Do you believe stigma around taking medication for mental illness exists?
Or put it this way:
If you had to choose, would you rather disclose that you were taking insulin or psychiatric medication (antidepressants, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, mood stabilisers etc) to your employer, your family, your friends, and a room full of strangers? And why?
This is not a post about the pros and cons of taking psychiatric medications. It is about one of the biggest roadblocks people encounter when they are deciding whether to take them.
Stigmatising messages surrounding psychiatric medication are often cloaked in good intentions but are usually based on misinformation or complete ignorance.
Among others, these messages come from:
Family: ‘You should be able to just pull yourself together.’
Natural therapists: ‘Medication damages you. All you need is a balanced diet and fish oil supplements.’
Religious organisations: ‘This treatment will steal your soul.’ Or: Two words – Tom Cruise.
The experiences of others: ‘I took this medication and it didn’t work/made things worse. So it is bad.’
Somewhat understandably many people tip toe around disclosing that they take medication for their mental illness. It’s a bit like cautiously advancing across the just frozen surface of a lake, unsure of how thick that ice is in the presence of others.
So, what about me?
I take a lot of psychiatric medications. I was offered medication for my emerging mental illness when I spent my first night in a psychiatric hospital five days after my daughter was born. It was a sleeping tablet.
I was hesitant. Up until then I believed the less medication the better. Whatever the type. But I hadn’t slept at all for most of the preceding week. So, I swallowed the tablet.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was rapidly ascending through mania towards psychosis. My newborn Bipolar Disorder barely registered that one sleeping tablet. In the face of a manic episode it was as useful as taking vitamin C.
Two days later psychosis roared in like a wildfire. It was time for the big hoses. High dose antipsychotics. I initially refused these as well. Not for reasons of stigma, but because I was so delusional, I believed my husband would be tortured if I took this medication. In the end I took it, and it returned me to the same reality as everyone else’s.
That was the beginning of my relationship with psychiatric medication. In the intervening twelve years I have had time off medication, I have changed medications, I have taken more, I have taken less. All according to what I needed at the time. Sometimes I have felt concerned about the long-term side effects of some of these medications, and I have always tried to stay on the minimum effective doses in between episodes of illness and hospitalisation.
But I have never felt shame over taking them.
I don’t think that’s because I’m not vulnerable to stigma. I believe it is because the onset of my illness was so acute and so severe. The symptoms were far worse than any discomfort I might have felt over the implications of taking psychiatric medication.
I am also fortunate to have a supportive family who kept any reservations they may have had to themselves and allowed me to trust and work with my psychiatrist.
But I’ve learnt that my situation is unusual. Most people tend to get sick more slowly. Symptoms may be intermittent. And because they affect things we normally control (thoughts, emotions, actions) it can be easy to believe you can out think your illness without medication. It also makes it easy for others to disparage your choice to take it. These circumstances provide fertile ground for stigmatising messages to take root.
The decision whether or not to take psychiatric medication is often not an easy one. However, we need to base that decision on facts and possibly a trial rather than stigmatising messages. I have witnessed people suffering for much longer than they needed to because preconceived ideas about what it means to medicate their mental illness have prevented them from accessing these potentially life saving treatments.
Whether or not we take psychiatric medication, and how much we take does not define us. It has nothing to do with who we are as human beings. This medication is an aid in the treatment of mental illness for many people. That is all. No more. No less.
And we shouldn’t have to defend our decision and right to take it or leave it to anyone.
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