Women Who Take Medication For Their Mental Health Share Their Stories


It took over an hour for me to swallow my first antidepressant, after popping it out of its little metallic jacket. I’d spent the previous hour sitting across from my therapist, trapped in a cycle of faulty logic, rolling the pill between my right thumb and forefinger. Couldn’t I just be brave and soldier on? Why was I so weak? Did I really need to take medication? If I really set my mind to it, surely I could just push through unassisted? Other, "normal" people didn’t need medication, so why did I? 
 
Even getting to this stage had been an achievement. It followed years of denying myself the help I so desperately needed in the pursuit of bravery! Stoicism! And strength! Looking back, I can’t believe the time I wasted feeling shit when I could have been on the road to recovery. Why refuse help when I so clearly needed it? And once I had accepted that I needed help, why did I discriminate against certain avenues towards it?

Medical intervention to treat mental illness began in the 1950s. Since then, social acceptance and media coverage of the broad spectrum of mental health issues and those who suffer from them has come a long way. For some people though, medication still seems a step too far. In recent times especially, talking therapies, meditation, exercise and other practices that fall beneath the banner of 'self care' have become more and more talked about as forms of mental health management, which is fantastic progress.
 
In 2019 however, misinformation about a lot of things to do with mental health is rife. Instagram influencers can (and do!) publish posts under mental health hashtags telling followers about teas that will cure their anxiety. Or that taking a cold shower will loosen you from the grip of depression. Or that buying a squatty potty (yes you read that right) will make everything better. But despite the fact that prescriptions for antidepressants almost doubled in the 10 years leading up to 2018, suggesting that many people find them to be useful, it is still uncommon for a public figure to admit to taking medication to manage their mental health, unless, like Caroline Flack, or Chance The Rapper's manager Pat Corcoran*, they are decrying their value. 
 
Can we really say that as a society we are breaking down stigma for people with mental health issues, when we avoid speaking publicly about an effective and common form of treatment that has helped so many? Especially as a chronically underfunded NHS struggles to meet increased demand for psychotherapy.
 
"Unfortunately, stigma surrounding medication unnecessarily limits treatment choices, including those that have the potential to significantly improve one’s health and quality of life," Dr Lisa Orban, a clinical psychologist, tells me. In combination with changes in diet, lifestyle and talking therapy, Dr Orban says she has seen "many patients benefit tremendously from medication." She’s quick to caveat this by saying that prescription drugs are not for everyone and should only be taken in close consultation with a medical professional. In some cases, medication is vital, including with chronic conditions such as bipolar disorder where, she says, "medication is a critical part of staying healthy.'' 

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Of course, there are many women who have tried medication (especially for anxiety and depression) and not got on with it. And that is fine. Mental health does not have a one-size-fits-all cure and many may find relief in other avenues. However, it is time to open up the conversation around mental illness to include honest discussions about medical intervention. As Dr Orban says: "No one should have to suffer unnecessarily due to stigma and misinformation."

Ahead, I interviewed a range of women suffering from different mental health issues who take prescribed medication as part of their treatment. What are the main side effects that they have experienced? What other tips and tricks do they have for managing mental health? Did they struggle with the stigma themselves? And what would their advice be for other people looking into different psychiatric medications?

For more information about the different paths available to help you tackle any mental health issues you may be living with, please visit your GP to discuss your options. Or, if you are struggling to get an appointment, give Mind a call, 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays) on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463.

*Pat Corcoran's tweet referred to his experience with Xanax, an addictive benzodiazepine that is not prescribed by the NHS. The most commonly prescribed benzodiazepine in the UK is diazepam, which is not recommended for use for longer than four weeks. To find out more about benzodiazepines, please click here.

Photo Courtesy of Billie.
Billie Dee Gianfrancesco, 29, Head of PR at a law firm

What was your diagnosis?
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
 
What is/was your prescription?
Mirtazapine 30mg originally, now sertraline 50mg.
 
How long have you been taking it?
A year.
 
Was it your first prescription or did you swap?
It was my first prescription, but I’m currently transitioning to sertraline, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to help with some of the side effects I’ve experienced.
 
