In my original post summarizing our study of medication at Kenyon, I included just enough of “me” to ruffle some feathers without adequately explaining myself. I felt that simply putting out the statistics that one in four Kenyon students have a prescription for an anti-depressant, and that one in three had used study drugs, among other things, wouldn’t get people thinking. This was especially the case given the fact that, as I pointed out, we implicitly knew those statistics already. I was shocked at the levels of anti-depressant prescriptions we found (I was expecting high reported levels of ADD/ADHD medication use, both prescribed and non-prescribed); I wanted to take a stab at why I thought I found them, and why my findings should lead us to do some serious soul-searching about the way we live our lives. I should have either said more or nothing.
So here is more:
I found it particularly interesting that my points concerning ADD/ADHD medication went essentially unchallenged while similar points concerning anti-depression were described as “highly offensive” “illness shaming.” Because of this, I will talk about depression, although most of these points are transferable to ADD/ADHD.
I think that we live in a culture that tells us we have a right to be comfortably happy, and that children of high-achieving parents live in a culture that tells them that they have a right (and responsibility) to be a good student. We’ve been told since we were two years old that everyone is equally special, and we’ve been told since we were five years old that we, in particular, are rightfully above average. The moment we don’t feel special anymore, or the moment we don’t feel above average anymore, we aren’t told that it’s okay; we’re told that we have a problem, a problem that can be solved with medication. And I think that there is something seriously problematic with a culture that sends these messages as they are, by definition, mutually exclusive. If we are going to have a serious conversation about our prescribed lives, one of these cultural axioms is going to have to give.
I think that medication such as Prozac and Adderall are supposed to be last resorts. Taking them comes with serious side effects, not the least of which is dependency, and even many who need such medication to function decide that the negative side effects aren’t worth the benefits. While there is no doubt that they do a lot of good for the people who really do need them, since when do one in four people revert to their last resort for anything? But when we are bombarded with ads for Prozac and Vyvanse on a literally minute-by-minute basis (I can’t watch anything on Hulu without seeing seven ads for Vyvanse per episode) and are surrounded by our friends, parents, teachers and doctors who, with the best intentions, tell us that we don’t have to feel the way we do, is it any wonder that what is considered a last resort becomes a second or even first resort? It is any wonder that the awkward phase in high school becomes a medical condition?
The funny thing about rights is that they define our terms for the way the world “should” be. If I have a right to be happy, but I’m not, then something is inherently wrong with the way that the world is working. If I’m supposed to be doing well in school, but I’m not, then clearly there’s a problem outside of my lack of interest in Social Studies that is causing the world to be out of whack. It would appear that we, the budding American elite, can’t be unhappy and can’t under-perform. We are self-defined joyful overachievers who sometimes need help self-actualizing.
*At the risk of offending those who actually do have a chemical imbalance irrespective of circumstance and are predisposed to feelings of depression, THIS IS A GENERALIZATION. And, to address a pet peeve of mine, “generalization” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.*
When I was diagnosed with situational depressive disorder early this semester after an excruciatingly rough week that involved a romantic tragedy of epic proportions, I found myself thinking exactly that: my life was “supposed” to be different because I was “supposed” to be happy. But, after a while, I started sleeping regularly again, got my appetite back and accepted the fact that I was going to be unhappy for a bit and that was just the way things were going to be. Emotionally, I was a wreck: I couldn’t focus in class, I lost interest in the things that made me happy and I felt like nothing would ever get better. But, biologically, there was nothing inherently wrong with me. I let myself hurt, and then I let myself get better. Life is supposed to suck sometimes.
But when the American Psychiatric Association prepares to modify its guidelines for diagnosing major depressive disorder to include feelings of depression brought on the by death of a loved one within two weeks of the loss, it encourages us to see hardships as medical conditions. You should feel unhappy when you lose a loved one. That’s natural. The idea that such feelings constitute a disorder is, to me, distressing.
And what makes me so certain that this is a cultural phenomenon at least as much as it is a medical one is the feedback I have gotten from international students. Practically unanimously, they have described their amazement at the pervasive use of medication among American students, usage levels that are unheard of for them. Like me, they didn’t realize when they first got here that there was a pill for literally any mental hurdle you could come across. And before you stop me to say that our lives are harder or more stressful than those from abroad, ask yourself whether life in suburban New York or rural Ohio is really that difficult compared to places that, in some cases, have been struggling to provide basic services and civil liberties for their citizens for decades. Being happy is a preference; it isn’t a right. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who isn’t from this country.
But let’s say I’m wrong, and that each and every prescription filled out for an anti-depressant is completely necessary. Then look around New Side and tell me if two people at every full table (one each at the wall tables) has a chemical imbalance that, after all other options have been exhausted, a prescription is necessary to remedy. Then, tell me that there isn’t anything wrong with that, and that this is “just how it is” at a liberal arts college with a competitive admissions process. If this is the case, it is perhaps even more indicative of something being seriously wrong with the lifestyles we have been told to lead. If getting into a school like Kenyon can’t be done without tripling your chances of picking up a prescription for anti-depressants along the way, maybe we as a culture should re-evaluate the premium we place on being above average.
At any given point in February, it wouldn’t surprise me if a quarter of the student population had the Krud; I find it incredibly hard to believe that such a proportion would, or should, exist for a psychological disorder. As I mentioned in my previous post, a proportion that high calls the use of the word “disorder” into question. If a quarter of Kenyon students really are depressed then our depression isn’t a disorder, it’s an epidemic.