Is Medicalization Oppressive?

You may not have heard of it, but the term medicalization is so significant and relevant it has its own Wikipedia entry. Around since the 1970’s, the word applies to the process of regarding as much of human life as grist for the medical model mill as possible, to essentially control as much of human life as possible (using drugs, and devises, and doctors, and medical procedures) and make lots of lucre while doing it. It can be construed as a type of social manipulation that attempts to enforce and superimpose so-called standards and thereby “normalize” the wide ranging spectrum of human activities which are diverse, idiosyncratic and often based on nothing more than the unique nature of personal preference and individual biochemistry.

Is Medicalization Oppressive?

By Ddcfnc at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

One of the problems with the medicalization of everyday life (that’s the title of a book of essays by the medical writer and psychiatrist Dr. Tomas Szaz) is the tendency for it to become disease mongering. At what point does the need to control, become aspects of body and being, such as hell and the development of disease? At what point do regular mammograms and prostate exams and colonoscopies become excessive. And even worse, when does diagnosis like depression, and ADD, and Oppositional Defiance Order (which according to the psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, the DSM IV, is defined as “disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior toward authority figures”) become oppressive?

In fact, nothing exemplifies the tendency for everyday behaviors to become medicalized than the world of psychiatry, where even ordinary, non-extreme behavior can easily find itself in the medical model’s cross-hairs. According to Szaz, “…psychiatry’s first order of business was to establish insanity as a genuine disease”. In essence, psychiatry was an invented medical practice that is a textbook case of medicalization. Diagnosis often times is nothing more than labels that re-frame a dislike of authority, and a desire to shop, surf the internet or indulge in habitual behaviors as illnesses; and self-servingly assess whether said behaviors are in actuality extreme enough to require application of the tools of modern medicine. The result is, in essence, the doctor and his diagnosis as the sole determinant of whether or not a depressed, addicted or otherwise mentally/emotionally disturbed patient is actually dealing with a disease. This, as Szaz writes: “…psychiatry is medicalization through and through.”

One of most tragic and egregious examples of psychiatric medicalization involves children. Over the past 2 decades, what used to pass for rambunctiousness, insatiable curiosity, and excitement is regarded more and more as an opportunity to medicate. They call it ADHD and according to the US Center for Disease diagnosis have been increasing 3 percent a year since 1970. Currently more than 6 million children, more than one out of ten (!) between the ages of 4 and 17 have been labeled attention deficit, although according to the Hastings Center, a organization that bills itself as a “bioethics research think-tank”, many of the “…manifestations of the behaviors that today we call symptoms of ADHD (inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity) have been recognized as problematic for the last 100 years – and arguably for much longer.” In any case, whether or not a child has attention or concentration issues, in the opinion if this pharmacist anyway, should not be an excuse to medicalized him with physician approved poison (drug) or any other doctor intervention.

In addition to psychiatry, medicalization has affected some of the most intimate areas of human activity. In the 1990’s even the bedroom became a viable target for medical model sharpshooters. That’s when the little blue pill forever changed the way we think about and have sex, and Viagra, Pfizer’s azure entry into the erectile dysfunction market, made male virility and sexual vigor yet another reason to go to the doctor. These days many millions of men can enjoy regular long-term erections thanks to the support of at least three different pharmaceuticals that generate drug companies more 5 billion dollar a year in sales. Men who are losing their masculine mojo sexually can now enjoy a jolt of manliness via prescription testosterone creams and gels. You’ve probably seen the ads, which seem like they air during every commercial break and feature middle age studs telling us how they used to be fat, fatigued and sexless until they started applying their Androgel or Axiron on their arms or abdomens. What they don’t tell you however is the fact that using prescription testosterone may not be risk-free. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, men on testosterone therapy were shown to have four times as many cardiovascular problems as non-medicated men. The number of events was so significant that the study had to be stropped. And whether “Low-T”, as testosterone deficiency is referred by drug company marketers, is actually a disease and whether drug company motives are really health-based is not clear, but some observers of the medicalization phenomenon think not. According to Barbara Mintzes of the University of British Columbia School of Public Health, by marketing testosterone therapy, and “…expanding the boundaries of the disease to common symptoms in aging males, such as fatigue and reduced libido, drug companies seek to increase their markets and boost their sales”.

And, if you’re losing your locks, no worries. Healthy, disease-free men (and women) have been going bald for centuries without any other associated health challenges, but these days you can chose from a number of drug and doctor options that will grow hair. Whether it’s Propecia, or Rogaine, or even topical steroid creams if your lettuce is thinning, the pharmaco-medical model is ready and willing to assist (for a price). Never mind the fact that all drugs have the potential to cause adverse reactions and can negatively affect health as well as longevity, if you’re going bald, at least according to pharmaceutical manufacturers, you can always get a prescription, and as the marketing copy on the website for Rogaine Hair Growth Treatment claims: “’take control’ (??) of your baldness and ‘help regrow’ your hair”.

Whether the purported health issues are psychiatric, or sexual or anything else, the bottom line is there’s lots of money in convincing people that they’re suffering needlessly. Drug companies, no friends of mankind and with money and marketing in mind, actively define disease states and promote them to the medical community and to their patients. To be fair, some researcher’s still believe that the curative power of prescription medication outweigh the social implications of the pharmaceutical industry’s tendency to push their wares on consumers, and what might be called manipulative marketing is nothing more than intelligent business practice. But, whether it’s drug-pushing and disease mongering or simply smart sales techniques the fact remains that, in many cases, the businesses selling us cures are the same people telling us we’re sick.

Posted by Ben Fuchs in Health