I was sitting in my childhood bedroom when I was first put on antidepressants. Snow was falling outside, the world was cold and quiet and the image of a blonde-haired woman with a comforting yet confident voice lit up the screen before me. From the other side of town, a doctor I’d never met wrote me a script for Prozac. It was 2020 then–if something could be online, it was.
“Let’s try this” her words were overlaid with the sound of clinking plastic keys, “We’ll meet back in a few weeks.” I was approaching the fourth month mark of a deep depressive episode, one brought on by the resurfacing of a traumatic event from childhood. I hadn’t slept through the night since August. The pills, she said, should help this.
At first, I didn’t feel anything other than nausea. That changed when week six rolled around: Suddenly, I was a bit lighter, life a little less heavy. The downpour had turned to something of a drizzle: Oh, I remember thinking to myself one day, it’s kicking in.
From the Mouths of Babes
Antidepressants aren’t new, but with rising rates of mental health issues and a reduction in the stigma surrounding them, medicating mental illness is becoming increasingly common–especially among young people. In an ironic twist, history’s most connected generation is also consistently the world’s loneliness, with Gen Z adults being among the most likely to report symptoms of depression (APA). According to a 2022 survey published by Harmony Healthcare IT, 42% of those aged 18-24 reported having a diagnosed mental health condition, 57% of whom claimed to be taking medication for it.
But while our youth may be subjected to higher rates of mental health issues, they’re also much more apt than previous generations to talk about it; and unlike the conversation surrounding antidepressants often characterized by polarity, their experiences with medicating their symptoms–as well as their thoughts regarding the practice–are quite nuanced.
College student Emily E. can still recall the first time she was prescribed Zoloft–a common medication used to treat anxiety and depression–back in 2019, “I was really struggling at the time that it was prescribed so I guess I was sort of relieved.” Brought on by a major loss, Emily found it hard to cope with her grief. Though it would take the addition of Wellbutrin to even out side effects caused by the first medication, and then ultimately a total switch to the second, she eventually started to see a positive shift in her mental health, “I was a lot less anxious and depressed. I was more patient with my family, and I didn’t sleep as much as I was before.” Nearly four years later, Emily is now in the process of tapering off her meds.
But not everyone’s experience with medication reads as positively. For Sara O’Brien, a twenty-two-year-old Nanny from New London, the rage she felt when first prescribed antidepressants continues to linger, and for good reason: she hadn’t even hit high school yet. “I was enraged that I was getting prescribed [anything] at 13 years old” she recollected, “I yelled and screamed and refused for almost 2 years.” When Sara finally started taking antidepressants at fifteen, she realized a strange dichotomy at play, “I noticed that with my sadness diminishing, so did my happiness, excitement, anger, and fear.” While everyone’s relationship with antidepressants will look different, there is a universal component to her experiences, and it has a name: emotional blunting.
To Feel Or Not To Feel: Emotional Blunting
Like Sara, meds were a last resort for me. I’d spent five years with my fists up before slouching down in the corner of the ring. Though the thought of taking a mind-altering substance still made me uneasy, it paled in comparison to the emotional and physical exhaustion brought on by–then still undiagnosed–PTSD. A week or so would come and go before taking my first dose. Another month would pass until I saw any real signs of improvement, but when I did, they were undeniable: the tangled knot in my stomach disappeared, and the low hum of perpetual sadness that had followed me for years on end seemed to largely dissipate. With a newfound sense of stability, I couldn’t help but ask myself, Is this how ‘normal’ people feel?
But the drugs didn’t come without drawbacks. As my body acclimated, I began to see things with more clarity–and parts of myself were missing.
Despite remaining relatively unexplored, emotional blunting is one of the most prominent side effects of antidepressants and remains a leading cause for discontinuation. The term refers to the lack of emotional reactivity caused by mental illness and/or the drugs used to treat them. Often users report feeling ‘numb’ or out of touch with their feelings. When people take the pathos approach for condemning antidepressants, it’s often this side effect they anchor their argument around. While a “loss of self” sets the stakes high, the ability to actually live and function sets it higher. There’s been a certain nobility assigned in choosing not to take medication, but it’s a false one built on the nescient assumption that everyone has a real choice. While many mental health related issues can be relieved through lifestyle changes, therapy and the presence of a healthy support system, not everything in that litany is easily accessible, and when it is, it’s not always a sure fix.
Perhaps no story illustrates this better than that of Danny Nelson’s, a college student living in Lancaster, PA. Danny was in his early teens when he started taking Lexapro for severe panic attacks:
“I would pass out from hyperventilating” Three times over the course of sophomore year, he had to be carried out of the room by a teacher due to the severity of the episodes, an ordeal he described as ‘absolutely humiliating’. “School became a nightmare…They’d sit me in the nurse’s office, and I’d lay there for hours trying to catch my breath and calm down, but I never could.” Danny was later diagnosed with panic disorder along with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and depression. He tried everything to alleviate his symptoms–therapy, meditation, CBD–but continuously fell short. “Regardless of everything that I had been doing I still struggled to get out of bed every morning.” The fear of anticipating the next attack only compounded the issue. The day he was put on medication, that changed.
