The Stigma around Mental Health Medications

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The stigma around taking medications for mental health affects both the patient and those closest to them.  For many patients, taking prescribed medication for mental health conditions makes them feel weak and a failure for not being able to cope without the assistance medication provides.  For many, these feelings make them resist taking them at the onset of any issues then wait too long after normal functioning has ceased to begin taking them.  These same feelings can then also make them try and come off them as soon as possible.  

This is a pattern I recognise. Despite my bi-polar diagnosis, I resisted for years and this hindered my health, my relationships and my sanity.  I fought taking the medication, then argued the dosage – as if I had become a psychiatrist/physician overnight!  More than once when I believed I was well again I begged to come off them.  Each time the experience was different but the end result was the same: I relapsed, my moods became unmanageable, my intrusive thoughts made it difficult to function, I had no joy or clarity in my life and my risk of self-harm increased.  I now accept through bitter experience that prescribed medication will always be a necessary part of my ‘recovery kit bag’.  

For family and friends, concerns about medications often come from a place of ignorance.  As medication isn’t widely accepted, people don’t talk about it thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of misinformation.  There are concerns that medication makes people feel like a zombie, taking away their personality.  Unfortunately, this view of medication is often portrayed in films for dramatic effect without there being proper understanding of the effects it can have on people considering or needing medication.  Who can forget the scenes in ‘Girl Uninterrupted’ or ‘One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’?

Another misconception is that antidepressants are “happy pills” and are a lazy, frivolous way of getting around having to do other things you can’t be bothered to do.  I remember being told once by a well-meaning relative to “Just get outside and exercise more”.  This type of dismissive attitude made me become more ashamed and secretive about taking medication and actually increased my feelings of low self-worth. 

The negative views associated with mental health medication or interventions do not exist when related to our physical health or even other conditions caused by lifestyle choices.  So what’s going on?  I believe there are two main reasons for this disparity: 1) that the illness and its impact are hidden, intangible and unmeasurable.  No one can see our thoughts or feelings while a plaster on a broken leg is a constant, visible reminder that links to the pain of the patient.  2) that people think mental health issues have been caused by the person experiencing them.  There is an unconscious apportioning of blame which means a lack of care or compassion that is shown to those experiencing physical health problems.

How can we overcome the stigma?  Through continuous education, be it conversation, a more responsible portrayal of mental health conditions in the arts and by placing it on school curriculums.  We MUST bring it out into the open, without judgement, to normalise it.  As an often crucial first step in recovery that provides some ‘space’ to take onboard other activities that promote sustainable wellbeing we cannot afford not to.

Nicola McCarthy, Peer Support Coach