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.