Did you feel hesitant about taking medication?
Yes. It took me almost 10 years of suffering before I eventually tried medication. There was so much stigma around it – I thought it was a 'cop-out' or 'cheating'. My parents were hugely critical of meds. My dad worked in mental health and would tell me people became dependent on them and ended up as 'zombies'. Because of this I thought taking them might change my personality – and that fear meant that I didn't get help when I should have done. 
 
How long before you started to feel better?
Two weeks into trying mirtazapine for the first time I felt calm for the first time in my life. I kicked myself for buying into all that bullshit for so long.
 
Were there any other side effects?
The main thing for me has been weight gain. It’s tough because when it comes to putting on weight and being happier, obviously the latter will always win, but it’s a delicate balance. My doctor recently suggested that I try sertraline to improve this, but it’s too early to say if it’s helped. 
 
Do you have any other treatment? 
I’ve had regular therapy for three years (a mix of CBT, psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy) and attend regular drug and alcohol recovery meetings.
 
What happens if you miss a dose?
It’s fine! I just take it the next day.
 
Can you drink on them?
I could but I choose not to. I self-medicated a lot before I began taking prescription drugs, and I find that alcohol and recreational drugs make things so much worse for me.

Do you have any other tricks for managing your mental health?
Learning the art of self-love has been lifesaving. I never realised how much I had neglected myself before. So now when I am in pain, instead of trying to fight it or block it out, I try to accept it and treat myself with kindness instead. I have long hot baths with salts, I make sure I eat well, I set aside lots of time to relax and I enforce strong boundaries with others to protect myself. I also have a cat, Lillie, and having her around has helped to give me comfort and ease the sense of isolation.

What would you say to someone who is considering medication?
If you broke your leg or picked up an infection, would you refuse medication? Sometimes we simply just need a little help to get better, there’s no shame in that. I feel like I have lost years of my life to mental illness and if I could go back I would have tried medication much sooner. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – but what do you have to lose from trying?
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Photo Courtesy of Emily.
Emily Baker, 25, Editor

What was your diagnosis?
Depression and generalised anxiety disorder.
 
What was your prescription?
Citalopram 40mg.
 
How long have you been taking it?
Probably around two years. I recently finished taking them after tapering off gradually.
 
Was it your first prescription or did you swap?
First prescription was still citalopram, but at 20mg.
 
Did you feel hesitant about taking medication?
Not really, I was at a point where I knew I needed help and was ready to get it.
 
How long before you started to feel better?
A while. I actually felt worse at the beginning but that's normal and the doctor does warn you. I don't know if 'better' is the word actually; I felt more able to cope, and more on top of my feelings within a couple of months or so.
 
Were there any other side effects?
Really weirdly I had muscle spasms in the form of impulsive stretches, but nothing crazy or unmanageable.
 
Do you have any other treatment? 
I had therapy on and off but never for long enough to make a huge difference.
 
Do you have any other tricks for managing your mental health?
Tell people you're struggling – anyone and everyone. Try not to worry about what they think; that's on them. You'll be surprised how sympathetic and helpful your friends/family/work are willing to be. If they're not, then they're the worst.
 
How have you found tapering off the meds?
Touch wood...quite easy. I came off them quite quickly and so have had a few wobbles, but knowing that it's all just part and parcel of my diagnosis now means I have the tools to help myself more than I did before I started meds. For me they were something to tide me over and, frankly, keep me alive while I learned the skills and tools that now do the work of the meds.
 
What would you say to someone who is considering taking medication for the first time?
I can imagine why someone would be scared, but I'd say if you're at a real low then they can be a lifeline. It's such a personal decision to make, I wouldn't advise either for or against taking, as meds are likely to affect different people in different ways, but definitely talk to your doctor at length about what to expect. It's very often not as scary as you’d think. Start on a low dose and if you think they're not working, ask your doctor to increase them or to change the prescription – you're always in charge.
Photo Courtesy of Jess.
Jess McCaul, 26, Blogger

What was your diagnosis?
Anorexia nervosa and anxiety. 

What is your prescription?
Sertraline 200mg, aripiprazole 5mg.

How long have you been taking it?
Sertraline two years and aripiprazole three months or so.

Was it your first prescription or did you swap?
I had previously been prescribed other medication before finding sertraline (an SSRI). I had tried Lexapro and mirtazapine, but they didn’t help my anxiety. I also take an anti-psychotic, aripiprazole. I switched to it because I had some unpleasant side effects on olanzapine. Aripiprazole isn’t as fast-acting as olanzapine, but now it's had time to build up in my system I’m feeling the benefits.

