Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo | 10th July 2017.
Twenty-three years after the publication of American author Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir entitled Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America (1994), public opinion about antidepressants is still as rife with misconceptions, fear, and judgement, as it was when Wurtzel was first prescribed medication to manage her persistent and devastating depression. Writing in what is now a significant tradition of women’s narratives of mental illness— including Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted (1999), and Marya Hornbacher’s Madness (2008)— Wurtzel details the brutal development of her depression from early adolescence into adulthood, and notes the rise in illnesses such as hers across the country.
Like her predecessors and those who came after her, Wurtzel is accused in reviews of her memoir of being whiny, self-pitying, and narcissistic, a charge all too often directed at those suffering from mental health problems, and which betrays wide social prejudice towards those issues. Nevertheless, Wurzel’s unflinching memoir, however personal a narrative, provides a perspective on mental illnesses and their treatment that remains salient. Through a whirlwind of therapy, “tough love,” being ignored, and being indulged, Wurtzel finally finds some peace in the right prescription. Such testimony is echoed in Lauren Slater’s memoir Prozac Diary (1998), and Brooke Shield’s memoir Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression (2006). In her observations of the widespread rise of mental health conditions, Wurtzel insists on the problem being the conditions themselves, not the rise of their medication. All too often, this is not the perspective shared by public intellectuals. Ironically, the title of Wurtzel’s memoir has been used to the highlight the “problem” of antidepressant usage by the Daily Mail and the Guardian.
Indeed, The Guardian recently published an article in which one of their authors describes her experience on her first day of taking the common antidepressant, Citalopram. The article is titled: “I Took My First Antidepressant This Week. The Effects Were Frightening,” and the subheading reads “the number of people with mental illnesses is soaring, and the crisis-ridden NHS cannot cope.” The author states that, within 90 minutes of taking her first Citalopram tablet, she was suffering from a dissociative episode that she attributes to the drug. Citalopram is a drug that takes a couple of weeks to build up in the system, so effects from it within a couple of hours are extremely unusual, a fact which is not mentioned in the article; while it is certainly not my place to say whether or not her symptoms were directly caused by the drug, it should be noted that she suffered from dissociative episodes frequently before ever having come into contact with it, and that the possibility exists that knowing she had taken an antidepressant that she was reluctant to take may have contributed to her mental state.
Furthermore, while she may have experienced the dissociative episode as a direct side effect of the medication, her rush to affirm that this is definitely the case is troubling when set alongside her assertion that managing a mental illness is more than “popping pills.” Of course, medication is not the be all and end all of mental health treatment, but using terminology that evokes recreational drug use to describe taking medication that is often necessary adds to the already existing sensationalisation and stigma surrounding antidepressants— a stigma that often impedes people from receiving the treatment they need in order to survive. While the article makes some points about the NHS’ ineffectiveness at providing adequate mental healthcare, it makes no mention of the financial noose that causes the problem. More than anything, the article feels overall like a scare-mongering piece on antidepressants masquerading as structural critique.
There are, however, other spaces in popular culture that are working to fight this stigma. Season five of Orange Is the New Black, for example, offers a striking indictment of the effect of the negative propaganda surrounding antidepressants in an episode entitled “Breaking the Fiberboard Ceiling.” In this episode, one inmate, Lorna, takes over the prison pharmacy and decides to stop filling the prescriptions of inmates on mental health medications—a decision informed heavily by social stigma and a sense of shame surrounding her own mental illness and medication. As a result of her decision, another character becomes uncontrollably anxious and suffers from a number of psychotic episodes. This is a necessary corrective in the representation of mental health medication, and one that is reminiscent of the nuanced perspective put forward in Prozac Nation.
Neither Wurtzel in her memoir, nor myself in this article are suggesting that antidepressants or other mental health medications are perfect solutions, merely that they are a valid and valuable piece in the treatment of mental illness. Attitudes towards mental health medication are inextricably related to attitudes towards mental health; people suffering from mental illnesses are so often discouraged from taking medication, told to just exercise, to shake it off, to talk it out, because their conditions are seen as attitudinal rather than medical or chemical. Prozac Nation provides us with a valuable testimony against such prejudice.
Maria is a PhD student in English Literature, focussing on contemporary American life writing through a postmodern feminist lens. She previously studied at the University of Seville and Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, identity politics, the intersection of narrative and identity construction, and genre theory.