Over the coming months, I'm going to be writing about psychiatric medication, particularly as it relates to young people (which I define loosely—let's just say childhood up through the twenties or early thirties, wherever that magical spot lies where 'young adulthood' ends and 'adulthood' fully takes hold).
But before we get down to business, let me introduce myself.
Unlike many of the experts who blog here, I'm not a mental health professional. Instead, I'm a writer and journalist (who's sometimes covered science and health and tech), and the author of a forthcoming book called Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are.
The book is about what it's like to grow up on antidepressants, from the point of view of the first generation to have done just that.
When I was born at the twilight of the 1970s, modern antidepressants didn't exist. Clinical depression—not to mention ADHD, OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, et. al.—wasn't a topic of dinner-table conversation, and taking prescription drugs for mental problems was a rare and exotic thing indeed.
That all began to change exactly twenty-five years ago, in 1987. That was the year a green-and-white pill called Prozac hit pharmacy shelves. Prozac was the first member of a new class of drugs called 'selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.' During the 1990s, the SSRIs would transform the face of American mental health care. My teen years and those of my peers coincided with a psychopharmaceutical bonanza: during that time, Americans grew ever more likely to reach for a pill to address a wide variety of mental and emotional problems. Our cultural way of thinking about those problems changed, too. Whether we used medication or not, we began to think of those problems as a biological issue, the manifestations of an innate chemical imbalance.
For me, these abstract changes hit home in the late 1990s. During my freshman year in college, I showed up at my school's health and counseling center with a timeless enough set of problems: I was heartbroken, suddenly homesick, and anxious as hell. I wasn't quite sure what kind of help I was looking for, but I walked out half an hour later with a remedy typical of the age—a diagnosis of depression and a prescription for an SSRI.
Months went by. I took my pills, felt better, and tried to adjust to the idea of being, as I understood it, a kind of mental patient, an identity I found deeply unsettling even as the medication itself seemed seemed to prop me up. One day early the following year, I found myself sitting on the front porch of a student house with six other girls from school. Somehow the topic of medication came up, and we realized that every single one of us was or had been on an antidepressant
I never quite got over the strangeness of that moment. It provided me with a combination of deep relief (thank god I'm not alone!) and creeping suspicion (what are the odds that we *all* have a mental disorder?) that stayed with me for years. Those two reactions are the underpinning of my book. I wanted to tell my story and the stories of other people who 'grew up' on medication, to provide comfort and connection for people who have been through it too, and for their parents, loved ones, doctors, and friends. Secondly, I wanted to push on that sense of suspicion. Is mental disorder over-diagnosed? Are psychiatric medications over-prescribed? What would that mean, and why might it be a bad thing? I studied the history of antidepressants, and of our ideas about mental illness itself, to find out how we got here. And I zeroed in on the philosophical and psychological questions that psychiatric medication raises for many ('If I take a drug that changes my brain, does it change who I am?'), and talked about why those questions are often more meaningful for people who start medication young, before they've developed a stable, adult sense of self.
All of those interests, no doubt, will eventually find expression here. I'll be following and commenting on psychopharmaceuticals in the news, sharing outtakes from the book, and, ideally, engaging with you—if there's any topic you'd like to see addressed here, don't hesitate to leave a comment or drop me a line by email.