One such commercial begins with a pale middle-aged woman, bathed in hues of gray, walking through a grassy yard and pulling closed her cardigan as she muses, “I’m taking an antidepressant, but I think I might need more help.”
A moment later, after being told that “approximately two out of three people being treated for depression still have depression symptoms,” we see a husky fellow agonizing over some paperwork: “I’m on an antidepressant, but I’m still not where I want to be with my symptoms.”
Next comes the sell: Talk to your doctor about adding Abilify! And then, as the suddenly cheery woman traipses around a colorful party, we hear about the potential risks and side effects. Like dizziness upon standing; increases in white blood cells; seizures; impaired judgment or motor skills; trouble swallowing; high blood sugar, extreme in some cases, which could lead to death; high fever, stiff muscles and confusion that may be signs of a life-threatening reaction; and—here’s the kicker—uncontrollable muscle movements that could become permanent. Yes, it’s possible you could end up with a perpetual grimace on your face.
Some saw the commercial during a recent episode of Saturday Night Live and thought it was one of the show’s classic marketing spoofs. Wrote one befuddled blogger: “The ad tells me that if I am depressed, taking an antidepressant and am still feeling depressed, well then what I need is a heavy duty antipsychotic tranquilizer to shake me out of my doldrums. What the Fuck!”
“I find the Abilify ads rather astonishing,” said the journalist Daphne Merkin, who wrote a 7,500-word piece about her own depression for The New York Times Magazine back in May.
Ms. Merkin said she first heard about Abilify from fellow New Yorker Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the 1990s depression manifesto Prozac Nation. “I was struck by the name,” she said. “It’s like: ‘You will be a person of greater ability.’ It will make your abilities available!” She added it to her existing antidepressant in July of 2008, a few months before the commercials started airing. It’s been helpful, and she hasn’t had any problems with side effects so far, she said. But she suggested there’s something alarming about the fact that ads for an antipsychotic medication now seem as normal as those for the latest nail polish.
“With Abilify, there seems to have been some kind of turning point in the fact that this type of drug has been blurred into the available smorgasbord of medication,” she said. “Now, it’s actually just right out there with all your other Pristiqs and Prozacs and Zolofts. I mean, it’s not like there’s a commercial for Thorazine. Like, ‘Hi, I’m not feeling well today, let me gulp down some Thorazine and be muted for the next two years!’”
Sonia Choi, a spokeswoman for Bristol-Myers Squibb, said the company believes “that the Abilify consumer advertising campaign is appropriate and provides an important service, informing the approximately two out of three adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder who do not experience adequate relief from antidepressant treatment, that additional help may be available.”
But at least one New Yorker with depression is skeptical.
“I’m not opposed to the idea of adding an antipsychotic if it’s useful, but I do think they are preying on the culture of people who are willing to just take anything to stop feeling bad,” said 27-year-old Randall Lotowycz of Park Slope. (He said he was a little freaked out when one doctor suggested adding an anti-epileptic drug to his Prozac regimen.)
“Everything in our culture is about how to do things easier and more quickly and to add on,” said Mr. Lotowycz. “If you’re willing to just add on and add on, you’re not really addressing what the problem is.”
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