Did you feel hesitant about taking medication?
Massively hesitant. Especially after the first few types didn’t really work. I was also quite stubborn in thinking I should be able to manage my anxiety myself. This was particularly the case when it came to the anxiety I experienced around food. Sertraline gave me back so much of my life though, and I’m so glad I eventually started meds.

How long before you started to feel better?
It took a few weeks to feel any effects, but it’s because it takes a while for the medication to build in your system and start working. With the sertraline, I started on 50mg but I knew after a few weeks that it wasn’t taking the edge off, so we increased until finally I felt I was receiving the full benefit. I knew that if I was going to take medication, the dosage didn’t matter to me as long as it worked and did what it was meant to. Sertraline is the one that really agreed with me.

Are there any side effects?
I’m lucky in that I don’t experience side effects with sertraline. I did experience increased appetite and drenching night sweats on olanzapine, which is why I switched. I experienced similar side effects while on Lexapro, along with itchy skin.

Do you have any other treatment?
I’m in counselling and I came out of hospital a month ago for anorexia treatment. I have CBT-E, exposure and talking therapy. Group therapy in the hospital has definitely been the most useful in terms of my recovery, as it gave me a sense of belonging and made me feel less alone.

Do you have any other tricks for managing your mental health?
I’m finding that staying occupied, doing basic things like knitting or yoga really helps me feel at peace and able to wind down. Talking to someone when I’m struggling too. I try to stick to a routine so there’s no excuse for not getting things done. And journalling is a massive help, writing things to remind me what I want from recovery keeps me going on the hard days.

What would you say to someone who is considering taking medication for the first time?
I know how it feels to not want to take medication but in my case, I wasn’t able to manage these issues without it. It gave me the space to work on the underlying issues in therapy by moving me away from the feeling of fight or flight. A good friend once said to me, if I was diabetic and was prescribed insulin I would take it without question because it would keep me healthy. Why would I not take medication to keep me mentally healthy?
Photo Courtesy of Robyn.

Robyn Wilder, 44, Freelance Journalist and Columnist

What was your diagnosis?
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): combined type. ADHD is a lifelong condition but I was only diagnosed in 2018, at the age of 43. I also have a history of panic disorder, anxiety and depression, which began with a severe bout of agoraphobia that left me housebound for half of my 20s.

What is your prescription?
Lisdexamfetamine (a central nervous system stimulant) 50mg. Dexamfetamine boosters 20mg (as and when I need them).
Citalopram 20mg (antidepressant).

How long have you been taking medication to manage your mental health?
I've been taking lisdexamfetamine and dexamfetamine for about six months. I've been on citalopram for about seven years. 

Was it your first prescription or did you swap?
My first ADHD medication was methylphenidate, which worked initially but wore off quickly. Despite having depression and anxiety for so long, citalopram is the first antidepressant I've taken for any length of time.

Did you feel hesitant about taking medication?
At first I did, because ADHD is usually treated with stimulants, which have got a lot of bad press. Thankfully(?!) NHS waiting times for adult ADHD diagnoses tend to be upwards of 12 months, so I had plenty of time to do my research and get used to the idea. Many reports suggested that the effects of ADHD medication were like putting glasses on for the first time, and realising how bad your eyesight had been before.

Things have been a little different with antidepressants. I struggled through acute agoraphobia and panic disorder without them in my 20s, but when I had a period of depression seven years ago, they were the best and most immediate option.

How long before you started to feel better?

With the ADHD medication, about half an hour! It was extraordinary. My mind is usually full of cluttered thoughts and anxious chatter but when the medicine kicked in, all that got swept away and suddenly all the paths I wanted to follow were laid out in front of me. It was like someone had Kon-Mari'd my brain.

The citalopram was a little different; it took a couple of weeks, and I found that the anxiety I'd been experiencing was dampened, and the flat blanket of depression was lighter and easier to deal with. 

Are there any other side effects?
With the methylphenidate, when it started wearing off I would plunge into an awful (and angry) depression, but for just two hours. Once I yelled at my husband and children, then immediately fell asleep!  

