitive role in ameliorating a client’s difficulties. So, I am grateful not only for the advances in medicine but also for the modern model of multiple disciplinary teams working together for patient health.

I’ve also come across situations in which a person’s lifestyle and habits are the prime culprits in the creation and maintenance of their conditions. And in these cases, although the client seems to relish the “quick fix” medication appears to offer, there are often longer-term costs to them associated with taking that approach. For example, I’m familiar with several individuals who opted for quick relief from their anxieties only to become dependent upon their medication when non-medical therapies would likely have offered them a longer-lasting resolution of their problems as well as an opportunity to develop a powerful sense of personal efficacy.

As I have written about many times, much of my practice over the years has involved treating individuals with significant disturbances of character. Such individuals are chronically lacking in emotional and behavioral self-regulation. What they need most is to learn self-regulatory skills and self-discipline. Some are truly incapable of this without some medical assistance. But most would profit from the character-building effect of developing such skills the old-fashioned way. But because they are also very prone to wanting things quickly and easily (see “Quick and Easy Thinking”), some would rather pop a pill than invest themselves in true self-development. So, they might be put on a mood stabilizing medicine or a medicine that helps them control their impulses, and along the way they might also get a face-saving diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder or something similar. They end up feeling somewhat better, behaving somewhat better, but making no meaningful changes and missing a prime opportunity to grow.

Of course, there are no simple answers to the questions of whether there are too many medications being prescribed and diagnoses being too casually given. But it’s important that we ask these questions and faithfully research the issues. I think this is especially true in the mental health arena. There is no doubt that the art and science of psychology and psychiatry have come a long way in recent years. But we owe it to ourselves to question whether as a society we have become too dependent upon chemistry, sacrificing our own character development in the process.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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