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Are Millennials Too Strung Out on Antidepressants to Even Know Who They Are?

The Prozac Nation-raised youth of the 1990s has grown up, and today’s teens are even more heavily medicated than their predecessors two decades before. But what is the emotional price of taking antidepressants or attention-deficit hyperactivity medications for years on end – especially during a person’s most formative stages of adolescence? In an essay based […]

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The Prozac Nation-raised youth of the 1990s has grown up, and today’s teens are even more heavily medicated than their predecessors two decades before. But what is the emotional price of taking antidepressants or attention-deficit hyperactivity medications for years on end – especially during a person’s most formative stages of adolescence?

In an essay based on her new book, Coming of Age on Zoloft, Journalist Katherine Sharpe explores this topic for the Wall Street Journal:

The National Center for Health Statistics says that 5% of American 12- to 19-year-olds use antidepressants, and another 6% of the same age group use medication for ADHD—in total, about four million teenagers. Around 6% of adults aged 18 to 39 use an antidepressant.

Most of the meds are taken long term, she adds, with about 62 percent of antidpressent users relying on the drugs for more than 2 years, and 14 percent taking them for more than 10 years. Especially for teens, this trend raises serious concerns about self-idenitfy.

Adults who take these drugs often report that the pills turn them back into the people they were before depression obscured their true selves. But for adolescents whose identity is still under construction, the picture is more complex. Lacking a reliable conception of what it is to feel “like themselves,” young people have no way to gauge the effects of the drugs on their developing personalities.

“Because teens are presented with the question of ‘Who am I?’, being a person who takes medication gets included in that quest,” says Lara Honos-Webb, a clinical psychologist in Walnut Creek, Calif. Sometimes they do it in a negative way, she says, either by dwelling on the idea of being a person with a sickness or focusing on their inability to know whether their feelings are “real.”

Sharpe also points out that medications distort sexual desire and performance in about half the people who take them. How this impacts teens and their development, however, is not well understood. Finally, our med-obsessed culture encourages adolescents to think of their problems more in terms of biochemistry and physiological imbalances rather than seek out the emotional root of their feelings and, in turn, find ways to manage life issues without the help of synthesized substances.

As medications saturate our culture, we may be growing less able to connect our most basic feelings with the stressful factors in our lives.

The point is emphatically not that these medications are useless, simply that they are overprescribed. Drugs undoubtedly help many young people who are genuinely struggling. But the expanding use of psychiatric medication in youth over the last 20 years has meant that the drugs are now prescribed in less and less severe cases. In fact, it’s tempting to see the rapid spread of these medications less as evidence of an epidemic of youthful mental illness than as part of a broader social trend toward aggressively managing risk in the lives of children and teens.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Extraordinary Resilience   

How Our Brains Make Memories

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