Everyone’s reasons for taking anti-depressants differ. For author Katherine Sharpe, it began with a simple case of homesickness—but taking her doctor’s prescription for Zoloft developed into a decade-long struggle of confusion and self-questioning.
America’s impatient culture has caused a need for an immediate solution to its emotional and psychological problems. For many people, that’s where anti-depressants come in, Sharpe maintains in her newly released book Coming of Age on Zoloft.
She also says that for others, the desire for medication can be caused by an onslaught of other cognitive problems. Whatever the personal reason, though, most experts agree that medication is not the be-all and end-all.
In 1989, less than 2 percent of Americans bought mind-altering 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.
“My feeling is that on the whole, they’re over-prescribed,” says Sharpe.
She cites several reasons for the overuse of these drugs, several of which relate to money—including direct-to-consumer advertising, drug companies paying doctors to support their products, and insurance companies.
“There are clear economic forces at work. Insurance companies tend not to be as willing to pay for psychotherapy as they were 30 years ago; when it comes to mental health, what they’re willing to pay for is medication. So regardless of what a doctor might really believe is best, the medication is what they end up handing out,” she says.
This upsurge of anti-depressant users, however, comes with repercussions.
Now that millions of ’80s and ’90s babies are coming of age, for the first time in history the guinea pigs of anti-depressants 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 conducts and analyzes the case studies of several medicated, depressant teens. In some of the cases in her book, psychotropic medication proves 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 prescription drugs as immediate solutions 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 counter-factual. It would be like asking, ‘What if I grew up with different parents?’”
Sharpe, who quit using medication after 10 years of use, describes depression as 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.”
Finding the “edges” is a difficult task, though, since there is no physical test for depression or any other cognitive disorder.
“Taking these medications is often portrayed as being really simple. It’s not that I want people to use them or not use them,” Sharpe clarifies, “I just want adults to understand the ways that it’s not simple before they understand what the best choice is.”