New book tells story of ‘medication generation’ — 20-something with years on prescription drugs

Here and Now

Kaitlin Barnett understands what it’s like to grow up medicated. She began taking prescription drugs when she was 17.

The author of the new book “Dosed: The Medication Generation Grows Up,” Barnett began using Prozac to cope with depression in her late teens.

“When I first went on medication it seemed pretty basic. I was very unhappy and I wanted a pill to fix it. I took the pill and it helped me. And for a while that was the end of the story,” Barnett said. “Later it got more complicated for me. The pill stopped working, I had problems with anxiety. But what I ended up realizing was that was typical for many people I interviewed.”

As an adult, Barnett began interviewing her peers in the medication generation to examine the increase in children and adolescents taking psychiatric medications. Her research followed five individuals who grew up using medication and became the framework for “Dosed.”

Prescription drugs designed to treat disorders and behavioral problems have been on the market for decades, but starting children on medication at a young age is a relatively new phenomenon. Some psychiatrists call the medication generation “a giant uncontrolled experiment that’s using America’s children as guinea pigs.” 

Barnett thinks prescribing medications to children is particularly challenging because children are changing all the time.

“Kids problems are constantly changing because kids are constantly growing and changing, so their symptoms are manifesting differently over time,” Barnett said. “The link between the disorder and the medication is constantly in flux.”

In her research, Barnett found people in complicated relationships with the drugs they used. Some of the interviewees thought they didn’t deserve to be medicated as children, others respected their caregivers’ decisions, but chose to give up their prescriptions later in life. For Barnett, the author has come to see the medications she relies on as part of her identity.

“I’ve come to incorporate into my definition of myself, and understand that it does continue to change me and effect me over time, and that will continue to be the case,” she said. 

In “Dosed,” Barnett researched why there has been such an increase in young people taking psychiatric medications. Barnett touched on the growth in new pharmaceutical discoveries, the effect of parents pushing for their children to succeed, the FDA’s decision in the 1990s to allow drug companies to advertise on television, and the complicated economics of health insurance policies. 

“In the 1980s and 1990s there was a shift towards managed care. There was a shift from doctors being able to see patients for long periods of time, to them needing to cram more patients into short blocks of time,” Barnett said. “Psychiatrists ended up being reimbursed at a much higher rate for a medication visit than a psychotherapy visit. There were also just more drugs available on the market so they had more tools available.”

Barnett thinks those tools are useful, but they should be respected and families should carefully consider the decision to put their children on medication.

“My advice to parents who are thinking about medicating their children is to not be hasty about it,” Barnett said. “There can be side effects and those can damage young lives as well. But if the children are suffering for months and years and have a sustained disfunction and the parents have tried other methods like therapy, I would encourage the parents to consider medication seriously as an option.”

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