Switching to lisdexamfetamine has helped (I also find it generally regulates my mood – in exactly the way I expected antidepressants to do, but they didn't). Side effects include appetite suppression and, if I'm not careful, some quite severe jaw clenching. I try and combat this by taking magnesium supplements, staying hydrated, taking regular work breaks to stretch, and trying to maintain a brief daily mindfulness practice.

What happens if you miss a dose?
With the ADHD medication, generally nothing other than a return of the ADHD symptoms – forgetfulness, lack of focus, impulsive tendencies, a sort of internal restlessness, and poor emotional control and working memory.

With citalopram my mood may suffer, I may get an upset stomach or headache. All this generally goes away after I take my missed dose. 

Is it okay to drink alcohol?
I am an awful lightweight, so as far as I can tell, alcohol has an equally deleterious effect on my person as it does when I'm unmedicated (still I persist).

Do you have any other treatment?
I have started seeing an ADHD coach to develop strategies for living and working with the condition. 

I was seeing a counsellor for my depression and anxiety, but to be honest we were running into walls when coming up with solutions to some of my issues. My ADHD doctor now believes this is because my depression and anxiety are secondary to, and probably caused by, having lived with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD for so long. 

Unfortunately, there's no one you can see on the NHS (at least no one without a long wait) who can treat both ADHD and mental health issues together, so I'm considering going privately to a consultant psychiatrist to try and come up with a working therapy plan for both conditions.

Do you have any other tricks for managing your mental health?
I think it's important to learn everything about your condition(s) and how to live as full a life as possible. I also try not to bite off more than I can chew – I tend to get carried away with complex ideas (a common ADHD trait) and drum up grand plans to achieve more, when in reality all I should be prioritising is getting more sleep, and drinking more water. 

It's been a long road to understanding that self-love isn't necessarily some fluffy, Goop-ish term, but the real act of parenting yourself. I always see it as behaving as though you are someone you love; so ensuring you have enough rest, and food, and not having a go at yourself for getting things wrong. This is what puts fuel in your tank when you live with any sort of disorder, so it's a vital part of my personal treatment plan.

What would you say to someone who is considering taking medication for the first time?
I'd advise them to research it, read other people's experiences (but understand that individuals are different) and – if you're going to try it – make a pact with yourself to try it for six weeks. Keep a log of how you feel, how you slept, what your appetite is like throughout, so that at the end of that period you can make an informed decision about whether it's right for you.

If you have a behavioural condition, whether it's mental health based or neurological, it's important to keep a dialogue open with your doctor, so they know how the medicine affects you.

Photo Courtesy of Sara.
Sara McQueen, 25, PR Executive

What was your diagnosis?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), depression.

What is your prescription?
Fluoxetine 60 mg. 

How long have you been taking it?
Two years.

Was it your first prescription or did you swap?
I started on citalopram about six years ago and my dose increased three times to the maximum. I then moved to sertraline but it made me vomit, and about two years ago I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist on the NHS with OCD and PMDD, as well as depression. She recommended my current dose of fluoxetine plus the contraceptive pill, taken without breaks to try and keep hormone levels the same.

Did you feel hesitant about taking medication?
I put off taking medication for about six months after my initial depression diagnosis from my GP. I was really determined not to take meds because I was worried about dependency. If I'm honest, I still feel worried by my dose. 

How long before you started to feel better?
In my experience medication slows down my intrusive thoughts but it doesn't stop them altogether. They are still there, and they get worse with stress or tiredness. Medication boosts my mood a little synthetically so that I can find space to breathe and calm down. I have needed a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and talking therapy to help me identify intrusive thoughts and recovery definitely isn't linear. I have been suicidal in the past and I'm really relieved that I haven't felt like that for several years now, but I am by no means 'cured'.

Were there any other side effects?
Dry mouth is normal for me now, and it's been a while since I started meds but it definitely has a big effect on my sex drive. If I don't take them with food and plenty of water then they cause heartburn-type symptoms and that's quite uncomfortable.

What happens if you miss a dose?
In the past I've gotten very stressed about the quantity of pills I take and have tried to gradually come off them myself without speaking to the doctors first. It never lasts more than a few days, I just notice a negative spiral quite quickly.

Is it okay to drink alcohol?
I used to drink alcohol but I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and so had to reduce my intake, except on special occasions. It's really helped me see what a bad effect alcohol has on my mental health. When I have more than two drinks I notice a big dip the next day and it's just not worth the hangover guilt!

