Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Pursuit of a Pain Free America

As you know I am a mental health professional working in the field of additions and I absolutely love it! I recently heard a discussion on National Public Radio about the public health crisis of people abusing prescription medications. Below is the introduction to a research report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that describes this disturbing phenomenon:

The nonmedical use or abuse of prescription drugs is a serious and growing public health problem in this country. The elderly are among those most vulnerable to prescription drug abuse or misuse because they are prescribed more medications than their younger counterparts. Most people take prescription medications responsibly; however, an estimated 48 million people (ages 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetimes. This represents approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Also alarming is the fact that the 2004 National Institute on Drug Abuse's (NIDA's) Monitoring the Future survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th-graders found that 9.3 percent of 12th-graders reported using Vicodin without a prescription in the past year, and 5.0 percent reported using OxyContin-making these medications among the most commonly abused prescription drugs by adolescents.

The abuse of certain prescription drugs-opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and stimulants- can alter the brain's activity and lead to addiction. While we do not yet understand all of the reasons for the increasing abuse of prescription drugs, we do know that accessibility is likely a contributing factor. In addition to the increasing number of medicines being prescribed for a variety of health problems, some medications can be obtained easily from online pharmacies. Most of these are legitimate businesses that provide an important service; however, some online pharmacies dispense medications without a prescription and without appropriate identity verification, allowing minors to order the medications easily over the Internet.

NIDA hopes to decrease the prevalence of this problem by increasing awareness and promoting additional research on prescription drug abuse. Prescription drug abuse is not a new problem, but one that deserves renewed attention. It is imperative that as a Nation we make ourselves aware of the consequences associated with the misuse and abuse of these medications.

Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
National Institute on Drug Abuse

For trends in prescription drug abuse read here.

I believe that the rising abuse of prescription medications is a symptom of a deeper psychospiritual problem, namely the harmful effects of a materialistic view of reality that are particularly acute in American society (not withstanding that the overwhelming majority of Americans claim to believe in God). One Common Faith, an amazing commentary commissioned by the Universal House of Justice makes the following observation:

People's happiness would be the natural result of better health, better food, better education, better living conditions-and the attainment of these unquestionably desirable goals now seemed to be within the reach of a society single-mindedly focused on their pursuit...Consumer culture, today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment, is unembarrassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite, released at long last from the restraints of supernatural sanctions. (Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, One Common Faith)

Generations of Americans who have grown up conditioned by a materialistic, consumption-driven culture have come to believe that they are entitled to a life free from pain or discomfort of any kind. According to this view of life, pain is pathological, even worse than death. The "pursuit of happiness" recognized by our Founding Fathers as an important aspect of freedom has mutated into an egocentric sense of entitlement to happiness on demand, 24/7. Our whole society has become increasingly organized around "feeling good" and if that doesn't work not "feeling" at all. If a pill can make either of those things happen reliably, "PASS ME THE PILLS!" This attitude is widespread and impacts every challenge America is facing at this time. The solution to these challenges requires a willingness to sacrifice, but that would involve pain, which has become unacceptable to the American psyche. This is not to suggest that there are not millions of Americans making sacrificial contributions every day for the betterment of our society and the world. But in my experience even well-meaning people have a "pain threshold" beyond which they are not willing to go even when achieving their well-meaning goals clearly demands it. Why? Because the right to happiness in the final analysis trumps everything else. The logic plays out something like this:

Well-meaning American: I teach in the inner-city, only eat organic food, call my mom every Mother's day and volunteer as a member of _____ political party that if they just controlled the government would make the world a better place.
Me: That's awesome, it's seems like you really care about making America better.
Well-meaning American: No doubt.
Me: But what about that big SUV you drive around? Would you be willing to give that up so that say, future generations would not have to live underground because we have a big hole in the Ozone layer?
Well-meaning American: What are you, a socialist or something?! Er, look at the time, I have to get to that Boy Scout meeting. That's what the SUV is for, to drive the Scouts around.
Me: I see.

From a Baha'i perspective pain is a necessary element of our psychospiritual development:

The steed of this Valley (The Valley of Love) is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end. In this station the lover hath no thought save the Beloved, and seeketh no refuge save the Friend. (Baha'u'llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 7)

In this world we are influenced by two sentiments, Joy and Pain. Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings. There is no human being untouched by these two influences; but all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter -- the spiritual world bestows only the joy! If we suffer it is the outcome of material things, and all the trials and troubles come from this world of illusion...All these examples are to show you that the trials which beset our every step, all our sorrow, pain, shame and grief, are born in the world of matter; whereas the spiritual Kingdom never causes sadness. A man living with his thoughts in this Kingdom knows perpetual joy. The ills all flesh is heir to do not pass him by, but they only touch the surface of his life, the depths are calm and serene. (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 109)

While a man is happy he may forget his God; but when grief comes and sorrows overwhelm him, then will he remember his Father who is in Heaven, and who is able to deliver him from his humiliations. Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit. The labourer cuts up the earth with his plough, and from that earth comes the rich and plentiful harvest. The more a man is chastened, the greater is the harvest of spiritual virtues shown forth by him. A soldier is no good General until he has been in the front of the fiercest battle and has received the deepest wounds. (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 50)

If America is to fulfill its destiny as a nation, was must reconsider our assumptions about pain and its place in our lives. We must reclaim pain as a gift to our psychospiritual development, without which we cannot experience true happiness. We don't need to "kill" our pain with pills, we need to learn to live with it.