Mental health medication isn’t half an emotive topic with contrasting opinions coming from every which way. Some opinions are based on personal experience, and some on research. But there are also many based on myths and false information. Not only can it be difficult to separate the myths from fact, but false information can directly contribute to stigma.
A Little Bit About Mental Health Medication
The type and dose of medication that we’re prescribed for our mental health will depend on our diagnosis, symptoms, history, any other medications we regularly take, other health conditions we have, our personal wishes (provided we’re well enough to make decisions ourselves), and any other life circumstances that are going on for us.
There are different medications within each category. When learning about medication, it’s important to remember that each of us will react to medication differently – not only can reactions vary between medications but sometimes they can even vary between brands.
If we ever have questions or concerns about the medication we’re taking; it’s important to speak to a professional about them. Sometimes it can take a fair amount of time and trial and error to reach a point where our medication is working for us.
MYTH: Taking Medication Is A Quick And Easy Fix
A common misconception about mental health medication is that we take it and we’re ‘better’. This often originates from the experience many of us have had in the past with things like antibiotics where we have a bacterial illness, take a course of antibiotics, and feel better in 7-10 days.
Unfortunately, mental health medications aren’t usually a ‘cure’. They often help to reduce some of our symptoms but we may well need some therapy on top of any medication we take.
Medication can help to reduce our symptoms enough for us to be able to engage with any therapy we have in a meaningful way.
MYTH: Once You Start Taking Medication, You Have To Be On It For Life
This varies. Some people might need to take their medication indefinitely. Others might need it for a set period of time – from a number of months to a couple of years.
Some medications, such as benzodiazepines and some sleeping tablets, aren’t recommended for long-term use.
MYTH: Medication Works Overnight
With most other mental health medications, it usually takes a little longer for us to feel any benefit.
Though antipsychotics can reduce anxiety within hours, they can take several days to weeks to reduce other symptoms we’re living with.
Antidepressants usually need to be taken for a couple of weeks before we feel any benefit; after 4 weeks we should definitely start to feel some benefit to taking them.
HALF-MYTH: You Can’t Take Medication If You’re Pregnant
This myth is complicated and doesn’t have a straightforward answer.
Some mental health medications aren’t advisable to take during pregnancy. This includes things like anticonvulsants (eg. lamotrigine), benzodiazepines, and lithium. Others may pose less of a risk; sometimes this is because there isn’t enough data to prove definitely whether they have an effect on an unborn child or not.
It’s absolutely vital to speak to a medical professional about our medication if we’re planning to become pregnant, or are pregnant. Medications might pose a risk to our unborn child, but it’s also important that we remain well. Often, it comes down to weighing up the risks – would continuing with our medication(s) pose more or less of a risk to our baby than stopping them would pose to our mental health. This is an individual decision. Our health professional should be able to help us decide whether to continue with our current medication(s), swap to a different one(s), change our dose(s), and/or come off our medication(s) altogether.
We shouldn’t stop our medication ourselves and will usually need to taper off them gradually.
Stopping our medication without slowly reducing it can be dangerous. Our health is as important as our baby’s.
MYTH: People Who Take Medication Are Weak
Whether or not we take medication is not an indication of our strength. Deciding to take medication is often a tricky decision, and for some of us, it’s not our decision at all.
Medication isn’t a sign that we’re ‘giving up’ and ‘taking the easy option’. It’s another tool in our coping-with-mental-illness tool kit.
MYTH: People Who Take Medication For Their Mental Health Don’t Really Need It
Doctors aren’t in the habit of prescribing medicines to people who don’t need them.
Though mental health medications can be a lifeline and can save lives, they’re not without their downsides. Most of us will experience at least one side effect, some of which can have knock-on effects in other areas of our lives.
Aside from that, getting hold of our medication can be a bit of a faff and adds another job to a life that we’re already struggling to keep on top of. We wouldn’t deal with it if we didn’t need to.
It’s important to remember that we’re unlikely to know anyone’s full story. We might know an outwardly happy, loud, sociable, bubbly person. Outwardly, it might seem like there’s no way they could ever need any medication for their mental health. But they might be hiding sleepless nights, anxieties, and crippling self-doubt. They could just about be holding it all together, terrified that at any moment their mask will slip.
Medication can allow us to cope and to function. It’s easy to judge people as ‘not needing medication’ when we see the ‘healthier’, medicated version of them. But if people saw us during the times when we’re unmedicated and extremely poorly, then they might realise how much we really do need it.
