The story in Side Effects reveals differences between Great Britain and America in attitudes toward medicine. In America, we want a pill for everything: a pill to lose weight, a pill to ease anxiety, a pill to focus, a pill to sleep, a pill to lower cholesterol, a pill to eradicate pain.
Pills are often talked about among teachers in break rooms, between parents on playgrounds, and among my fellow bridge players. Recently, as I was trying to concentrate on making a bid during an intense game, my playing partner was casually discussing a recent prescription.
Yet, we are all aware how addiction to certain prescription drugs have wrecked havoc on people’s lives. During a family friend’s college years, he received his Adderal medication, prescribed for ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), in the mail on a regular basis, which his mother disguised in mint wrappers. Otherwise, his fellow college students would be scrambling over the elixir of focus.
Members of my family are dependent on pills for various reasons, from ADHD to anxiety. My teenage granddaughter can name which of her friends take medication. Some private schools even mandate medication for enrollment of certain students. This is America, where pills, and the psychiatrists who prescribe them, are embraced with open arms.
British attitudes are different
England is different. The stiff upper lip is not a myth. Generally speaking, the British do not brazenly broadcast what medications they take or what psychiatrist they are currently seeing. While Americans openly seek referrals for psychiatrists to help better themselves, the British consider it more negatively as a sign of sickness.
British society appears to have little tolerance for individuals who fail to maintain their self-control, and there seems to be a tendency to label such individuals sick and in need of treatment. For example, while British psychiatrists seem less likely to label patients "sick" than psychiatrists of other countries, the symptoms that they tend to overemphasize are those that indicate the patient has lost self-control (Payer, 1988, p. 112-113).
This of course affects the career paths of psychiatrists in England as opposed to psychiatrists in America.
Director Steven Soderbergh relied on British actor Jude Law to portray this insane contrast between Brits and Americans in Side Effects, which starts with blood and gore, ends with tears, and jerks the audience in wild directions in between. The brilliant writing on a timely subject matter keeps the viewer intensely intrigued.
Pills required in today's world?
It is easy to broadly criticize, and shake your head at the sheer number of pills being prescribed in America today. However, there is no denying that these pills are effective, otherwise why are doctors prescribing them left and right? Certain people do need certain pills to function in today’s world, which is not a world for which the human species evolved. (Anthropology speak).
For example, only in recent history of mankind are children expected to sit in a classroom at a desk, focus on the teacher, and learn from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week. Many kids with ADHD are incapable of this. Thus, schools ask that these children be medicated to make the teachers’ jobs easier. This is medicating humans to adapt to today’s world.
Researchers believe that ADHD was actually an advantage hundreds of years ago when human beings needed the energy and easy distractibility to escape from predators and to migrate from place to place in search of food and shelter. There is a theory that the high incidence of ADHD in America stems from those in Europe who were "fiddle-footed" and willing to risk their lives to board a ship and sail across the Atlantic to the unknown. Maybe ADHD is still an advantage today as many high achievers have it and are able to channel it to their benefit. Channing Tatum, one of the stars in this movie is reported to have the condition (Nall, 2016).
It's the side effects that give people pause
Yet it’s the side effects that give people pause. Watching my husband agonize over leg pain that is a side effect of Lipitor, which is a pill to reduce cholesterol, gives me reason to address health issues with nutrition and exercise, rather than to automatically pop a pill, and cope with side effects. This approach seems similar to what a Brit would do.
However, pills work. Otherwise, why are the doctors who are doing the prescribing also taking the pills themselves? To embody the character Dr. Jonathan Banks in Side Effects, Jude Law studied the field of psychiatry and has respect for what psychiatrists do to help people with real problems. England seems to be catching up with America in acknowledging this. Do you doubt that in the movie Dr. Banks was taking medication himself?
Nall, R. (2016). The Benefits of ADHD. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/benefits-of-adhd
Payer, L. (1988). Medicine and Culture. New York: Penguin Books.
Soderbergh, S. (Director) (2013). Side Effects [Motion picture]. USA.