This is 'SIDEBAR'
Katherine Sharpe is a writer based in Berkeley, CA. Her first book, Coming of Age on Zoloft, explores what it means to grow up in the antidepressant era, and was published by Harper Perennial in 2012.
"Cycling's Randonneurs Take the Long View," SF Chronicle
Coming of Age on Zoloft mentioned in July's issue of Vogue
"Remédio só para quem precisa," O Tempo (Brazil), July 21
The science writer and blogger David Dobbs, whom I know slightly from back when he blogged at ScienceBlogs and I edited there—and whose great Atlantic magazine piece reframing childhood depression was an inspiration and a fascination to me a few years back—has posted an interview with me about SSRIs, talk therapy, identity, youth, and mood at his Wired Science blog, Neuron Culture.
I’m reading from Coming of Age on Zoloft, doing a brief Q&A, and signing books at one of my favorite bookstores, BookCourt in Brooklyn Heights.
The reading is at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 18. It’s free and open to all.
This is the first public event for COAOZ, and I expect a festive mood—including the possibility of some group self-medication with food and drink at a local establishment afterward. Come on out if you’re in the area!
BookCourt is located at 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, a couple blocks below Atlantic Avenue. Get the event details on Facebook.
(Image: Drawn and Quarterly)
Huffington Post has run a collection of advertisements for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, from the late 1960s to this year, that I put together.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, I find: the ads still pathologize women, and they still invite us to interpret everyday life stress as a sign of mental illness.
(Image: Advertisement for Serax, JAMA 200:8 (1967), p. 206-7)
Q: What, besides our initials, do Kristen Stewart and I have in common?
A: Real estate in the June issue of Elle magazine (hers, admittedly, a twince more prominent than mine).
Here’s the full text of the review of Zoloft by Lisa Shea, from page 172.
“Intiuitive and investigative, personal and historical, narrative-rich and fact-packed, Katherine Sharpe’s memoir, Coming of Age on Zoloft (HarperPerennial), examines how a generation of Americans—she included—has been treated for the age-old malady of depression in an era of biomedical predominance that defines the syndrome first and foremost as a chemical imbalance.
Sharpe was prescribed Zoloft, one of the SSRI class of antidepressants, as a college freshman following a panic attack; her diagnosis came after a 20-minute conversation with a campus mental-health counselor. Looking back, she reveals that her father had been on medication for depression since Sharpe, who was born in 1979, was a preteen, pointing to a possible genetic predisposition. During the summer before college, she writes, nostalgia for high school gave way to anxiety and fear—feelings that, combined with being dumped by her boyfriend, ‘created a space that seemed to attract all kinds of negativity into itself.’
Part of what makes this book riveting is the way Sharpe sets her own story within the larger context of cultural, social, and psychiatric changes that moved depression (along with other mental illnesses) into the medical spotlight. She traces the origins of the SSRIs from obscure Swiss lab trials to their rise as Big Pharma’s darlings in the early 1990s, much as tranquilizers had reigned in previous decades.
Underscoring all of Sharpe’s impressive research, trenchant interviews, and intrepid delving into her subject is a single anecdote that gives the book its raison d’etre Seated on a porch during her sophomore year with a group of young women who were housemates, Sharpe confided that she was taking Zoloft. The six other women all said they were on or had taken an antidepressant. None of them was yet 21 years old.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education is a great publication that I’ve dipped into at times over the years, and I couldn’t be happier that they’re running an excerpt from Zoloft.
My article, “Prozac Campus: The Next Generation,” which is largely condensed from the second-to-last chapter of the book, is up at the Chronicle Review, with lively commenting so far. Check it out…
(Image: Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review)
My friend, former classmate, and Goodreads community member to the stars, Jessica Stults, just posted a long and generous review of Zoloft on the site. It generated a nice discussion thread, and when I stumbled across the whole thing today, I jumped in and added a big ol’ comment of my own. I’m going to post it here, because I think it’s a reasonably concise statement of what I’m on about in the book, and in my thoughts about this issue of youth and meds in general.
Jessica, thanks for the beautiful and attentive review.
