Antidepressant users confront long-term questions about meds

Opting for medication is “the beginning of the story,” not the end, says Barnett.

When it comes to antidepressants, whatever the personal reason, many experts agree that medication is not the be-all and end-all.

Now that millions of ’80s and ’90s babies are coming of age, for the first time in history the guinea pigs of antidepressants are piecing together the long-term effects of mood-altering drugs on their lives, health and self-image.

Kaitlin Bell Barnett is the author of “Dosed: The Medication Generation Grows Up,” in which she examines case studies of several medicated, depressed teens. In some of the cases, antidepressants prove helpful in treating their conditions; in others, the results come with layers of complexity and side effects.

“Taking medication is not a quick fix,” she says. “It’s not a matter of just popping the pill and that’s the end of the story. Really, it’s the beginning of the story.”

Barnett says that using mood-altering drugs as an immediate solution to a person’s physical, emotional and psychological problems can cause deep-seated confusion regarding his or her sense of self.

“A lot of users look back and say, ‘Did I need this medication? Was it the right decision to start taking it when I did?’ That’s a really hard question to answer because it would be counterfactual. It would be like asking, ‘What if I grew up with different parents?’”

In 1989, less than 2 percent of Americans bought drugs like Prozac and Zoloft each year — but the usage has exploded since then. Today, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Katherine Sharpe, author of “Coming of Age on Zoloft,” weaned herself off antidepressants after 10 years of use. She says depression is a tug-of-war between science and culture.

“You can talk about it being a chemical imbalance, but we don’t really know what that means yet,” she says. “Culturally, we’re going to have to decide where the edges are.”

A difficult task, since there is no physical test for these cognitive disorders.

“Taking these medications is often portrayed as being simple. It’s not so much that I want people to use them or not,” Sharpe says, “I just want adults to understand the ways that it’s not simple before they understand what the best choice is.”

Preparing for a positive experience

Even if you don’t rely on medication, chances are you know someone who does. Barnett offers tips for how to prepare yourself, a friend or a family member for a positive experience with medication:

1. Understand that there’s no guarantee that any single drug is going to work.
2. Educate yourself about the side effects.
3. Be clear about your reasons. Expectations play a big role in people’s responses, and there is a placebo effect.
4. Talk with your doctor about any concerns.
5. For parents: Explain to your kids why they’re taking medication, and gradually give them more responsibility over time.


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