Stop Shaming People Who Take Medication for Their Mental Health

Shockingly, sometimes the idea that taking medication for mental health issues is harmful can come straight from medical professionals.

BY ROSEMARY DONAHUE | Allure

When I first started taking medication to help treat my bulimia, anxiety, and depression, I wanted desperately to get better. But I also wished I were “strong” enough to conquer my mental health issues on my own, without medication. And I hated the idea that I’d be taking meds forever — so much so, in fact, that when things finally started clicking into place and my mental health improved, I convinced myself I was “better” and stopped taking it all cold turkey. A few months later, my depression was back in full swing, as was my dangerous binging and purging habit. Because of the stigma that surrounds taking medications for these issues, it took me a few more months to make the connection that I’d never really been “cured” at all — the medications had just finally started doing what they were supposed to do.

I’m proud I’ve now reached a place in my life where I take care of my mental health by talking about it openly and taking medications prescribed to me. It’s largely through talking about my own struggles on the Internet that I began to find support and thus the confidence to seek help: Beyond just community-building, talking about mental health online gives people instant access to resources and information that could otherwise take years of talking to doctors. But while more people are entering open mental health conversations than ever, there’s still a lot of stigma and misinformation around taking meds. Shockingly, sometimes the idea that taking medication for mental health issues is harmful can come straight from medical professionals. Recently, I was reminded forcefully of this by a shaming tweet from Kelly Brogan, M.D. that echoed beliefs that far too many people — including care providers such as Dr. Brogan herself — still hold about medication.

 

 

 

Though the tweet has since been deleted, screenshots are forever. The tweet featured an image on a pink background that read, “Saying no to pharmaceuticals is an act of feminism. Every time you open that pill bottle, you are saying ‘nope, you don’t got this’ to your body, and instilling a message of oppression by a system that says feeling anything is dangerous.” Dr. Brogan has a few other tweets with similar messages, including this one that suggests a Zoloft prescription caused a man to stab someone, and this one that links to an article she wrote about how to “resolve anxiety and depression through diet.”

Dr. Brogan apparently would have us believe that treating our mental health issues with medication not only makes us weak, it’s also inherently unfeminist and will prevent us from “feeling anything.” She seems to believe that medication is a tool of the patriarchy, a way of controlling us and squashing what she appears to think are our natural, rightful emotions. However, as many folks with mental health issues know, we often feel far more out of control without proper medications, medications that are presumably prescribed by doctors who know our medical histories and have discussed all treatment options with us at length. Dr. Brogan also seems to believe we can “cure” mental health issues by simply making different lifestyle choices, and that prescriptions for antidepressants make people commit violent acts. Which is strange, because in the tweet about the stabbing, she refers to Zoloft as a “happy pill.” Huh?

Using medication to treat clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health issue is no less valid than using medication to treat a heart condition, chronic migraines, or anything else. It’s an incredibly strong and brave thing to seek help, and to keep taking that step day after day. And sending the message to people who need medication to function that they are somehow weaker for it is not only false, it’s straight-up endangerment, according to psychologist Juli Fraga, Psy.D. “I dislike this notion that people should be psychologically ‘stronger’ and that ‘magical thinking’ can undo depression, anxiety, [or] bipolar disorder,” she tells me. “This is a dangerous way to think — we don’t tell diabetics to meditate and imagine that their blood sugars are going down, nor would we ever suggest that not taking insulin could cure them.”

Dr. Brogan, meanwhile, also seems to be worried that medication will eliminate the ability to feel anything at all. Personally, my medications help me feel more in tune with myself and other people, not less. And as Dr. Fraga points out, “People are often worried that medicine will make them ‘numb’ or change their personalities. If someone has adverse side effects to the medicine, they can change their dose or change medicines completely.” Different medications and dosages will affect individuals differently, but ultimately, treatment decisions are between a patient and their doctor — it’s not anyone else’s role to judge what someone “should” or “shouldn’t” be feeling.

I know how invalidating it can feel to get flak for taking meds. When I told an ex-boyfriend I was taking medication to help treat bulimia, he told me he “didn’t believe in eating disorders” and that I should simply exercise more self-control. I knew how sick I was, but for a brief moment, I wondered if he was right: Was my eating disorder my fault? I’ve even run into doubt of my treatment plan inside the medical community. When I moved from California to New York two years ago and had to find a new doctor, I went through a few practitioners before I found the right one. One doctor in particular was hesitant to prescribe a medication I’d had proven success with, and suggested I eat more leafy greens and try yoga to quell my diagnosed anxiety.

While it’s true that lifestyle changes can increase mental wellness, eating better or taking a yoga class or simply trying to will away the bad feelings won’t always be enough. In fact, according to Dr. Fraga, medication can often increase benefits of other lifestyle changes. “There’s a whole notion that if you take medication for your mental health you’re ‘weak’ or that you don’t want to do the work to heal yourself,” she says. “This is far from the truth. Medicine works for a reason, and often people who need medicine and take it make a lot more progress in psychotherapy because their symptoms of depression or anxiety have lifted enough so that they are more energized to do the work.”

I’m now confident in my treatment plan, which includes medication I know works for me and that I’m proud to take. Embarrassment about the need for medication is already enough of a problem without medical doctors perpetuating it: Research suggests that stigma is actually one of the main reasons people don’t adhere to their medication regimens (or don’t ask for help in the first place). Pushing back against harmful misinformation when it comes to medication is more important to me than ever.

Many other folks are now advocating for mental health awareness and dismantling the stigma surrounding medication. That’s what makes social media campaigns that get people speaking up about mental health, such as Sammy Nickalls’ #TalkingAboutIt, so valuable. We are making progress, but we have to be vigilant against the idea that we’re weak just because we’re medicated. In fact, seeking help and caring for ourselves is exactly what makes us strong.