Are Antidepressants Making Kids ‘Emotionally Illiterate’?

A new book takes a long, hard look at how medications may influence kids' development.

Katherine Sharpe, whose new book, Coming of Age on Zoloft, is just out, had a fascinating piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal on what she calls “The Medication Generation”—the 10 percent or so of young people today who are on antidepressants and/or ADHD drugs. That’s four million teenagers and young adults, give or take a few. Sharpe comes by her interest in the subject naturally. When she was in college in the late ’90s, she visited the student health center and walked out with free samples of an antidepressant. She stayed on it for the next decade. “My dread burned off like valley fog in the sun,” she writes, “and my tears dried up as decisively as if someone had turned off a spigot.” She became less anxious, and much more sociable. But over the years, she’s been increasingly worried about how the drugs she took may have hampered her ability to become … well, to become herself.

She isn’t questioning the value of antidepressants for those who suffer from major depression. But she does voice concern about how our culture’s “overextension of the biomedical model” causes us to view all negative feelings as the result of a chemical imbalance. And her concerns range from how being identified as “a person who takes medication” affects one’s development in the vital years of early adulthood, to how antidepressants’ blunting of young people’s sex drive may hinder their maturation as sexual creatures, to how medication may affect their ability to process and deal with true emotions. She quotes Emily, who’s 28 and has been on Prozac since she was 14. “I think Prozac has helped me a lot,” Emily says. “But I wonder if I’d never gotten antidepressants, who would I be? What would I be like?”

Sharpe’s Wall Street Journal piece quotes the head of counseling and psychological services at Swarthmore College, psychologist David Ramirez: “There’s been a kind of pathologization of life itself. Life is full of stress, and anxiety, and sadness—those are just baseline phenomena that have come to be considered illnesses that need to be treated. Young people aren’t sure how to think about their distress.” And Sharpe makes the additional point that overutilization of medication can be tied to “a broader social trend toward aggressively managing risk in the lives of children and teens”—a trend that leads us to try to protect our children from harm and fear and grief at all costs, even that of their independence and resilience and sense of responsibility.

It’s hard when your kid is sad—really hard. The notion of a magical pill to make it all right again is an alluring one. And the cost of blowing the call—of saying, “You know, hon, sadness is a part of life, and maybe this is something you’re just going to tough out”—is so frightening and enormous, with plenty of horror stories to serve as cautionary tales. What if you’re wrong, and your kid really needs Prozac’s help and ends up killing herself? What parent is willing to take that awful chance?

It’s a terrible dilemma, and Sharpe doesn’t pose any easy answers. For her book, she talked to people who gave up medication as they matured, and others who still rely on it. She notes that old-fashioned, much-maligned “talk therapy” helped her immensely: “It gave me a chance to have someone else confront my pain not as disorder but as part of the human experience.” I’m glad she’s posing these questions, and I think she’s brave for doing so—for asking whether widespread use of such drugs is making our children “emotionally illiterate.” Because, among other things, when you’re on meds, the highs go away with the lows, and no one should miss out on life’s astounding highs.