“I remember hearing my doctor say I would benefit from medication. I felt like I was finally able to take a deep breath.” Now at nineteen, he recognizes medication–while not a “fix-all”–has played a huge role in his healing, “[Antidepressants] don’t cure me, but they help with a lot of my physically manifested anxiety symptoms and keep me at a base level of functioning.”
Imagine you’re on a ship and it wrecks. You cling to a piece of driftwood, feeling everything—the cold water, the bitter wind, the spikes in the wood. Now imagine you take a pill and suddenly you’re back on the boat. Your clothes are dry, and the water isn’t as rough as before. You still have to steer and man the sails, which itself takes energy but at least now you have some. There’s still a world around you, fit with everything from rain to sunshine, perhaps even a warm breeze, but you don’t experience it with the intensity of before. Everything feels a bit muted. You’re not “numb” per say, but there is a numbness there, like wearing a coat whose purpose isn’t to lock the warmth in, but to keep everything else out.
That’s what being on antidepressants is like. Or at least, that’s what it was like for me. More things seemed possible; mountains turned back into molehills. All the jagged edges and inconvenient branches of my being that made entry for this life difficult at times were shaved down until I became a skeleton key. Real functionality was in reach, and it felt natural. For a person characterized by sensitivity, it was a jarring change but one I welcomed–at least at first.
I don’t remember exactly when the pills stopped working, only the quietness that followed the realization. Before the bottle seal had even broken, it was this very moment that terrified me: the day the meds stopped working. Yet now that it was here, it wasn’t so scary–a calmness admittedly derived more out of apathy than inner-peace.
I was fourteen when I first fell into my major depressive episode. What I hoped would be a one-off thing instead was the start of a chronic battle with mental illness. But I got good at it. Around sixteen, I decided if joy was going to elude me, fulfillment was not: I dedicated all my time and energy into my craft in the hopes of contributing to something bigger than myself. For years I danced around burnout, clinging from one ‘okay’ period to the next, doing my best not to drown in between. Discovering my pills had been a temporary fix wasn’t a surprise: What hadn’t been? Then in the dawn of September I did the one thing everyone had told me not to do: I quit my meds cold turkey.
Antidepressant Division: A Red Herring?
Variability seems to be a running theme with antidepressants, whether in relation to the opinions surrounding them or the very effect they have on users. While we do need to be having more critical, open conversations around antidepressants, at times the discussion can function as a bit of a red-herring. A growing number of antidepressant prescriptions propelled by climbing rates of mental illness among our youth is indicative that there’s an increasing incompatibility with our brains and the world they exist within. Navigating the ins-and-outs of antidepressant usage can be extremely helpful on an individual basis. Like Emily, Danny and so many others out there, medication gave me my life back. But while it can be the answer for many, it is not the answer for us as a collective whole. There are two very different goals at hand: The individual is trying their best to live in the society we’ve created, and a growing part of that society is attempting to nurse the individual through advocating for things like therapy, medication and mental health literacy–a response that is, in part, retroactive.
External factors are far from the only contributor to mental health issues, but as previously mentioned, recent trends suggest our infrastructure plays a big role in the rise. Thankfully, more and more people regardless of gender, age, race, sexuality or political affiliation are coming to agreement that mental health is a real issue. What we’ve been slower to accept is that it’s an intersectional issue, one that connects to institutional problems like racism, misogyny, homophobia and wealth disparity, and is then compounded by more modern factors like “hustle culture”, social media, rising costs of living and constant exposure to an overwhelmingly negative news cycle. When we step back and look at things in this context, it’s easier to see why medication, while still a revolutionary resource, functions more as a bandaid when it comes to addressing mental illness on a larger scale. To call back to the earlier comparison, mental health improvement for the individual looks like utilizing resources at their disposal. For society, substantial change likely means a major restructuring.
It’s been about four months since I stopped taking my meds. This Thursday I have an appointment with my psychiatrist–I haven’t seen him in a year. While coming off Prozac wasn’t a mistake, quitting cold turkey was, and I can’t say that even after the withdrawal symptoms subsided, I felt great. But I’m getting better. Each time I fall off the horse, it gets a little bit easier to get back on. With time I’ve learned how to manage my symptoms more efficiently, and the wisdom that comes with getting older has offered me the ability to love and appreciate life even on the days I struggle to find the joy in it (days that, I’m happy to say, are growing less in number over the years).
I look at my nieces, my cousins, the little girls I used to babysit and I wonder if the trends we’ve seen in Gen Z will continue onto Gen Alpha. The good news is that there’s a lot of people out there who seem to really care.
We shouldn’t stop challenging the idea of medicating mental illness, nor should we watch and let it be demonized. But we should start looking at it as the spindle of an umbrella who’s center seems to be widely glossed over. While we continue to ask if meds are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, let’s also recognize the very existence of that conversation as a byproduct of a much grander one: Why does an increasingly large percentage of our youth need them just to get by?