Coming of age clinically

Jonathan AdamsGuest Columnist

The summer of 1997 should have been Katherine Sharpe’s best. The Washington, D.C., resident was celebrating her high school graduation with ceremonial pool parties and yearbook signatures. As she photographed every moment of her final three months before college, she developed typical nostalgia.

But typical nostalgia, she writes, turned into atypically enormous grief and terror at the thought of attending Reed College in Portland, Ore. “All I felt was a penetrating sense of loneliness,” she recounts in her memoir, “Coming of Age on Zoloft,” “and deep grief for all I would leave behind.”

Today, one could quickly classify Sharpe as depressed. In fact, she was prescribed Zoloft shortly after arriving at Reed. But Sharpe was shy about the diagnosis. While she acknowledged her moods were abnormal, she, a self-described “tightly-wound romantic,” wouldn’t assume the label of depression.

Sixteen years have passed. Since that time, the FDA has permitted direct advertisement of pharmaceuticals, including antidepressants, to consumers. The FDA’s sanction, though seemingly innocuous, sparked a cultural revolution. Television viewers could now watch animated caricatures’ frowns turn to smiles after taking Zoloft and subsequently wonder if these little yellow pills could also improve their lives. The campaigns worked brilliantly; antidepressant sales soared.

But just as antidepressant sales skyrocketed, so did confusion about what constitutes mental illness. Sharpe writes that Millennials “don’t have a language for ordinary distress.”

Conversations among Samford students affirm her statement. Too often, we’ll claim we’re “depressed” when we’re merely sad, “anxious” when we’re merely nervous, and “obsessive-compulsive” when we’re merely meticulous. Are we, as Sharpe proposes, unable to suffer outside the context of mental illness?

My concerns aren’t simple pedantry. Sadness and depression are not one and the same. An occasional bout of sadness is normal. But major depressive disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, is marked by “persistent sad or anxious mood, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, difficulty concentrating, and suicidal thoughts.”

When we describe our feelings as symptoms, we not only err semantically but also harm those actually suffering from mental illnesses. We bolster the plethora of stigmas surrounding their conditions.

Antidepressants are not merely “happy pills”; they are a remedy for an authentic medical condition that pains its sufferers immensely. Moreover, our misplaced words can preclude those who need treatment from seeking it.

A fear of public speaking, for instance, is far from clinical. But when we call a situationally-triggered worry a full-blown “anxiety,” we steal legitimacy away from those who truly suffer an anxiety disorder. This, in turn, can deceive actual sufferers into believing their feelings are normal and divert them away from much-needed care.

I do not write to scorn those who are facing emotional difficulties. If you suspect you have a mental illness or have thoughts of suicide, please seek the counsel of a licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. But unless you have an expert’s diagnosis, you’re probably not depressed, anxious, or bipolar.

So enjoy your mental health and all of its completely natural ups and downs.

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