Also, I think you totally hit the nail on the head with your comment just above. One of the biggest differences between older people and younger people taking antidepressants is precisely this issue of choice, and also of authority and perspective, as you mention. Older people know what normal feels like for them personally, and a lot of times for them to decide to take a medication because they’re feeling less ‘up’ than they want to—-well, not only does it feel like an empowered decision because they’re making it themselves, but also they’re able to keep it in perspective because they are grown up. I bet Meaghan’s brother, for example, didn’t change his whole perspective on who he is when he started taking meds. He just wanted to stop feeling so bad, and presumably medication helped. And though many people, like Meaghan, don’t like the idea of taking a pill when we are “merely upset,” I personally don’t have any kind of moral problem with it. Antidepressants are just a technology, and I’m all for people using them to feel better, any way they like.
Where it gets a lot more murky and troubling, I think, is when we’re talking about young people who may not be making their own choice about taking medication, and are less able, because they’re young, to keep it in perspective. When older people give younger people medication, they’re not just giving them something to change the way they feel. They’re giving them, like it or not, an identity that is going to resonate strongly. Adolescence is all about asking who you are, and incorporating whatever input is handy into the answer. So when young people who may be “merely” sad are given antidepressants or other medications, even with the best of intentions, what they can come away from it with is the message that ‘there’s something really wrong with me, I must be really sick.’ When, as you say, it’s likely that whatever they’re suffering from is somewhere on the spectrum of normal. And I’ve seen it happen that the identity of mental illness can really mess with people, even when the medications themselves “help.”
This may be changing some as medication becomes even more prevalent and kids’ attitudes about grow ever more blase. Except maybe it’s not–maybe, as your story about your client and my conversations with a handful of present day college students and mental health providers indicate, it’s swinging the other way: the more we talk about out problems as mental disorders, the more any kind of bad feeling starts to seem like a ‘mental problem,’ and the less we all get to experience the comfort of sharing those feelings and affirming them as normal, the comfort of knowing “well, this thing I’m feeling does really fucking suck, but at least I know that other people feel the same way.”
To bring it back to the college mental health center. I always say it’s not necessarily that I’m sorry I was given antidepressants, but that it’s the messages that went along with them (OMG you’re really sick! You’re feeling something you shouldn’t be!) that messed me up, and it’s the fear inside those messages that probably kept me using medication for years longer than I really needed to.
What I really wish is that that woman in the health center could have said ‘You know, you are going through a really tough time right now, and you *are* upset, and if you want, you can take these pills for a while that make you feel better.’ Instead it was all this ‘you have a disease!’ stuff that was and is supposed to make people feel better but really didn’t do so for me, and in my experience, doesn’t for a lot of people. As it was, it took me seven or eight years to figure out that I wasn’t crazy and never had been. And precisely as you say in your review, that’s the biggest piece of why I wanted to write this book: to let people know that they’re not alone, that things get better for people who take antidepressants and for people who don’t, and that whether you choose to use medicine or not, you don’t have to buy into psychiatry and big pharma’s whole disease model, which has about fifty times as much to do with selling drugs as it does with science. If I can save a few people that particular trip, it will all have been very, very worthwhile.
If you belong to Goodreads, get over there and add your two cents. Also friend Jessica, because she’s brilliant. If you don’t, join! It’s a great site, a standout, social media fatigue be damned and everything.
Everybody knows there’s no physical test for mental disorders. Or is there?
I have a post up at Psychology Today, examining a new blood test that claims to be able to diagnose major depression with about 80 percent specificity and 90 percent sensitivity, per its press release. My diagnosis: not so fast.
My Pyschology Today blog, Generation Meds, is up and running with a post introducing me and the book and the bloggery to come. Check it out…
This week’s tidbit—err, nugget—of pharmaceutical news comes by way of Nicholas Kristof, who writes in the New York Times of a pair of studies in which scientists detected arsenic, acetaminophen, Benadryl, caffeine, forbidden antibiotics and in some cases, the active ingredient in Prozac, in feather meal from factory-farmed chickens.
Like human fingernails, poultry feathers reliably collect traces of everything an animal’s been getting into. The scientists behind the studies were curious about what they might learn about the presence of antibiotics in chicken feed. A researcher who coauthored both the studies said he was “floored” by the broader findings.
What are caffeine, Tylenol, and antidepressants doing in chicken feed in the first place? The answer is a window on factory farming: chickens are sometimes given coffee pulp “to keep them awake so they can spend more time eating.” Benadryl and, presumably, Prozac (which was found in samples of feather meal from China), are given to calm the nerves of birds jangled not just by coffee but by the stresses of living cheek by jowl in an environment resembling something from the mind of a Spanish Inquisitor. The poultry is dosed “apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly.” Arsenic is known to make meat more attractively pink.
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