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March 2, 2006

Jagged little pills

by Audrey Kubetin, Print Copy Editor
Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

"Zoloft, Effexor, Lorazepam, Wellbutrin, Neurontin..." Tyler, a junior, rattles off the labels of the 15 day-glow orange pill bottles that line the top of his bedroom dresser. "Buspirone, Paxil, Trazodone, Celexa, Zyprexa," he continues. "Those are the main ones."

He threw out the last of his pills at the beginning of 10th grade but kept the empty bottles as a reminder of the two years he spent switching between a long line of prescriptions for depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Tyler belongs to the increasing number of American teenagers who have used prescription psychiatric drugs. According to a 2005 Gallup Youth Survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, nine percent of U.S. teens have been prescribed medication for depression, while four percent have prescriptions for anxiety and 10 percent have prescriptions for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These prescriptions can open the door to a better life but at a cost that some Blazers are not willing to pay.

100 mg of happiness

When Alex, a junior, started showing signs of depression in seventh grade, his mother, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, hesitated to seek professional help. Her late sister had been schizophrenic and suicidal, and she feared that her son had inherited the same traits that drove her sister to kill herself.

Last summer, however, Alex's mother started taking Zoloft at her doctor's suggestion. It lessened her anxiety, reduced the frequency of her panic attacks and allowed her to come face-to-face with her son's condition, so she took Alex to get a prescription at the start of the school year.

By November, Alex's perspective on life began to change. Before he started taking Zoloft, he had trouble dealing with people. He would overanalyze their words and actions, have panic attacks and often end up curled up in a ball in a corner, he says. Once he began taking medication, however, his life seemed easier to manage. "I can sort of see that you don't have to worry so much," Alex says. "If you're alive and you're fed and you've got a warm place to sleep, there's no reason to freak out."

After months of battling depression, anorexia and bulimia, Rose, a junior, also found that taking Prozac made life easier to handle: It helped her find a normal fluctuation of moods and a new outlook on life.

Although Rose cannot stand the thought of spending the rest of her life on medication, she plans to stick with her prescriptions for now. Shortly after Rose's psychiatrist put her on Prozac, she grew to resent the unsolicited prescription, so she stopped taking the pills without telling anyone. Off the medication, she felt more aggressive, anxious and depressed. It was, Rose explains, like "being in a constant state of PMS."

Reminded of her life before Prozac, Rose willingly returned to her medication, which has since helped with both her depression and eating disorders. Rose feels that her prescription provides comfort not only to herself but also to her concerned family. "I think I needed the meds. I think they helped me a lot," she explains. "I think they helped my family feel like something was being done."

These benefits, however, came with a price. For Rose and other medicated Blazers, the unwritten side effects of prescription drugs can be more serious than those listed on their warning labels.

"A pretty old-fashioned idea"

After spending two years on medication, Tyler has noticed that psychiatric drugs tend to carry certain social stigmas. "A lot of people still have the misconception that people who take medication are different or crazy," Tyler says. "If you break your leg, no one shies away from you, but if you develop some sort of mental problem, people think that it makes you different."

Sarah, a former Blair student, first felt the sting of stereotypes associated with users of prescription medications in eighth grade, when she told her friends about her depression. Rather than sympathizing, they told her that she was "faking it" in order to get attention. She severed ties with those friends, but the memory of their accusations still lingers.

According to Sheila Sontag, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Hospital, the backlash felt by Sarah and Tyler stems from the ignorant and immature attitude that some people hold towards prescription drugs. "It's a pretty old-fashioned idea that just because someone takes a psychiatric medication that they are `crazy,'" she says. "Hopefully, [the stigma] will lessen over time as awareness and sophistication spread."

Sontag points out that the number of American children and teens who are treated with psychiatric drugs has increased significantly in recent years as more U.S. families gain access to quality medical care and become aware of treatable psychiatric problems like depression and ADHD. According to the annual report prepared for 2004 by Intercontinental Marking Services Health, $10.9 billion worth of antidepressants were sold that year, a 12 percent increase over 2003. In the past 13 years, there have been 250 billion prescriptions of Zoloft alone.

Rose, who takes two ADHD medications in addition to Prozac, believes that prescription drugs are doled out too carelessly. She feels that some parents, doctors and patients view psychiatric drugs like Zoloft and Ritalin as quick, easy fixes for mental problems. "People don't have the right attitude about it," says Rose. "If you expect the meds to fix it, that's not going to work."

When Natalie, a junior, saw a psychiatrist for the first time in sixth grade, it was not of her own free will. Her parents decided she needed to see a doctor, and when her psychiatrist prescribed her medication for ADHD and depression, no one told her what prescriptions she was being given.

