Medicating the Mind

It’s statistically likely that you know somebody who is taking antidepressants, and might even be doing so yourself. According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a little over one in ten Americans over the age of 12 are taking such drugs. The medication of depression is a controversial topic not only among the general public, but even among researchers and some mental health professionals themselves. Are the drugs effective? Do the side effects make patients’ health worse rather than better? Are they just a small bandage for a gaping wound of other issues?

Additionally, the perceived epidemic of mental health problems among college students has provided plenty of fodder for commentary from many different journalistic outlets. There have been a variety of think pieces that have theorized potential causes ranging from a supposed hypersensitive cultural atmosphere to increasingly high-pressure academic environments. With such lack of clarity, it’s difficult to generalize the traditional experience of those suffering from depression and taking antidepressants.

I had the opportunity to interview 3 UTD students who have either been on some form of antidepressant before or are currently taking one. Their experiences and insight provide a window into how medication can alter one’s experience of mental illness.

Editor’s Note: The names of those interviewed have been changed to protect from stigma surrounding some people’s perception of mental illness.


Interview 1: Zoe

When did you first start taking antidepressants?

Fall of last year.

What was going on in your life at the time?

I’ve had kind of a history of depression and then, finally, I was just like, it’s probably time that I start taking something for it. I had been going to therapy for about four or five months at that point, and she asked me if I wanted to, you know, trying doing that, and that’s how we ended up agreeing on me taking those.

What type of antidepressants were you prescribed?

The brand name is Lexapro.

Initially, how helpful were they?

I was tired a lot. It kind of messed up my sleep and everything but once [I started getting] into the actual flow of things and getting, you know, my life together, it was pretty helpful. Because when you’re first on it, they don’t do much of anything; it has to get into your system. But, in the end, it really, really helped my mood. It didn’t make me happy or anything but I felt more stable. Absolutely.

Other than the initial drowsiness, were there any notable side effects?

Yeah…so I don’t know how to explain it. There’s an actual name for it, but it’s like when you’re falling asleep, it’ll literally jerk you awake, and it’s not like the normal, you jerk awake. It literally feels like something is firing in your head. It’s a very…it’s weird. It’s actually a pretty common side effect.

I’ve heard about something called “brain zaps.”

Yeah, that’s what it is. Yeah, it’s brain zaps.

Overall, how positively or negatively would you say your experience with the medication has been?

Umm, pretty positive. You know…the hard part of it is when you have a setback. Because when you’re taking medicine you feel like, ok, I’m finally where I need to be, but when you go back into having something like an anxiety attack, like… Two or three months ago I had an anxiety attack, and it tore me to shreds. Because I thought, I’ve been doing great, I thought I was fine. So it makes you better, but as soon as you have a setback, at least for me personally, it feels harder to come back from.

There’s been a lot of commentary in the media lately about mental health issues among college students. If anything, what do you wish people understood better about the issue in regards to the drugs or depression in general?

It’s actually really interesting because I feel like…they tell you there’s not a reason for your depression. The funny thing is I realized I was depressed junior year of highs school. And my mother didn’t really think much of it until I got to senior year, and then she started realizing that there was something wrong with me. People actually didn’t understand that fully until after my mom died, and then they’re like “Oh my god.” They realized maybe now something’s wrong with me. It’s interesting because I want people to understand that you don’t need an excuse and that…medicine can help.

My stepmother was really against me going on antidepressants, but my dad as soon as I started said he was proud of me for making that decision for myself.

If any, what steps do you think should be taken to help those struggling with anxiety or depression?

The first thing you absolutely need to do is talk to someone. There’s mental health resources on campus, and even if you don’t have access to something like that, just talk to someone who you feel is responsible and understanding because you really need someone to talk to for a sort of outside-looking-in perspective. Because a lot of the time I feel like people think “Is this behavior normal? Like, to sleep all the time? Is it normal to feel this way?” And you really need someone else to tell you that it’s not.


Interview 2: Rachel

When did you first start taking antidepressants?

I started taking anti-depressants in September of 2014.

What type of antidepressants were you prescribed?

I’ve gone through three psychiatrists, and each one prescribed me a different medication. The first one prescribed me to Buproprion HCL. It’s called Wellbutrin. The second medication I was prescribed was Celexa which is Citalopram. That is the generic name. The third medication I didn’t even get a chance to look at because that is when I decided to not take anymore.

What was going on in your life at the time?

Oh man. Well at the time a lot of stuff was happening…personal situations. I knew that something was wrong with me when I was 17, still in high school. I think it was a conglomeration of unfortunate events that caused me to kind of pay more attention to my degrading mental state. You know, everything was going great in my life. You could say that all the different facets of my life were working harmoniously together. Nothing was out of place, my grades were good, I was in a relationship, my family had no situation that was a hardship of any kind… there were no problems, really. So, I really felt like I had no reason to be upset necessarily. But I could feel something manifesting. It first started as like a small feeling of sadness. There was this weird…misery. Like something was missing or something wasn’t complete. Eventually, that sadness became more of an apathy to the point where I wasn’t really feeling any emotion and that took away a lot of my quality of life.

