I am writing this from Mount Sinai Hospital’s 9 South In-Patient Psychiatry unit. I am not here as a visitor but as a patient. About a week ago, I was in danger of attempting suicide, so I was sent to the emergency room and bounced back and forth between hospitals. Ultimately I ended up in 9 South, a very comfortable unit meant for those whose mental health has left them in a state where they cannot be trusted to take care of themselves. Every night I must hand in all cords and discs, and I am not allowed anything even remotely sharp.
I share with you this information so that you have an understanding of where I am coming from when I say there is a stigma against mental health and medication that Side Effects skirts around. Not that it is bad or harbouring malicious intent towards these things. Rather, Side Effects is a good little film that seems to be about the excessive prescription of drugs until it turns into a solid, twisty thriller.
This is a difficult issue to broach as I feel that there exists two simultaneous truths that are seemingly contradictory: that we over-prescribe drugs, and that there exists a stigma against valuable medication.
Currently I am on three medications. The first is called Sertraline, an antidepressant meant to encourage the flow of serotonin in my brain which allows for more feelings of happiness and well-being. The second is Abilify, which is used primarily to boost the effects of the Sertraline. Lastly, is Trazodone, another antidepressant used, in my case, to help me sleep.
The most common reaction I’ve received when sharing this information is apprehension. There exists a belief, among the few that I’ve shared this with, that I am being over-medicated and that these drugs will ultimately do more harm than good; effectively turning me into a shuffling zombie.
This is a belief seemingly shared by the first half of Side Effects. In it, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) suffers from depression and is prescribed Zoloft (the brand name of Sertraline) which she has a negative reaction to, including vomiting, drowsiness, and insomnia. In all fairness, I have had some of these side effects, but they went away after a couple of weeks being on the medication, after which I saw nothing but progress in my treatment. Later in the film, she is switched to the fictional drug, Ablixa, whose side effects include homicidal sleepwalking. This severe effect, while overtly dramatic, has the benefit of elucidating Side Effects view of prescription drugs; that of it being a dangerous game with patients as the subjects in medical trials.
Now, I share this view to an extent, especially in regards to the drug market of the United States Of America (full disclosure, I’m Canadian, and our system rocks) where doctors can be financially motivated and thus susceptible to the allure of drug company money. This leads to many cases of experimental drugs being prescribed in lieu of the tried and true drugs, so as to encourage the sale of one company’s medication over another and thus increase profits. This is a very real issue that must be curtailed as it is doing more harm than good, especially when you consider all the over-the-counter medications that have no FDA approval.
However, despite this perspective the film and I share, I am also of the mind that there exists a stigma against prescription drugs. My therapist likes to use an example which I have since adopted: you wouldn’t tell a diabetes patient to not take their insulin, so why do we feel the need to warn mental health patients against taking their medicine? To put it another way, why are we comfortable with medicating the body, but so uncomfortable when we medicate the brain?
Speaking as a mental health patient suffering from depression, all I can say is that my medication has helped me fight back against the gloom. Of course, it is not solely due to the drugs, as I also attend twice-a-week therapy that helps build the proper practices for combating this wretched and lethal disease.
In conclusion, it is not that Side Effects is irresponsible in its depiction of mental health and medication, it’s just that in abandoning this interesting theme in favour of becoming a twisty murder mystery (turns out Emily was faking her depression) it never clarifies it’s stance. It is not that it is bad, merely disappointing, as I’d love to see what Soderbergh thinks of drugs and mental health.