In retrospect, Natalie blames puberty for the intense mood swings that her parents mistook for symptoms of depression. Had she been given a say in the matter, she would have turned down the pills.

May cause dizziness

The medications Natalie took in middle school produced a haunting change in her demeanor: They wiped her clean of all feelings. "They made me a rock. I had no emotions whatsoever," Natalie remembers.

Disturbed by this transformation, Natalie stopped taking her pills. Her parents, eventually realizing that her daily pill always ended up in the trash, cancelled her prescription.

Natalie voluntarily began taking psychiatric drugs again last fall when she was prescribed Lexapro for depression and anxiety. Her psychiatrist is still struggling to find the right dosage for her. "If you take too much, then it'll work on depression, but it'll increase your anxiety, and if you take too little, it does nothing for your depression," Natalie says.

Over the four years she has been taking prescription drugs, Sarah has had her own struggles with dosage. She estimates that she spent at least three months of her eighth-grade year bedridden with nausea. The queasiness first resulted from her anxiety, she explains, and later from the combination of Prozac and Wellbutrin that she was prescribed to treat her anxiety. Her psychiatrist put her on Zofran, a nausea medicine given to chemotherapy patients, and she began a long, slow recovery.

Although Tyler's prescriptions made him feel less anxious and gave him better control over his OCD, they were taxing, both physically and emotionally.

Over the two years Tyler spent on medication, he kept a log of the side effects that each of his 10 prescriptions gave him. Heartburn, dry mouth and constipation plagued him through most of the two-year period, he remembers. Some prescriptions would make him ravenously hungry, while others would strip him of his appetite. His energy level would fluctuate depending on which medication he was taking. Some pills, he explains, left him "bouncing off the walls," while others put him to sleep in minutes.

One of the prescriptions Tyler took in middle school left him lacking any attraction to the opposite sex, a disconcerting feeling for him. "It was seventh grade. I was a boy. I was going through puberty," Tyler explains. "It didn't feel quite right to be totally devoid of sexual feeling."

On average, Tyler would spend several weeks on a particular medication, waiting for his body to adjust to it. If the side effects failed to dissipate, as was usually the case, he would ask his doctor for a different prescription. As Tyler bounced from prescription to prescription and found that his experiences on each were usually the same, he began to question the effectiveness of the medications.

Moving past the prescriptions

Tyler remained unshaken by his medications' side effects until one night when, while watching a movie with his family, he lost himself in a mental haze brought on by the prescription he was taking at the time. All the details of the experience the title and plot of the movie, the name of the pills he was taking, even the month it happened are "fogged out" in his memory, Tyler explains. For the first time, he felt truly at the mercy of his medication.

The side effects began to raise questions in his mind about his identity. "I didn't like wondering what part of my personality comes from me and what part comes from the medication," he explains.

At the beginning of his freshman year, Tyler gave up all of his prescriptions. He was surprised to discover that his anxiety levels remained the same as they had during the two years he spent switching from prescription to prescription. Although Tyler cannot say for certain what caused his natural drop in anxiety, he is sure of one thing: "I'm lucky," he says. "I'm not completely cured now, but I can manage the anxiety that I do feel."

In the end, Tyler decided his medications' benefits were not worth the years he spent suffering through their side effects. "It's a double-edged sword," Tyler explains. "You have to make a choice between being influenced by medication and trying to live a difficult life."



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  • Ben on March 2, 2006 at 7:54 PM
    I attend Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA. In January of 2005, 3 months after the passing away of my father, the school diagnosed me with moderate depression as I was having suicidal thoughts. I was 16. At the peak of my depression, in February, they admitted me into a mental hospital for respite and treatment. The hospital prescribed me Welbutrin. As anyone can turn down a medication without parental consent at 14 or older, I turned it down. I always had a firm belief that any case of depression can be treated with therapy. Depression is not a headache; you don't screw around with people's mental health like you do their physical health because, if you think everyone's body is different, you should study the personality a little. I think, at the time, I was too afraid that I was that simple, that a capsule could fix all my problems. I wanted to believe human beings were more complicated that that, that I was more complicated than that. The Boarding School I attend, Milton Hershey School, admitted me into the hospital and paid the bills. The school, which was made for under-privileged children my the chocolate magnate, Milton S. Hershey. is terrific in most ways, as it pays for our clothes, food, health and dental care, and gives us nearly $65,000 for college. When I returned to school from the hospital, I believed that we would continue therapy and the meds would never be mentioned again. My Therapists pushed the pills on me so hard that the school decided that anyone who did not follow a school doctor's orders could be kicked out of the school. So, my options are losing the scholarship, returning to my broken home and probably end up killing myself as I drifted off into a more damaging environment (which the school didn't seem to give a damn about), or give up my morals and self-worth and take the pills (not to mention suffer through any physical or mental side-effects). Well, everyone has their price. I started on the Welbutrin for a month, but they decided that didn't work since it caused me nausea and insomnia. They moved me to Lexapro, which had even more damaging side effects. And so began the pill-swapping I feared I'd go through, finally landing on Prozac for 6 months. It completely abliterated my personality, leaving me helpless and humorless, not to mention libido-less. I've been off them for almost a month now, and I've never felt better in my entire life. The depression returned, but I welcomed it with the warmth of a mother welcoming its offspring back from the evening sun. Bad emotions are better than none and now that I've fought my way through, I don't fear the suicidal times, because now I know the alternative. The school pushed me up against a wall and demanded I take their pills or they'd sentence me to an even worse life. I regret walking into that therapist's office, saying I needed help getting over my father's death and getting "help" with my life. Help was not what I got. Thousands of dollars of prescriptions in the Ely Lily's back-pocket is what I got. A year full of a worse kind of depression than what I had before is what I got. Lovin' is sure as hell what I didn't get, and I doubt there was any other motive into having me take these pills than simplifying the whole process for a bunch of shrinks who wanted to sit on their a** and get payed to play solitaire in between appointments but couldn't becuase their patients had too much to whine about.
  • Leslee Cliffton (View Email) on March 3, 2006 at 12:48 AM
    Jagged Little Pills
    You need to do a lot more research on this subject . Here is a start
    http://theeffexoractivist.org/links.html
  • Rob Robinson (View Email) on March 3, 2006 at 10:54 AM
    It is a sure sign that the core message concerning the potential dangerous side effects of psychotropic drugs (Zoloft, Paxil et al) is getting out to the public -- in this case to those of you under the age of 18 -- when you see "on line" high school articles pop up through the Internet.

    If you are currently taking, or have taken one of these "jagged little pills" -- for whatever reason -- I suggest you visit our website at http://www.PaxilProtest.com to learn more about the potential dangers of, in particular, Paxil, but also similar class drugs.

    As a follow up you might also be interested in learning about a purported mental health "screening" program slowly being implemented throughout the country dubbed "Teen Screen." Marcia Angell, a medical ethics lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of The Truth About Drug Companies has been quoted as saying "It's (Teen Screen) is just a way to put more people on prescription drugs." Dr. Angell is the former editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine and a physician trained in both internal medicine and pathology. She is also a nationally recognized authority in the field of health care and an outspoken proponent of medical and pharmaceutical reform. Time magazine named her one of the twenty-five most influential people in America. Dr. Angell is also the author of Science on Trial.

    For more information on the Teen Screen program I suggest you visit the Alliance For Human Research Protection at http://www.AHRP.org and start looking around for links related to Teen Screen (and a whole lot more.)

    Finally, don't miss moviemaker Michael Moore's "Big Pharma-Healthcare expose' coming out a bit later this year.

    Keep up the good work, keep writing and keep asking tough questions. You deserve nothing less than the truth....

    Kind Regards,

    Rob Robinson, Founder
    Paxil Protest
  • rose (View Email) on March 6, 2006 at 4:30 AM
    it is important to remember, as ben said in his comment, that as different as the body is, the mind is infinitely more unique.
    our knowledge of it barely scrapes the surface, and so when people are subscribed meds, there are black holes that we don't even know are there, that can lead to side effects that are totally unforseen.
    However, because of the complexity of the mind, i wouldn't ever want to make generalizations on the subject either way. the medications should not be over-prescribed, but they should not be under-prescribed either.

    i can only speak from my own experience, because i think that everyone should be evaluated differently. i know that i would probably not have survived the depression i was in without the prescription i was given.
  • colby roberson (View Email) on March 6, 2006 at 10:59 PM
    hey i didnt qite get the point teh story wasd getting at but ive been on prozac zoloft adderal all of that im on zoloft and emerol right now and i dont like them i dont think it works but parent do ive been on adderal and it got vdery addicting to me and i want to get back on it but they say it just makes me crazier
  • ian gold (View Email) on March 12, 2006 at 7:58 PM
    silver chips continues to write great and captivating articles like this one and the robo tripping one. Great work and keep it coming this is amazing
  • Malfoy on September 5, 2006 at 9:07 AM
    Sefany
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