Katherine Sharpe

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Coming of Age on Zoloft

Harper Perennial, 2012

About the book:

When Katherine Sharpe arrived at her college health center with an age-old complaint—a bad case of homesickness—she received a thoroughly modern response: a twenty-minute appointment and a prescription for Zoloft—a drug she would take for the next ten years. Her story isn’t remarkable except for its staggering ubiquity. When Prozac was introduced in 1987, taking psychiatric medication was a fringe phenomenon. Twenty-five years later, 10 percent of Americans over the age of six use an SSRI antidepressant. Sharpe and her peers constitute the first generation to have literally grown up taking psychiatric drugs.

In Coming of Age on Zoloft, Sharpe blends deeply personal writing, thoughtful interviews, and historical context to achieve an unprecedented portrait of the antidepressant generation. She explores questions of identity that arise for people who start using consciousness-altering medication before they have formed an adult sense of self. She asks why some individuals find a diagnosis of depression comforting, while others are threatened by it. She presents, in young people’s own words, their intimate and complicated relationships with their medication. And she weighs the cultural implications of America’s biomedical approach to moods.


“It is difficult to do justice to Katherine Sharpe’s beautifully written memoir and reflection on her rite of passage with Zoloft and other antidepressants—she wonderfully conveys the profound issues these drugs raise. This is a book for anyone taking or thinking about taking an antidepressant, anyone who prescribes them, anyone who wonders about their suitability for someone they know, or anyone who wants a mirror held up to our time.” —Dr. David Healy, author of Let Them Eat Prozac

“Katherine Sharpe asks questions about identity and society that have probably occurred to most people her age who’ve taken medication for depression, but unlike most people, she has worked to seek out answers. Coming of Age on Zoloft is a fascinating look at how drugs and trends have shaped the identities of individuals and of a generation—provocative without being sensationalistic, skillfully written and totally necessary.” —Emily Gould, author of And the Heart Says Whatever

“Sharpe’s book was one of the few of this genre that told me something new, and it did so quite beautifully.” —Gary Greenberg, author of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry

“I get sent a lot of books, but it’s a rare that I open one and immediately find it so engaging and impressive. Coming of Age on Zoloft is an absorbing read in the tradition of Kay Redfield Jamison, but freshened and made urgent by its exploration of what it means to develop an adult identity while under drug treatment. This is an important book.” Wired science correspondent David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness and #1 Kindle Single bestseller My Mother’s Lover

Coming of Age on Zoloft is fantastic and pause-giving in its entirety, embodying the rare bravery of asking important, complex questions in a society that fetishizes simplistic, sensationalistic answers.” —Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

“In many years of reading books of every imaginable type about mental health and mental illness, Coming of Age on Zoloft stands out—for its supple and evocative writing, its nuanced and thoughtful arguments, its avoidance of every trap into which people who write on this topic routinely fall, and its beautifully-titrated optimism about the true possibilities of mental health.” —Gail A. Hornstein, Professor of Psychology, Mount Holyoke College and author of Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness

“Intiuitive and investigative, personal and historical, narrative-rich and fact-packed, Katherine Sharpe’s memoir, Coming of Age on Zoloft, 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.
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.” —Lisa Shea, Elle

“A knowing account of what it is like to grow up on psychiatric medications. After a 20-minute session with a counselor during college, former Seed editor Sharpe was prescribed Zoloft, and for most of the next 10 years she continued on antidepressants. That experience was not unusual in her generation, nor is it among young people today. The author questions the effect of such medication on adolescents who have not yet fully developed a sense of self. Antidepressants, she writes, got her moving, but they failed to give her the sense of direction that talk therapy later provided; she deplores the decline in access to talk therapy, a powerful complement to drug therapy. Sharpe interviewed or corresponded with dozens of other people about their experiences growing up on antidepressants, and their stories reveal a range of reactions. For some, the judgment that they had a chemical imbalance in the brain came as a relief, freeing them from a feeling of blame; for others, it made them feel like freaks. Besides her personal story and those of her interviewees, Sharpe provides a history of antidepressants, a revealing look at the politics behind the evolution of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and an account of the rise of the biomedical model of mental illness, which holds that disorders like depression have biological causes and can be managed with pharmaceuticals. She also analyzes the effects of direct-to-consumer advertising by drug companies on the demand for antidepressants and the role of health insurance in determining patients’ access to therapy modalities. Balanced and informative—an education for any parent considering psychiatric medication for a troubled adolescent.” Kirkus Reviews

“From William Styron’s Darkness Visible to Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon to Wurtzel’s famous memoir, [Prozac Nation], there has been no scarcity of books on depression. But 25 years since the birth of Prozac, we’ve reached that rare moment when it seems possible, and even necessary, to do something new with the genre: to take stock of the experience of a generation that has grown up with antidepressants. In Coming of Age on Zoloft, Katherine Sharpe writes about people like herself: people who have never known a world without SSRIs.
After 20 minutes with a psychiatrist at her college counseling center, Sharpe left with a prescription for an antidepressant, which she continued to take for the next 10 years. Millions of people could say the same, and Sharpe states outright that her own story is neither dramatic nor unique. Rather, its value lies in its similarity to the experiences of so many other young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s.” —Cara Spitalewitz, The Daily Beast

“Drawing on 40 interviews with individuals aged 18–40 and an extensive reading of professional and popular articles, former Seed magazine editor Sharpe takes a close look at members of her generation who came of age with new antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft. Sharpe herself used such drugs after a mini-breakdown in college and says they made her feel ‘dull and flattened in one way… revoltingly attuned in another.’ Sharpe is excellent at detailing the positives and negatives of these drugs: they can relieve depression, and patients can learn to turn the drug from a crutch into a ‘tool,’ controlling it rather than letting it control them. But the drugs can also promote “a kind of emotional illiteracy, ‘prevent[ing] me from asking or noticing the reasons I felt bad…’ She is also good on the importance of exercise, sleep, and diet on alleviating depression. But she is best at probing broader societal issues. In an age so focused on mental health, psychologist David Ramirez tells Sharpe, ‘there’s almost not a language of normal distress.’ This is a fine book that nicely weaves together personal, sociological, and philosophical perspectives for a thoughtful view of how antidepressants are shaping many people’s lives.” Publisher’s Weekly

“With engaging interviews and sometimes achingly beautiful self-reflection, Coming of Age on Zoloft leads us through the terrain of these questions, illuminates the ways our pharmaceutical approach to depression makes them more fraught, and ultimately suggests the possibility that grappling with them may always have been important for our human flourishing, even without SSRIs in our systems.” —Janet Stemwedel, Scientific American Blogs