Katherine Sharpe's Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are is part personal memoir and part research on the history of antidepressant use in America, and its effects on those who took them. The title is what mostly made me interested in this book (yep, I judged it by its cover), but also, as someone who has never taken an antidepressant of been diagnosed with any sort of depression, this is one of those subjects I know very little about and was interested in finding out more.
The Situation: In the summer of 1997, Sharpe was enjoying her last few months at home in Arlington, Virginia, before moving to Portland, Oregon to attend school at a small liberal arts college. As the move date approaches, she finds herself increasingly anxious about the major transition she is about to make. However, she does make it, and lives to tell about it. But on her first visit home during winter break, Sharpe's anxious feelings return and are amplified. Back at college, she visits the health center for counseling, and is diagnosed with depression and prescribed Zoloft. It is the beginning of a ten-year journey that will include her taking an antidepressant of some sort so her depression doesn't overwhelm her.
The Problem: While the Zoloft does help, Sharpe starts to wonder what many wonder when they, or their children, are prescribed an antidepressant. Is this pill changing my personality? Am I myself anymore? Or does the pill make me myself? Am I really depressed? Is there something wrong with me? Even in 2012, there is still a serious stigma associated with taking an antidepressant, and yet, the number of people who take them is higher than most people realize. However, Sharpe points out that there is a pretty telling correlation between how often antidepressants are prescribed, and how much money doctors get from the pharmaceutical companies that make them. Also, the use of antidepressants is much higher in the U.S. than it is in any other country. Generally speaking, it would seem like Americans are over-medicated. There is a significant number of people who genuinely benefit from antidepressants, but there is also a significant number who seem to be taking them just to deal with everyday problems that everyone has. Oh, and 30% of the population is unresponsive to antidepressants or don't benefit from them at all. So what is there for someone who is legitimately depressed, but medication doesn't work for them?
Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned in the introduction, this is a memoir, but Sharpe has definitely done her research, and interviewed many other people who have been prescribed an antidepressant at some point in their lives, whether they believe it worked or not, and whether or not they even still take it. Sharpe also goes over the history of antidepressants, and of depression itself. She addresses the issue of depression and antidepressants being stigmatized, and how so many people diagnosed feel that there is something wrong with them, or that they have something to be embarrassed about. The book is a very thorough discussion of the topic.
My Verdict: I learned a lot from this book. And I definitely enjoyed learning about the antidepressants of my generation more than I would have from a strictly scientific book or paper because of Sharpe's personal anecdotes and interviews with other people. Having a personal story, instead of just facts and figures from a PhD, really makes this book that much more fascinating. My only critique would be that certain parts aren't all that well-written, but the actual information and content is worth it.
Favorite Moment: When Sharpe points out that while some people who are prescribed an antidepressant, including herself, start questioning how the drug has altered their true self or whether what they are now feeling and sensing is real or just some side effect, there are people who are diagnosed that don't have that luxury. Some people genuinely feel better but start to question how their identity is affected, while others, for whom the drug hasn't worked, still just want to feel better. They don't have the opportunity to worry over their "true self."
Recommended Reading: I will recommend Quiet by Susan Cain. While Cain's book is not about depression or prescription medication, it does deal on the subject of introverts and their power to be incredibly influential. A few times in Coming of Age, Sharpe makes the connection between those who are depressed and those who are simply a little more introverted than most, and therefore have a harder time in new situations, or in crowds, etc. Cain's book sheds a lot of light on the mind of the introvert.