People dealing with depression who came of age in the 1990s had a vastly different experience than any other generation before. In a lot of ways, antidepressants brought about positive effects in society: they’ve lifted the veil of shame and secrecy surrounding depression and brought it into the open. The onslaught of antidepressant commercials brought with it a willingness for people to seek help in managing their depression, bringing the promise of relief. Yet the sudden proliferation of antidepressants in the 1990s has also raised numerous issues that have largely been swept under the rug.
Part memoir, part sociological investigation, Katherine Sharpe explores the ubiquitousness of antidepressants in today’s culture and what it means for the population most frequently diagnosed with depression, adolescents and early-twenty somethings. Herself one of the people who came of age during the initial antidepressant boom, Sharpe recounts her own experiences with depression and antidepressants. She also interviews other people who came of age on antidepressants and raises countless poignant questions that have no easy answers.
I constantly had to stop reading this book because it kept giving me different things to reflect on. While I’ve personally never been on antidepressants, I was struck by how eerily similar my own college experiences were to Sharpe’s. But I always shied away from actually seeking out antidepressants for many of the reasons Sharpe struggles with while she was on them. Antidepressants do change your personality, and she was often left wondering things like, Who am I? Am I still me? Is the “real” me just not a naturally happy person? Though she admits she benefited from the antidepressants she took for ten years, as well as from therapy, these were questions she was constantly asking herself.
And as she discovered, she wasn’t alone. While she encountered several people for whom these questions were beside the point — antidepressants were necessary for them, and that was that — she also met many people who admitted feeling this identity struggle. The feelings were even more pronounced by people who began taking antidepressants in their adolescent years, a time when people already have a hard enough time trying to figure out who they are without the added identity-related confusion that antidepressants bring. While antidepressants have been around for a couple of decades now, people who were taking them in the 1990s and early 2000s had no real frame of reference on how to deal with these questions (really, they still don’t, but at least now it’s more out in the open).
Even more eye-opening was the section that considers the business side of the pharmaceutical industry. Antidepressants are a billion dollar industry, so it is no surprise that there’s a push to prescribe them. At one point, Sharpe laments the way her initial diagnosis and prescription occurred. She was a stressed out student who decided to seek help from the campus mental health services; twenty minutes later, she was diagnosed with depression and handed a prescription for Zoloft (a scenario many of her interviewees also experienced). Years later, she decides to seek psychotherapy to supplement her use of antidepressants, which she claims is what changed her life eased the management of her depression more than anything else. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance industry go hand-in-hand, and it is often harder for people to get therapy covered than it is to get their medication covered. That entire chapter was fascinating (and infuriating).
In her introduction, Sharpe writes that she was hesitant to write about her own story, because it wasn’t wild or unique — millions of people have experienced what she went through. But then, she writes, that ended up being exactly why she became so passionate about writing the book: it’s a very common experience that people take for granted, but few truly reflect on the overall impact, especially on that first generation of people who came of age when antidepressants were initially introduced. Whether you’ve taken antidepressants or not, and whether you’ve experienced depression or not, Coming of Age on Zoloft is an engaging book that constantly makes you reflect on social, cultural, and medical issues. It’s a surefire discussion-starter.
Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are was released on June 5, 2012 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins.