While most college students might not be familiar with the brand names of cancer treatment drugs, they are no stranger to names like Zoloft and Prozac. Polypharmacy, the act of taking multiple medications at once, is also nothing new on college campuses; we throw around medication like a rag doll ripped to shreds by a hyperactive puppy.
But with the rise in ads for antidepressant pills on social media, the normalization of medication and the “Antidepressants” section in the New York Times, the mental health crisis demands our attention more than ever. While it’s important to increase our comfort with antidepressants, we still must wonder if as a society, we are overprescribing and under therapizing. My argument isn’t against the usage of medication. I’m not a doctor and I can’t make that judgment – professionally or morally. Instead, I find it prudent to acknowledge that by decreasing stigmatization of prescribing antidepressants, we increase our reliance on these drugs with blind beliefs in its efficacy, despite not enough solid research and more tests necessary to back it up.
In 2020, the National Alliance on Mental Illness surveyed that 21% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness and 16.5% of them had taken medication to curb their symptoms. But as the rates of people experiencing mental health issues soar, so do the number of psychiatric drugs a teenager might have in their system at any given time. In severe cases, doctors have been known to dole out more than 10 medications at once.
While studies are not objectively conclusive, some researchers from the University College London have claimed the effect of antidepressants and other mental health-aiding medication has no more significant benefits than that of the placebo. The long-term effects of polypharmacy in adults as well as the quality of life post-medication have not been sufficiently studied. In a 2022 study that compared the quality of life of Americans with depression who took antidepressants and those who did not take medications, the researchers found no significant differences. In fact, after getting off medication, people can also experience withdrawal symptoms, leading to a greater risk for heart attacks and strokes, as well as side effects like nausea and weight gain. Pharmaceutical companies must reconcile with the loss of quality of life in the long term.
But most drugs have reduced effects over time. If patients switched to new medication every time drugs stopped working – perhaps using medicine only tested for schizophrenia but not for depression or anxiety – the long-term consequences can’t be predicted. So, adding to the long list of unknowns, not enough research has been done to know the consequences of taking multiple drugs not for the right cause. Some drugs, such as Lamictal and Effexor, come with warnings of suicidal behavior and growth restrictions. Others are added to prescription lists without being effective for the right disorders. The temporary effects might relieve the mental pain for a moment, but will medicine be able to last forever? We don’t know.
In my research, I read articles and articles about stories of people — even young children — who are changing prescriptions over and over again because nothing is working. Accessibility to such a wide range of drug choices gives doctors leeway to mix and match as they see fit. Certainly, we shouldn’t blame them for doling medicine out the way I hand out Milky Ways during Halloween – they are doing their best to provide help to patients desperately seeking their assistance – but these stories offer a critical look at the state of mental health care in our society today. A 13-year-old girl went from taking Adderall and Paxil to trying to come off one or the other, leading to behavioral issues and depression, which failed to address any of the struggles she had at the start.
Pediatricians and doctors across the country now face a harrowing issue: addressing mental health crises. Yet the formal training they have received fails to sufficiently cover the needs teenagers are seeking. New questions emerge. What is the mental health crisis that young adults are facing? The root cause of anxiety, depression and suicide are so individualized yet so globalized that not one single cure can be available. Medication might help in the short term, but it won’t alleviate the social pressures that constantly surround us. Medication can’t treat it all.
We are treating teenagers and young adults with mental health issues as guinea pigs, capitalizing on mental health to test out new drug discoveries. People pay for medicine because it’s an easier, often cheaper solution to therapy. Excuses to avoid therapy can come in a variety of ways – too much work, not enough time or it simply isn’t important enough to make it on our lists of priorities. But we still want to feel better mentally, so we take a handful of pills instead.
Psychiatry, in it of itself, is shrouded by socioeconomic divisions, sometimes leaving medication as the only option. Treatments to the brain and mental health are not as easily accessible since they aren’t often covered by insurance, and most therapists live in wealthier areas with complicated health costs. But that alone doesn’t change that more than 111 million Americans are living with limited mental health care. Specialized treatments are significantly less developed in rural areas of the U.S. Only gaining more traction in recent years, the availability and accessibility of mental health professionals continues to suffer, and most providers do not work in a traditional health insurance system, leaving patients to pay out-of-pocket costs they cannot afford. Treating major depression could cost at least $10,800 annually. Take this hypothetical example of a person suffering from depression. Say a doctor has prescribed them Zoloft and Prozac – the average 30-day cost of both would total up to $819. Certainly, a precise cost would be dependent on a number of factors. Now, add in the cost of therapy, each session of which could cost at least $100 an hour, depending on where the patient lives and their insurance. But here’s the catch: the treatment might not even work.
As we navigate through collective traumas like the pandemic, our pill usage continues to rise exponentially. Since 2017, there’s been a 41% increase in teenagers using antidepressants. Almost every college student I know has either flirted with them or is actively on these prescription drugs; but the long-term ramifications of the drugs – especially in combination – are almost completely unknown. To write this off as normal discounts the magnitude of the situation.
The rates of mental health issues are not going down any time soon. Along with the increased cultural tolerance of using medication, people are becoming more open to talking about their problems and medication is the easy, immediate improvement to the negative and depressing feelings we face. Not only are young adults facing the worst mental health crisis of the century, but the polypharmacy techniques have also not been tested enough to prove their efficacy, safety or any sort of long-term impact.
The situation feels hopeless, a crisis without one clear answer. But the thought of children and young adults taking prescription pills – handfuls of them – for years, decades and perhaps the rest of their life, should warrant a little more concern and fear. People deserve to feel better, but not at the cost of their future.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.