• U.S.

The Danger of Suppressing Sadness

5 minute read
Walter Kirn

Considering his wealth of symptoms–lethargy, forgetfulness, loss of interest in friends and studies–can there be any doubt that Holden Caulfield, the dropout hero of J.D. Salinger’s 1950s masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye, would be on Luvox, Prozac or a similar drug if he were a teenager today? No doubt whatsoever. A textbook teen depressive by current standards, Caulfield would be a natural candidate for pharmaceutical intervention, joining a rising number of adolescents whose moodiness, anxiety and rebelliousness are being interpreted as warning signs of chemical imbalances. Indeed, if Caulfield had been a ’90s teen, his incessant griping about “phonies” and general hostility toward mainstream society might have been nipped in the neurological bud. The cultural consequences? Incalculable.

With the stroke of countless pens on thousands of prescription pads, the American coming-of-age experience–the stuff of endless novels, movies and pop songs–could gradually be rendered unrecognizable. Goodbye Salinger, Elvis and Bob Dylan; hello psychopharmacology. “The kids in my school traded Zoloft and Prozac pills the way kids used to trade baseball cards,” says Stephen Morris, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at a Texas parochial school. Of course, this school experience doesn’t prove that schoolyards everywhere have turned into bustling prescription-drug bazaars. But Morris, who headed a schoolwide committee called Addressing Behaviors of Concern, recalls that “the problems we focused on were not dramatically different from my own youthful experiences.” At least three-quarters of the time, says Morris, the kids in question were placed on medication in what he saw as the beginning of a vicious cycle that frequently worsened the original problem. “Challenges that teachers used to handle are being handed over to psychiatrists. Instead of dealing with kids inside the classroom, they yank them out, put them on drugs and stick them back in with glazed eyes a few days later. No wonder the kids end up as outcasts.”

Such outcasts may someday form their own majority, if this trend continues. The pain and confusion of growing up, once considered the proper subject of gloomy poetry read under the blankets and angry rock songs rehearsed in the garage, can now mean a quick ticket to the doctor’s office. And it doesn’t take a lot of acting up for a restless teenager to attract professional attention. On a website sponsored by Channel One, a television network for school-age youth, a recent posting written with the help of the National Association for Mental Illness classified the following behaviors as possible symptoms of manic depression in teens: “increased talking–the adolescent talks too much,” “distractibility,” “unrealistic highs in self-esteem–for example, a teenager who feels specially connected to God.”

That last one is a doozy. And heartbreaking. Could it be that Cassie Bernall, who bravely professed her religious faith while staring down the barrel of a gun at the height of the Columbine massacre, was not so much a hero and a martyr as an untreated candidate for lithium? For the education establishment to go on red alert at the first sign of spirituality in their students would be a devastating development.

What is happening here? For better or worse, an institutional drug culture has sprung up in the hallways of All-American High, mimicking the one already established among depressed adults. As was pointed out in the May issue of Harper’s magazine, the line between illicit, feel-good drugs such as marijuana and amphetamines and legal mood-altering substances such as Luvox, Wellbutrin, and Effexor is a blurry one. Many of the same optimistic claims–enhanced concentration, decreased anxiety, a renewed capacity for feeling pleasure–are made for both types of magic bullet, whether they are bought on the street or in a pharmacy. A profoundly mixed message is being sent to teens when certain substances are demonized for promoting the same subjective states touted on the labels of other compounds. Adolescents, who are famously alert to hypocrisy among their elders, will surely be the first to catch this irony.

At least one hopes so. Teenage skepticism–Holden Caulfield’s bitter gift for discerning inconsistencies in the solemn pronouncements of adults–may be one of the troubling traits on the medicators’ target list. A pill that tones down youthful b.s. detectors would certainly be a boon to parents and teachers, but how would it enrich the lives of teenagers? Even if such a pill improved their moods–helping them stick to their studies, say, and compete in a world with close to zero tolerance for unproductive monkeying around–would it not rob them (and the rest of us) of a potent source of social criticism, political idealism and cultural change? The trials and tribulations of growing up yield wisdom for all involved, both kids and parents. The young pose a constant challenge to the old, often an uncomfortable one, almost always an unexpected one, but meeting that challenge with hastily filled prescriptions may be bad medicine for everybody.

For teens who need medication just to function or lessen the real dangers they might pose to others or themselves, the new medications may truly be miraculous. I know from my own experience with clinical depression (contracted as an adult and treated with a combination of therapy and drugs) that such diseases are real and formidable, impossible to wish away. But for kids in the murky emotional borderlands described in books like The Catcher in the Rye, antidepressants, stimulants and sedatives aren’t a substitute for books and records, heroes and antiheroes. “I get bored sometimes,” Holden Caulfield says, “when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am–I really do–but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

Maybe if people start noticing first and medicating second, more of today’s confused young Caulfields will stand a chance of maturing into Salingers.

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