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A May 27th article in the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at depression, stress, and the problematic (over)prescription of medication to college students.  In “Prozac Campus: the Next Generation,” Katherine Sharpe tracks her own moments with depression, the counseling she undertook, and eventually, the medication she was prescribed; she distinguishes between once never hearing about anti-depressants to suddenly knowing the definition of an  SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) and then being bombarded by ads for products like Prozac and Zoloft.

To Sharpe’s surprise, she soon learned that many of her classmates were on anti-depressants; but, she worries that the numbers in prescriptions for college students has risen, and they seem to correlate with the stresses today’s college students face in ever-demanding college environments.  She notes there is a “campus taboo against seeming anything short of perfect” and she adds,  colleges have a “culture of silence,” where emotional problems are both ubiquitous and unmentionable (her words).

I appreciate Sharpe’s article for its information and for her lasting statements about sharing helpful narratives and being realistic with goals, something every college professor should take to heart and share with students.  I am, however, more tentative about her remarks on medication and what she calls “alarmist, manipulative” pharmaceutical companies “nourished by a drug-obsessed culture.”

The call for sharing narratives has long been my approach, too.  We don’t like to talk to one another about sadness, loneliness, stress, being overwhelmed, or feeling inadequate about meeting the demands at work, at school, or at home.  But we can change that culture by sharing stories and finding, if necessary, responsible doctors who can help with the chemical part that stories may not reach.

I myself have had my share of breakdowns (the first one during the second semester of my freshman year in college, when I had to withdraw from my classes and re-take them a year later).  In my working adult life, too, I’ve faced stresses that have put me on an assortment or combination of Prozac, Abilify, Lamictal, Seroquel, and Remeron (just to name a few).

I’ve enjoyed the benefits of medication — focused thought, clear-mindedness, and the ability to cope — and I’ve suffered the side-effects, most noticeably, weight-gain.  But as my doctor(s) have often argued:  which would you rather be, well with a few extra pounds or unwell and thin?  How about well and thin?  But that last option sometimes feels like a trip to Oz.

I share my story to offer the surprising gift of relief through fellowship.  When I first approached those people closest to me, I thought nobody would understand my feelings; my feelings weren’t normal; people would think I’m weak, incapable, or crazy.  But what I found was story after story of shared emotional experiences from people I love and trust.  One friend told me she often drives to a distant part of the city, parks her car, and walks down the street, crying; another friend shared that when she first moved out of her college apartment into a house with a male friend, she found him sitting in the backyard crying openly under a tree; and others shared discreetly the medications they were on.

Suddenly the hole that blackened wide and deep at the center of my being began to fill up with narratives of coping and hoping.  And what a comfort it was!

Sharing stories helps, but I wouldn’t dismiss medication either.  Pharmaceutical companies may be overzealous in their marketing, and some doctors may be too eager with the prescription pad, but the right doctor prescribing the right meds helped me in ways I never thought possible.

I have a cousin who insists western psychiatry and medication are the simpleton’s approach to mental wellness, mere replacements for what he calls “a discourse of acceptance” we should take instead.  “If we let acceptance be our primary discourse,” he says, using his graduate school lingo, “we’ll be healthy.”  He has a point; we do need to talk more openly about how we feel and we should accept our feelings as well as our limitations.  Katherine Sharpe has a point, too, that “colleges must offer narratives about stress and suffering that push back against the alarmist, manipulative ones circulated by pharmaceutical companies.”  But I take a middle-of-the-road, yellow-brick-road-into-the-center-of-the-forest approach between their two extremes.  I concede to the benefits of well-prescribed medication but taken from a doctor that listens with an ear, not with a pen.  The balance between taking and talking is important to me.

Warning Sign on road to Oz:  Cheesy yet literate moment ahead.

I like to think of the “Wizard of Oz” as an allegory for mental wellness and well being, so it’s particularly revealing that we teach it to children early on, perhaps as a lesson for accepting, hoping, and coping.  The Scarecrow lacked the focusing of ideas, and thought he didn’t have a brain; the Tin Man felt closed off to the possibilities of love, so he thought he didn’t have  a heart; and the Lion felt weak and incapable so he added “Cowardly” to his name.  Dearest of them all was Dorothy, the most like us; she felt lonely and wanted desperately to be among friends and family — a sense of home.  These are real emotions.  We have all felt them at some point in our lives, even if you claim otherwise.  It’s OK that we have these emotions, but it’s also OK not to enjoy having them and wanting to get rid of them safely.  Whatever the Emerald City may be, shining bright and lovely on a hilltop, at least the story’s foursome were going somewhere for help, and most importantly, they shared the journey together.

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