mental health treatment

The Stigma Around Medication For Mental Illness

Today’s post is another guest blog from a woman named KC. I know that a lot of people have issues with medication, but I urge you to keep an open mind to what she has to say. I’m not going to write a huge lengthy introduction, but rather, I’ll let you get right into it. Here you go!

There are many types of stigma an individual with mental illness can face, which could both further exacerbate any issues, or prevent them from seeking appropriate care. Recently, I wrote a post about the stigma of seeking therapy. In this post, I highlighted common misconceptions about therapy and why anyone could benefit. I also discussed how one individual’s care regimen for their mental illness may differ from someone else’s. This regimen may include medication, as does mine. I’ve been taking 150 mg sertraline daily for about the past three years. I’ve personally faced a lot of ignorant comments concerning this, and will present arguments against them here.

I want to reiterate that this is my experience using medication: mine is a relatively mild drug, with few side effects. I luckily didn’t have to try many different medications before I found one that worked for me. I will speak from my experience and hopefully you can see some truths in my words regardless of yours. I have a lot I could say on this subject so I may revisit at a later time but here goes a few things I’d like to discuss today:

med-quote

Unhelpful comment #1 along the lines of: “Shouldn’t you try to find a way to get over your issues without relying on medication? Have you tried _____?”

I find this an ignorant and unhelpful comment for several reasons. Firstly, I know this analogy has been used with various substitutions but let’s use the analogy of a patient with type II diabetes, which is often caused (or partially caused) by poor diet and other lifestyle factors. Some people with this type of diabetes, if caught early, can manage their disease without insulin by monitoring their glucose intake and exercising more. However, in some cases this may not be sufficient especially in advanced cases. Would you tell a person with type II diabetes who is prescribed insulin not to take their insulin but simply change their diet and start exercising more? Of course, it is recommended to do that in ADDITION to taking their insulin, but at that point in their illness the diabetes simply cannot be managed with these interventions alone, and it would be dangerous to refuse insulin.

Similarly, one individual with a mental illness (let’s say, depression since I can speak more personally on this) can manage with regular therapy and positive lifestyle changes. However, another individual may not be amenable to these therapies without some pharmaceutical intervention for biological reasons (deficiencies in certain neurotransmitters, for example), or for still unknown reasons. For example, if I do not take my medication I can become so distressed that I cannot pull myself together to perform basic self-care activities, let alone attend therapy or exercise with a mindset allowing it to be effective. Or, I have to spend so much emotional energy to accomplish these tasks that they are counterproductive. My medication does not solve all my problems, but simply gives me the boost I need to benefit from other non-medicinal interventions.

Unhelpful comment #2 along the lines of: “Have you thought of the side effects?”

This may be the scientist in me, but I get annoyed when people suggest this. I’m not going to blindly take things without researching what they could do to me. But, that isn’t the main thing that bothers me about this comment. What I want to stress here is that A LOT OF MEDICATIONS HAVE SIDE EFFECTS, not just antidepressants. If you needed to take blood thinners for a heart condition, there is an increased risk for when you get cuts that you may have significant bleeding. However, for some the risk of developing a serious heart condition may outweigh the risk of bleeding, so they take the medication while carefully observing the side effects, and take care to prevent any excess bleeding. The same approach can apply to the side effects of antidepressants. I’m lucky that mine doesn’t have many noticeable ones. But many others may cause some that could affect quality of life or even physical effects. As with any medication, you need to speak to your doctor about these side effects and discuss the benefit-risk ratio. Yes, yoga may have less side effects than a certain type of medication. But if the alternative is feeling slightly nauseous in the morning for 30 minutes on an antidepressant vs. hiding in bed for 3 days without it, then (in my opinion), I would choose the 30 minutes of mild nausea. It is a personal decision of course, but I think it is important to note that rarely there is a perfect solution to treatment of any disease. Luckily, scientific research has advanced significantly, and federal regulations are much more stringent so that dangerous medications are much, much less frequent on the market. There is still a long way to go, so it is important to understand you may need to accept some risk with your medication. But we accept risks for many aspects of our lives: the chances of getting in a car accident when we get in our car is much, much higher than any serious side effect from an antidepressant, for example.