Do you have any other treatment?
I have had a few NHS stints of CBT but the 6-8 sessions was never quite enough to get results for me. Since I started working I have thankfully earned enough to pay for private counselling a few times a month. I’ve been going for more than a year, and it’s been invaluable. 

Do you have any other tricks for managing your mental health?
Yoga and breathing work. I live in fear of relapse most of the time but therapy has helped me to let go of that fear a little. I still think I have a long way to go.

What would you say to someone who is considering taking medication for the first time?
It's okay to be scared because it is really scary. I believe that what works for one person is highly unlikely to work exactly the same for the next, especially if you look at mental healthcare as a multiple-point plan. Medication is a tiny part of most people's recovery – a lot of it is about routine, food, nutrition, exercise and challenging damaging thoughts. It's okay to be scared but you deserve to try it in case it helps you. You deserve to feel better.
Photo Courtesy of Yasmin.
Yasmin Lajoie, 31, Music Manager

What was your diagnosis?
Originally it was bipolar disorder. Six years ago, I was rediagnosed with BPD and depression, and more recently, with ADHD.
 
What is your prescription?
Venlafaxine 225mg; aripiprazole 10mg; lamotrigine 200mg; methylphenidate (Ritalin) 20mg; diazepam (Valium) 10mg, but only during a crisis.
 
How long have you been taking it?
I started taking medication to help me to manage my mental health when I was 16, and since then have been on various different combinations. This is the longest I have ever stayed on one combination though, and so far it seems to be going well.
 
Was it your first prescription or did you swap?
I’ve been around the houses a bit with different medications; I think I’ve tried just about every antidepressant going, so I guess you could call me a connoisseur. 
 
Did you feel hesitant about taking medication?
To be honest, I was so young that I didn’t think that much about it. Different medications have been introduced gradually over the past 15 years or so, and I’m just so grateful that they help me to feel better. Over the years, a lot of friends have made comments about my medication and told me it’s bad for my health. I do have to go for regular physical tests, because there are loads of side effects. But in reality, being on the medication is what’s keeping me alive, and at the same time, what’s giving me a life worth living.
 
How long before you started to feel better?
On antidepressants, it generally takes about two months. When I was first switched to the venlafaxine though, I had to do so under hospital supervision as an inpatient. This is because I had to gradually taper off my old medication, and this was a delicate process that needed to be monitored.
 
What are the main side effects?
Weight gain, but to be honest I was so underweight before I started this treatment that it’s not a bad thing. I also sweat a lot and get the shakes. I can get really tired and drowsy so am not allowed to operate any heavy machinery, which includes driving. 
 
What happens if you miss a dose?
I feel really horrible, it’s like the worst hangover imaginable: dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, anxiety. All the medications have different withdrawal symptoms. Once I remember to take the dose though, things return to normal fairly quickly.
 
Is it okay to drink alcohol?
Yeah. I don’t think I’m supposed to drink to excess because it’s obviously not good for your mental health, but I do sometimes.
 
Do you have any other treatment?
I guess you could call me an NHS success story; I know the mental health services get a bad rap in the UK and are struggling with increased demand, but honestly, the help I’ve received has been excellent. Because I have a psychiatrist assigned to me, I have a really holistic treatment plan, which spans far beyond the realms of my medical treatment. My psychiatrist is brilliant and has helped me with everything from job applications to applying for a Freedom Pass because I’m not allowed to drive. I don’t think I’d have anywhere near the support I do without him recommending me. 
 
I’ve found regular talking therapy is really useful. During hospital stays, I’ve had art and movement therapy; they like to keep you busy!
 
Do you have any other tricks for managing your mental health?
Just remembering to be kind to myself really. Let yourself off once in a while, you don’t always have to give yourself a hard time. I keep a busy social life and have a great support network around me. 
 
What would you say to someone who is considering taking medication?
Don’t listen to the morons who say that medication doesn’t help anyone! It’s obviously totally up to you and your prerogative, but if you are seriously ill, you need medicine. I don’t agree that medication works for everyone, and there’s certainly a worrying trend of oversubscription in lieu of therapy because of budget cuts, but there’s no harm in trying if you’re desperate.
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