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.''
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.