Let’s Talk About Medication Stigma

If only we had a pound for every time we’ve heard: ‘you don’t need to take medication for your mental health, you just need to meditate/do yoga/eat more vegetables/think positive/just stop worrying’. Even though mental health and mental illness are, thankfully, becoming more and more widely discussed, stigma around mental health medication is still pervasive. This is incredibly frustrating, since, for many people, medicine is an invaluable tool for maintaining their mental health. One of the best ways of reducing stigma is by talking openly and honestly, so we wanted to discuss some of the most common misconceptions about mental health medication.

let's talk about medication stigma

Taking Medication Means That I’ve Failed

When people advise us to do more exercise, or eat more leafy greens, or try yoga, instead of taking mental health medication, it feels like they are saying that we’re simply not trying hard enough. That we would be fine if we just pulled ourselves together, and helped ourselves. When faced with this attitude, taking mental health medication feels like admitting defeat. Since we should, seemingly, be able to manage it ourselves, we must have failed if we take medication.

This isn’t true. We wouldn’t tell someone that, if they could just eat more fruit and veg, their asthma would go away. We wouldn’t ask someone to raise their white blood cell count simply by thinking about it really hard. Taking medication treats the physical elements of our mental illness. It affects the levels of certain neurotransmitters in our brain, just as heart medications might affect the levels of cholesterol in our bloodstream. Choosing to take medication for your mental illness is no different to taking it to manage your physical health. Don’t let anyone convince you that it means you’ve failed.

Taking Medication Means That I’m Weak

Unsurprisingly, since we are surrounded by stigmatising opinions about mental health medication, we often start to self-stigmatise. We start to believe that taking medication for our mental illness makes us weak. We compare our situation to others’. They seem to be handling much more than we are, and they are absolutely fine – what’s wrong with us?

This self-stigma is dangerous. People don’t seek treatment, believing that they just need to be stronger, and get on with things. Inevitably, this means that they often become more and more ill. If we do start taking medication, we might feel that we need to hide it from others, or try to get off it too quickly because we are ashamed that we need to take it all. This can lead to a relapse.

Recognising that you need help, and accepting that help and support, is actually a real act of strength. It takes bravery to make yourself vulnerable, and to go and see a doctor to discuss treatment options. Taking medication for your mental health is a sign that you are taking care of yourself. It can be the first step to feeling more like you again.

Medication is an easy fix

It’s sometimes suggested that mental health medication is just a plaster, temporarily masking a problem, but not helping it. People say that they don’t want to have to take a pill to be happy. Indeed, antidepressants, are often labelled ‘happy pills’. You take a pill and, boom, you’re smiling again, and the depression has lifted. This isn’t how mental health medication works. It doesn’t make us happy, it just stops us feeling quite so low, putting us back on an even-keel. In addition, the effects usually take some time, as we need to wait until a therapeutic dose has built up in our body.

Importantly, what medication does, is lift us enough that we feel able to start doing other things that will help, such as therapy. It can be a useful first step on the road to recovery. It’s not a magic cure, and we’ll still have down days. Rather than creating a sense of happiness, with no effort on our part, mental health medications just give us enough energy to start moving forwards again.

Medication Will Turn Me Into A Zombie

People often worry that mental health medication will make them feel completely numb, or that it will change their personality, and that they wont be themselves anymore. In particular, there’s often a link drawn between creativity and mental illness. We sometimes romanticise artists, musicians, and authors who’ve suffered from mental ill health. As a result, we worry that taking medication for our mental health will extinguish the spark that makes us, ‘us’. Now, we don’t know about you, but when our mental health has been bad, our sense of concentration and focus is pretty much gone. We often don’t have the motivation to even get out of bed, much less do anything else, like create something or work on a project. By relieving, or reducing obtrusive symptoms of mental illness – such as intrusive thoughts, delusions, or obsessions – and increasing our motivation and energy, mental health medication usually allows us to get back to feeling more like ourselves, and doing what we enjoy.

However, mental health medication, like most other medications, can come with side effects, and some people do report that all of their emotions, both happy and sad, feel blunted – they feel detached from themselves and their feelings. In addition, some medicines might cause weight gain, loss of libido, or trouble sleeping. These symptoms can make us feel that we aren’t ourselves anymore. We don’t have to live with these side effects. If we aren’t getting on with a particular medicine, we can go back to the doctor to try something else. We don’t need to either just accept it, or stop taking mental health medication altogether.

Medication may not be the right choice for everyone, but nobody should be put off trying it because of stigma or shame. If you think that you might benefit from taking medication for your mental health, please do go and speak to your doctor. If the first doctor you see isn’t helpful, you are absolutely entitled to see another, so you can get the help you need.

We’re holding a #BlurtChats discussion on Twitter, at 8pm on 12th June, if you’d like to discuss this topic with others who’ve experienced mental ill health.

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