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Airplanes crashing into buildings. Daily body counts from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hospitals filled with hideously mutilated young service men and women. Prisoners being tortured and abused. People being beheaded. Religious leaders urging us to "take out" heads of state. Katrina survivors stranded on rooftops while FEMA fiddles. Tsunami victims stranded nowhere -- just gone.

These are only a few of the kinds of grisly images bombarding the American people every day.

To which we can add the 24/7 menu of relentless television alarums: 90-mile-an-hour car chases, online child pornographers getting busted, corporate executives and congressmen being frog-walked to the slammer in handcuffs, judges receiving death threats, murdered children found in shallow graves, millions dead and displaced in Darfur, children dying from HIV-AIDS and many totally curable diseases, ports being turned over to 'Muslim terrorists', phone calls and emails being intercepted, and on and on and on.

And, as a not-so-delicate counterpoint to this scary dirge, the secretary of Health and Human Service tells us to buy extra cans of tunafish and powdered milk to put under our beds to ward off an avian flu pandemic, and the president exhorts us yet again to "stay the course", go about our business as usual, but be sure to pay attention to the brainless haute couture color codes intended to tell us how scared we should be on any given day.

There is an old axiom in the news business: "If it bleeds, it leads." So the blood and gore is nothing new. What's new is its sheer volume and pervasiveness. And if anyone still believes it's not having a profound and profoundly negative effect on the lives of ordinary Americans, we ought to ask them what they've been smoking.

This is not pop-psych 101. This is real. We are living though an age of high anxiety (for which the government's favorite cliche' is "the post-9/11 environment") that is likely to have a very long-lasting effect on the American psyche.

One of the public's responses to that post 9/11 environment is popping pills. Since that dreadful day, there has been a rapid and dramatic increase in sales of anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and sleep aid drugs, according to one Atlanta-based health information service provider, NDC Health, which tracks retail pharmaceutical sales.

New prescriptions for sleep aid rose 27.5%. Anti-anxiety drug prescriptions are up 25% and anti-depressants up 17%. New prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants are up 13%, while sleep aid prescriptions are up 8%. Nationwide, anti-anxiety prescriptions are up 8.6%, anti-depressants up 2.6%, and sleep aids up 7.5%.

Therapists are reporting agitation, sleeplessness, survivor guilt and depression -- and not just among those directly affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A New York psychiatrist says her practice increased by 25% since September 11 and that half of those patients had no direct connection to the attacks. "These people feel they have no control over their lives," she said. Another shrink reports that his practice increased by 50% since the attacks and that he didn't expect it to fall off anytime soon.

But many other medical authorities report that the sorry state of the nation's mental health is deteriorating for reasons that reach far beyond 9/11. And far beyond World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In large and small, urban and rural communities in places like Kansas and Arkansas and Maine, citizens find themselves trying to live "old normal" lives but are unable to find respite from the low-level but persistent environment of fear, anxiety, and conflict that has come to be known as the 'new normal'.

We all recall Karl Rove's cynical observation that 9/11 would be a boffo campaign issue in the 2004 election. And it was. Now, equally cynical politicians from both sides of the aisle are using and will continue to use the "new normal" to divide us. Nation against nation. Left against right. Interest group against interest group. Church against State. Religion against religion. Immigrants against citizens.

When President Bush was elected (sic) in 2000, he promised to unite us through "compassionate conservatism". Since when he has worked tirelessly to unite only his base. The result has been what John Edwards calls the "Two Americas".

Many Americans are trying to cope by popping more pills.

But some of us continue to harbor some faint hope that by 2006 or 2008, the loyal opposition will come together with some manifesto that goes beyond "anyone but Bush".

If they fail, we will all continue to live in fear. And pop more pills.
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WILLIAM FISHER Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)
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