Wellbutrin was a recommendation from a psychiatrist and caused me concerns about my energy levels. I was tired all the time…I would get 10 to 12 hours of sleep at night and go to work the next day or go to class. I would come home so exhausted, too exhausted to do homework or anything. I would get home and literally sit down and fall asleep. So, that went on for a few weeks and I was very concerned with my academics as well as my work and other things I was involved in…It was really affecting my daily life. So, he prescribed me with Bupropion Hydrochloride because that medication is supposed to give you more energy, or, help in that domain. I took it and started noticing changes after a month. There were slight changes in my mood and I was way more energetic to the point that I was an insomniac. It didn’t make me ecstatic with joy or anything it just helped me get through the day. My mood had not changed drastically or anything. I still felt the same I was just more hyper and not sleeping as much. I was on that treatment for three months and I stopped abruptly which wasn’t very healthy.

A few months after that I went to see another psychiatrist at a whole different clinic who prescribed me the citalopram. This medication made me feel very sick for a few weeks, actually. For about two or three weeks I was nauseated, my stomach hurt, I had just bad gastro-intestinal problems, and it was making me just drowsy. I just didn’t feel good. I knew right off the bat that medication just was not for me. But I kept taking it because I wanted it to work so I decided to give it time. I took it for about another three months. I noticed no change in my mood, I felt more tired, and I was always getting sick which was definitely not helpful so I stopped that treatment. At that point I felt my depression had worsened from before I had taken any medication at all, like it was hopeless after trying two different medications and not finding the right one. The doctor will tell you that antidepressants are a trial & error thing and you just keep going down the list.

There’s been a lot of commentary in the media lately about mental health issues among college students. If anything, what do you wish people understood better about the issue in regards to the drugs or depression in general?

I disagree with the stigma that mental illness in general carries. I don’t think that we can generalize anything about depression because you can have anything you want in this world and still become depressed. I guess I wish people knew that sometimes the answer is not turning to a drug that could make the situation worse. I have met people, unfortunately, who have taken medication and have seen their mental illness get worse. I’ve seen people develop dependencies to what they’re taking; I’ve just seen many sad situations. I wish that from the beginning my psychiatrist had at least recommended for me to do some basic things. Exercise, eat better, even silly things like writing in a diary, writing the positive things in your life. I think drugs can and should be used as a last resort.


Interview 3: Greg

When did you first start taking antidepressants?

March 2016

What type of antidepressants were you prescribed?

Prozac

What was going on in your life at the time?

Housing issues at my school that nobody was doing anything to solve, so stress with that and other issues. Specifically, I was housed on the wrong gender floor, which is against Title IX, but no one was doing anything about that. Specifically because I’m trans, and they weren’t doing anything about it.

Initially, how helpful were they?

They didn’t work at all for about a month which is to be expected. Mostly just side effects until it actually started gradually kicking in.

So what types of side effects were you experiencing?

Yawning about every five minutes. Some kind of shivering every now and then but mostly just yawning.

Were they helpful in the long term?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve had like a history of depression related things so the thing with housing just kind of kicked that up and I guess amplified it. So, long term it’s resolved that or at least alleviated it to the point that I don’t really want to do anything drastic.

So, overall you would say your experiences with the drugs were positive for sure.

Yeah…yeah.

There’s been a lot of commentary in the media lately about mental health issues among college students. If anything, what do you wish people understood better about the issue in regards to the drugs or depression in general?

Umm, couple points. People on the Internet: please stop glorifying mental illness. That’s weird. Not really something you want to have. Also, other people, stop trying to trivialize the issue by saying that you should just change your habits, like, go and work out or stop eating gluten. Because most of the time, that doesn’t do anything. And if it would do something then usually if you’re depressed, you don’t have the motivation or the energy or the time(especially if you’re a college student you almost definitely don’t have the time) to actually go and do all of the lifestyle changes that would make an effect. Also the stigma against antidepressants saying it’s abusing drugs or you’re just becoming addicted to something…they’re not addictive for one, and two, for most people, once you get on the right antidepressant(because different ones work for different people, sometimes you have to switch two or three times ) you actually have positive outcomes and they work for people. So just because you happen to have some kind of stigma against it, don’t try to force that on other people when they might actually get some benefit out of it.

If any, what steps do you think should be taken to help those struggling with anxiety or depression?

View it as a problem that can be solved that has steps that you can take to solve it. Some people seem to think that you need a psychiatrist and a psychologist to get antidepressants when normally you just kind of go to your family doctor, explain the situation and they’ll start you on something if they feel that’s right. So, it’s easier than a lot of people think it is. It’s not like you’re stuck with this for the rest of your life. You can actually go take steps to help yourself. But there definitely needs to be more awareness about that…like, there’s stuff on campus you can go to.

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