Holy Zoloft—nearly one in 10 Americans now takes antidepressants, according to the CDC. That’s 11% of U.S. citizens 12 and over, making antidepressants the third most common prescription drug taken overall and the most frequently taken drug among people 18-44. The most frequently taken drug among people 18-44 (I felt that bared repeating). Since Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote Prozac Nation in 1994, the rate of antidepressant use in the U.S. has increased nearly 400%. But has our understanding of depression and antidepressant use kept pace?
I don’t think so. Depression is still a very misunderstood and misrepresented diseases in this country (and though the stigma surrounding it has come way down, there’s still an aura of disrepute that surrounds depression in a way you don’t see with, say, asthma). And while people are now more open about antidepressant use, I’m not sure if we’re any better informed. A study in September found a lot of people are reluctant to discuss depression with their doctors, mostly because they fear getting prescribed an antidepressant.
Let’s have fun with anecdotal evidence. I’ve been prone to depression for literally as long as I can remember, and it used to seem like a terribly shameful thing for me around all the ‘normal’ members of my family (which is why I never took antidepressants, or saw a therapist about it, until very recently). As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen more and more family members begin on ‘happy pills,’ as my mother calls them—my grandmother began taking Effexor at age 70—and now even family members the most staunchly suspicious of mental health problems have come to accept that these drugs can help. But they still harbor major misconceptions about how antidepressants work—I’ve frequently heard family mention how so-and-so ‘must have forgotten to take her happy pills that day’ when so-and-so is grumpy or anxious, as if antidepressants are supposed to bring on some sort of instant euphoria or immunity from daily troubles. And there’s always a lot of talk about why my grandma just can’t ‘snap out’ of being depressed.
We still really don’t know how long-term antidepressant use will affect our brains—though there’s been some evidence that antidepressant use can make people more depressed in the long run. Effectively, this generation is conducting a massive, uncontrolled experiment on ourselves. But because so many people are on antidepressants—and many of them prescribed not by psychiatrists but by general practitioners—perpetuating a culture where their use is still taboo, or danced around with euphemism, isn’t just nonsensical—it can seriously jeopardize health. One of the most dangerous things you can do for your mental health is to yo-yo dose on antidepressants—skip pills, sporadically start and stop taking the drugs. We have a delicate ecology of chemicals in our brain, and messing with that is no small matter. Normalizing antidepressant use is one thing, but we need to do make sure people understand the risks that come along with improper use, as well.
The data the CDC collected was from 2005-2008. The agency also found:
• Women are more likely to take antidepressants than men.
• Whites are more likely to take antidepressants than Hispanics or blacks (14%, versus 4% and 3%, respectively).
• 14% of those taking antidepressants have been doing so for 10 years or longer.
• Less than one-third of those taking a single antidepressant have seen a mental health professional in the past year.
• Less than half of those taking multiple antidepressants have seen a mental health professional in the past year.
• Just over one-third of individuals with current, severe symptoms of depression were on antidepressants (20% of males and 40% of females).