Book Review: Coming of Age on Zoloft

Jun 20, 2013

Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidpressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are

By Katherine Sharpe


Having a son who suddenly developed depression his senior year in high school and who is currently taking Zoloft, as well as a moody teenage daughter who sometimes makes us wonder if she needs help to get her through her “down” times, I was instantly drawn to the title of Katherine Sharpe’s book, Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are. In her book, which was published last year, Sharpe shares her own 10-year experience with antidepressants, which began her first year in college.

However, the book is much more than a personal narrative. Interwoven with historical facts about antidepressants, interviews with more than 40 people who have taken antidepressants, and philosophical questions about American values, it is more a sociological study of the “antidepressant generation” of the past 20 years. So, at points it reads more like a textbook than a novel or a memoir. Although only 300 pages long, the book is dense, providing a lot to think about, but not any definitive answers.

It’s not a self-help book, the author says so herself in the introduction (“It can’t tell you whether you need help or what kind to get”). But, “stories like the ones collected here may help us to a more realistic assessment of what antidepressants can and can’t do, when they are a good idea, and when the detriments might outweigh the benefits.”

Sharpe questions the prevalence of use of antidepressants in children, adolescents and young adults in our culture and how easy it is to obtain medication and questions whether it affects their developing sense of identity. She correlates the changes in society’s views about depression, as well as the rise in antidepressant use, to advertising campaigns by pharmaceutical companies. She suggests that although medicines effectively manage negative emotions, they don’t help young people find direction in their lives. She stresses the importance of psychotherapy.

On the one hand, a biomedical model of depression is reassuring—it validates depression as a biological illness, not just a feeling that you’re not strong enough to will away; it helps reduce stigma. On the other hand, defining it as something as definite as cancer can make people feel helpless over their illness. It teaches people to look for the causes of their pain insidethemselves rather than the world they live in. Sharpe gives us plenty of outside causes to contemplate as she describes how American society’s goals of success, happiness and authenticity can place unreasonable expectations on a young person, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

Sharpe never disputes that antidepressants work. She presents stories from both sides—those who chose to quit using antidepressants and those who find them essential in their treatment of depression—in an objective, nonjudgmental manner. She believes antidepressants have been beneficial in showing people that they have some recourse to feeling miserable. However, she wonders whether certain normal feelings such as sadness or stress are too quickly being diagnosed as a medical illness.

“As our vocabulary for sadness, conflict, alienation, and exhaustion merges with the language of biomedical mental disorder, we lose the language of ordinary distress,” she writes.

Sharpe’s focuses on adolescents and young adults and the challenges they face in growing up. It is about the cases in the middle of the spectrum which require “making judgment calls about what is and isn’t normal to feel.” She argues that young people shouldn’t be told that their feelings are just biological problems, but that they need help identifying those feelings, to be told that it’s okay to be upset and that they are not alone.

As a mother, after reading this book I learned that the world we live in now is significantly different from one that I grew up in—that the challenges, competition and pressures our children face are much greater now in this fast-paced society. Antidepressants can help, but there are deeper issues to deal with. As much as I wish we could simply remove some of the outside stressors, I’m not sure how we’re going to change the world. But we can do our best to support our children, talk to them, acknowledge their feelings, and—with or without the aid of medication—help them learn to take care of themselves.

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