Unhelpful comment #3 along the lines of: “Won’t the medication change who you are? I would never take something that would turn me into a lifeless zombie!”

First, I think this is just a huge myth and stereotype. Yes, for certain disorders that require strong antipsychotic drugs, some people may experience intense side effects such as excessive drowsiness. However, I would suggest in that case they are on an incorrect dosage or the wrong medication. However, in a large majority of cases, medications for mental illnesses simply dampen the symptoms and make it easier for the individual to function: it simply returns them to their baseline. As I mentioned before, mine help keep me at my baseline and from going into distress mode. Being in an acute crisis is not who I am: the medication helps keep me who I am.

Unhelpful comment #4 along the lines of: “Geez, calm down would ya? Take a chill pill!”

I’ve probably said something like this myself, and I never stopped to think of how offensive it could be. I remember one time someone (who knew I was taking antidepressants) said this to me and it really upset me. At the time, I wasn’t joking around but was clearly expressing my distress. I felt like the phrase made light of what I was feeling. And when I thought more of it, I felt like it was perpetuating the myth that taking antidepressants is like some magic happy pill that cures your depression or makes you into some sort of eerily calm Stepford wife. As I said earlier, for me, it just brings me to a state of mind where I even have a fighting chance at overcoming my depressive symptoms. It is no cure.

Have you ever heard any of these unhelpful comments or others? Tell us in the comments below! Or tell us about your own thoughts on medication for mental illness. We’d love to hear from you!

9 comments on “The Stigma Around Medication For Mental Illness

  1. Great post! This is a topic that needs exposure for sure. I know I have my own stigma when it comes to medication – there are times when I probably should have taken the anti-depressants suggested by therapists and doctors. I knew I didn’t want that label of being mentally ill.

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  2. Excellent post. I’ve been on an SSRI for about three years now and I remember life before. So far the two worst side effects I’ve experienced is diminished sex drive and TMJ. People have been pretty understanding when I tell them I take an SSRI… well at least to my face.

    I’ve had more “unhelpful comments” in relation to my thyroid medication (levothyroxine). Like, saying I’m pretty tired. Someone would retort, “take a thyroid pill.”

    It doesn’t work like that. It’s not instant energy.

    And you articulated something I’ve been having a hard time with — “baseline”. The medication (SSRI and thyroid meds) put me where I should be. What’s normal… Unfortunately, for me, both go hand in hand. The SSRI is less effective when not on thyroid meds, and my thyroid dysfunction causes depression.

    But yes, there is definitely a stigma about taking medication for mental illness.

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  3. I can honestly say, before starting medication myself, that I expressed a lot of these comments – but they were coming from a place of ignorance and fear. This is an awesome article, thank you for sharing!

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  4. I agree those are very hurtful stigma related comments and I have also heard them all before as well. Thank you for the post.

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  5. I’ll be honest I’ve never come across stigma about my taking medication, maybe it’s because I have Bipolar and people see that slightly differently as something that they expect to be treated with medication. I’m on quite a cocktail but I know others with Bipolar who take nothing and some who take way more than me and as with all its about personal choice and need. If anything the hardest time I’ve had with medication has been with Drs who have made some atrocious comments!

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  6. I’m taking medication and currently going through therapy. Both are keeping me going. I’ve had lots of comments about my medication and also Not so much a stigma but a friend of mine who also has anxiety like me is always telling me to try the meds she’s on, different things make us anxious so her meds may not work for me and quite set on staying on mine but my goal is to come off medication and be free of anxiety… one day xx

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  7. Another unhelpful comment, “aren’t you worried about becoming addicted?”

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  8. “If you eat right, you don’t need medication. Nature offers all the nutrients you need for a healthy mind.” I had a friend who became a member of some vitamin cult and it deeply soured our relationship. She expected us to trust the guy at the end of her pyramid scheme above doctors. It goes without saying that a healthy diet is ideal for anyone, but I felt like she was condescending within her ignorance of mental illness. Excellent post!

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  9. I’ve tried multiple psychiatric drugs through my teens and I was often faced with these sort of comments – especially from my parents. It was a case of finding the right drug for me, and in the end it worked fabulously. I’ve never felt as good as I do now in 5 years, and while I know drugs aren’t for everyone, they really can change lives.
    Really enjoyed reading this! X

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