Two things most stood out for me in Kaitlin Bell Barnett's new book Dosed: The Medication Generation Grows Up. The first is the stories of women struggling to get off of SSRI's (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), started in early adolescence, when they decide to get pregnant. The second is Bell Barnett's review of the literature regarding sexual dysfunction as a side effect of SSRIs in adolescence.
The book as a whole has much to say that is very important. As I write in my blurb for the cover:
Dosed is a fascinating, well-researched, and very important book. After reading it, I hope that no parent, pediatrician or psychiatrist will give psychiatric medication to a child or adolescent without very careful consideration of the potential long-term consequences. Bell Barnett shows that these medications are often not a ‘quick fix,’ but rather have deep, lasting impact, not only on physical and emotional health, but also on a person’s core sense of self.Bell Barnett is a journalist who was herself started on SSRIs as a teenager. Her book intertwines in depth interviews with people who were started on psychiatric medication in childhood and are now young adults, with a journalistic study of the history of psychiatric medication use in children. I could probably write several posts covering all the important issues she addresses, but have chosen to focus on these two.
I first learned of the emerging evidence that SSRIs may cause long term sexual dysfunction last fall when I attended a talk by Robert Whitaker, author of the controversial book about psychiatric illness and medication Anatomy of an Epidemic. I was so alarmed about this data that I wanted to immediately write a blog post about it. But shortly after that talk I received the galleys of Bell Barnett's book. I discovered that she has a through review of the rather scant literature on the subject along with some very poignant stories, so I decided to wait until her book came out. I recommend that anyone who is concerned about this issue (as anyone who takes or prescribes these drugs should be) read her book. The subject is covered in the chapter entitled "Side Effects." Here are a few sample quotes.
A comprehensive review of the literature conducted in 2004 found just one clinical trial that reported erectile dysfunction in a teenager; most clinical guidelines and reviews of SSRIs didn't mention sexual side effects at all.And this important point:
This is pretty shocking since, as the authors of the study cited above noted, anywhere from 30-40 percent of adults experience some kind of SSRI induced problems with libido, arousal, or orgasm.
Despite the lack of formal studies involving young people, anecdotal evidence suggests that drugs causing decreased libido and sexual dysfunction do sometimes pose a real problem, psychologically and socially, both for teenagers who are in the process of developing a sexual identity and for young adults testing out long-term intimate relationships.And this from Elizabeth, who started taking SSRIs in 9th grade:
I am not sure I can [over]state the extent to which it impacted things. I didn't grow up with a normal sex drive, and that was obviously due to a combination of factors, but being on and off antidepressants whose impact I really couldn't understand back when I didn't have any real understanding of my sex drive or sex in relationships to begin with means I basically went through adolescence without experiencing anything in that realm in a "normal' way.There's more, but the bottom line is that this issue is not well studied and yet of major significance in adolescent development.
Bell-Barnett poignantly captures the challenges faced by her interviewees who were started on SSRIs in childhood and now want to have children. Aware of the potential effects on the developing fetus, they try to get off the medication, but rebound with debilitating symptoms of depression. SSRIs are one of the most common medications prescribed in pregnancy. Yet we really do not know what the effects are on the developing fetus. A policy statement put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics earlier this year points to evidence that SSRI use in the third trimester is linked to a constellation of neonatal signs and symptoms. We do know that maternal depression itself can have a negative impact on the developing fetus. So if a woman is already on SSRIs and develops symptoms of depression without them, it may be best to stay on them during pregnancy.
The take home point of Bell Barnett's book, however, is that this issue needs to be considered by parents and clinicians when girls are prescribed these medications in childhood and adolescence well before having children is on their minds. These medications have a great allure as they may very quickly resolve symptoms. But one thing that Bell Barnett makes clear, and that is also supported by the literature, is that getting off these medications is very difficult.
Certainly these children and teenager should get help if they are struggling with depression. But other forms of intervention, including psychodynamic psychotherapy combined with self-regulating activities such as yoga, offer an alternative to medication. There is a severe shortage of quality mental health services due in part to the influence of the health insurance industry. It is a complex issue that must be addressed at the level of health care policy.
Large-scale use of these medications has major life-long impact on identity and sense of self of the current generation, referred to as "Generation Rx." Considering the complex issue of SSRIs in pregnancy, there is also potential for significant impact on the next generation. The time to pay attention to this problem is now. Reading Bell Barnett's book is a good place to start.
The author is solely responsible for the content.