Over the last few years, the conversation about mental health has opened up, especially on social media. Unfortunately, the conversation has got stuck and just ‘talking’ about it is no longer enough. We need move forward and discuss treatment, therapy and more specifically, medication. This is essential now, more than ever, given the scary and uncertain state of the world. There is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding psychiatric meds, primarily because people still assume that taking drugs for one’s mental health is a bad thing. I wrote about medication back in 2018, and I don’t think that things have particularly changed since then. The general public still don’t really understand what psychiatric medication is used for and how it can be helpful.
Before I continue, it’s important to emphasise that I am not a doctor and this is based on my own expereince. Always seek the advice of a medical professional.
I’m very open about my mental health and when I tell people that I take medicine for my Bipolar type 2, some look at me askance and ask if I worry about ingesting a load of ‘chemicals’. I do my best to be patient and explain that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking medication, and treatment for my bipolar is no different to any other ongoing illness, like asthma or diabetes. One of the drugs I take is called Lamotrigine, which was originally developed for epilepsy, but it was discovered that it is very effective in lessening the crushing lows associated with bipolar disorder. If I had epilepsy and I were taking the same dose of the same drug, no one would question its legitimacy. There is a notion that psychiatric meds are somehow optional and mental illness should be managed with yoga, meditation, diet, or just ‘positive thinking’. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things and alternative therapies are often a positive addition to overall wellness. But, in my opinion, they are not a replacement for proper medical treatment when it is needed.
If you have a mental illness, it’s important to remember that science is your friend. Science will explain what happens when the brain releases adrenaline, cortisol and endorphins. A neuroscientist can clarify why an over-stimulated amygdala is very bad for your wellbeing. A good doctor will reassure a new mother that post-natal depression after giving birth to a longed-for child is normal, and there is no need to feel guilty for struggling. A scientific study will clarify why PTSD can effect anyone, not just people exposed to war. Science is not the only answer and it is usually necessary to do continuous, emotional work to stay balanced. Good therapy, in tandem with the correct medication, makes living with a mental illness considerably easier.
The difficulty with psychiatric meds is that they can take time to start working. Back in 2013, the psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar gave me a prescription and told me to start taking it straight away. At first I was frightened and worried about what taking this drug would mean. I assumed, like many, that I would be flooding my body with chemicals. It didn’t occur to me that I was self-medicating with alcohol – a far more dangerous and destructive drug. I put off the trip to the chemists for days till one of my friends, who has a few medical issues herself, persuaded me to start taking them. ‘Nothing changes if nothing changes darling’ she said as we sat outside our favourite pub, cigarette smoke out billowing from her nose. Once I started taking the meds I had some pretty horrible side effects: insomnia and nightmares, panic attacks and bleary, befuddled exhaustion. I had to sit through it, gritted teeth, in the hope that it would improve. It took a few weeks, but eventually I started to feel more normal and balanced.
When one starts a new medication, it can take time to figure out if it’s the right one. I had to good fortune to be supported through the process, but many people aren’t so lucky. Sometimes, the initial symptoms are not tolerable and people have no choice but to come off them. A couple of my friends have been put on a commonly prescribed anti-depressant but gave up after a few of weeks because the pills caused horrible diarrhea. Clearly, acute digestive distress is not ok and it’s quite understandable that they would stop taking them. However, there are infinite combinations of drugs available, there would have been other options, had they not been deterred by a negative initial expereince. In many cases, medication may be prescribed for someone to get through a difficult time, and they will come off it when they feel better. People suffer unnecessarily but the right meds could relieve many of the symptoms of mental illness, just the same way that painkillers or antibiotics would treat an injury or an infection. Of course, pills are not right for everyone and it’s vital to find the right treatment and therapy, whatever that might be. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness and you’re worried about pills, don’t let societal stigma and misinformation be the reason you don’t take them. Do your research and speak to a medical professional for informed, rational advice.