MYTH: Medication Just Masks The Problem, It Doesn’t Actually Deal With It
This one depends on what our problem is. If our problem is entirely due to circumstance, for example, if we feel low because our bath leaked and caused the lounge ceiling to cave in, then medication isn’t going to fix our problem.
Medication doesn’t ‘fix’ circumstantial problems we have, but it can improve some of our symptoms, helping us to cope.
Antidepressants can help to improve our serotonin levels, lifting our mood enough to tackle any life-issues. Antianxieties can calm our anxiety enough that we’re able to leave the house and access support. Antipsychotics can reduce our symptoms, perhaps getting us to a point where we’re able to find activities that we enjoy again. Mood-stabilisers can stop us from feeling so impulsive and help us to get to a point where we’re able to tackle the debt we built up while manic.
Medication doesn’t deal with our problems directly, but nor does it mask them. It allows us to reach a point where we’re able to cope with them and learn ways of managing them.
MYTH: If You Take Medication It Will Ruin Your Sex Drive
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell whether our medication, illness, or an external factor is causing any problems we’re having with our sex drive. A number of mental health medications have a potential side effect of ‘low sex drive’ but not everyone will experience this side effect. Low sex drive can also be a symptom of some mental illnesses. Alternatively, it could be caused by environmental factors, such as relationship problems, something that mental health problems might contribute to.
Having a low sex drive is a really common problem. If we’re finding it distressing or it’s having an impact on our relationship(s) then it’s always worth speaking to a medical professional for some advice.
MYTH: People Who Need Medication For Their Mental Health Are Dangerous
According to the British Crime Survey, only 1% of victims believe that a violent incident has occurred because the offender had a mental illness. In contrast, a study in Sweden found that those with mental illness were nearly 4.9 times as likely to be a victim of homicide than those without a mental illness.
Taking medication for our mental health doesn’t make us dangerous. We might have scary thoughts, but that doesn’t mean we’ll act on them. At times, we might be a danger to ourselves, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re a danger to other people. Mental illness is just that, an illness, it doesn’t make us automatically dangerous and having a diagnosis definitely does not make us a bad person.
MYTH: Mental Health Medications Are Addictive
This depends on the medication we take. Some medications, such as benzodiazepines, can be addictive and should be carefully monitored by a medical professional. Other medications aren’t addictive but we may have withdrawal effects when we come off them. For that reason, we will often come off a medication gradually and should never stop taking it without medical guidance.
MYTH: Antidepressants Are ‘Happy Pills’
Antidepressants don’t automatically make us happy.
They can help to reduce symptoms of depression by increasing the level of serotonin in our brain.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which affects our mood, emotions and sleep. The serotonin increase from antidepressants is designed to make up for the low levels of serotonin that depression causes.
They don’t pile on a load of extra serotonin if our brain already has enough.
Antidepressants can allow us to function. Being able to function means that we can start to engage with life again, and with things that bring happiness to us.
The medication itself doesn’t make us happy, it just helps us to function.
MYTH: Medication Numbs People Out And Turns Them Into A Zombie
Sometimes, our mental illness can leave us feeling numb and zombie-like, whether we take medication or not. When we start a medication, it might make us feel drowsy or a little ‘spaced out’ sometimes these side effects can fade with time.
When practitioners prescribe medication, their aim is not to ‘zombify’ us. Their aim is to help us to have the best quality of life achievable to us. If we don’t like the effect(s) that our medication is having on us, it is important to speak to our prescriber about it. It might be that our dose or the medication that we’re on needs adjusting.
MYTH: Everybody’s On Antidepressants These Days; It’s Really Fashionable
This often links back to the idea that people don’t really need their medication, and that antidepressants are ‘happy pills’.
Depression is not a fashion statement. Mental health diagnoses aren’t designer labels. They’re not something that we can conveniently pop back in a box when we don’t want it anymore.
Antidepressants are a medication prescribed to help ease symptoms of an illness. They’re not fashionable; they’re a serious drug. For many of us who live with mental illness, taking medication involves some compromise in our life, as we aim to strike a fine balance between side effects and symptoms.
Most of us would stop taking our medication without a second thought if we were guaranteed to remain symptom-free. But that’s not our reality. Our reality is that medication enables us to function, so we continue to take it, not because it’s ‘fashionable’, but because we need it.
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