As a therapist, I hear a variety of thoughts and beliefs from clients about mental health medication every day. Some people think that taking one pill for a few weeks will rid them of their problems. Others are fearful that medication won’t work or will worsen their challenges. In more tender conversations, I sometimes hear that a client is interested in taking medication, but fears that doing so makes them “weak” (spoiler, it does not). Each of these beliefs about medication are connected back to cultural stigma against taking medication for mental health related needs.
Where did this stigma against medication come from?
Mental health challenges were not able to be treated with medication until the 1930s, when psychiatrists started treating patients with schizophrenia with drugs like camphor and antihistamines. Over the years, other medications and procedures like lithium, barbiturates and electro-shock therapy were tested to see their impact on mental illness. Some trials were successful; others were not.
As with many groundbreaking ventures, the failures of mental health medications and procedures were highlighted more often than the successes. Also, medication was developed for those with the highest mental health needs or people that society had deemed as “crazy.” These two factors (among others) contributed to public stigma against mental health treatment in all of its forms.
Over time, scientists and physicians were able to develop a variety of medications and treatments for mental health that were safer and more effective than first generation treatments. Thankfully, stigma against treatments like therapy and mindfulness are beginning to wane, but there are still questions and concerns about mental health medication due to bad information circulating about how medication works.
Myths vs. facts about mental health medication
When my clients are exploring their options for mental health medication, they often express fears that are rooted in myth or overgeneralizations. Below are a few common myths and related facts about mental health medication:
Myth: I will become addicted to my medication.
Fact: Most mental health medications are non-addictive. Additionally, if medication is taken as prescribed and under the supervision of an appropriate medical professional, consumers can trust that their prescription is safe. That said, some commonly prescribed medications like Xanax and Ativan can be addictive if not take as prescribed. If you have concerns, consult with your prescriber.
Myth: I will have to take this medication for the rest of my life.
Fact: Most mental health medications can be discontinued safely after mental health needs have stabilized. Stabilization usually involves taking medication as prescribed while also learning therapeutic skills. However, some mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are most effectively treated with medication long-term.
Myth: My medication will make me a different person.
Fact: While mental health medications help balance out chemicals like serotonin in your brain, they are not actually changing your personality. The intensity of your emotional experiences may shift, but your beliefs, values, and interests will remain the same.
Myth: The side effects of my medication will be worse than my original problem.
Fact: Most mental health medications have some side effects. Common side effects include weight gain or loss, change in appetite, change in sleep, and change in libido. These side effects are often temporary and mild. If you notice that you start a medication and have significant side effects, let your prescriber know and they can support you in using a different medication. As research has progressed, there are many options that you and your prescriber can try to find the best fit for you.
Myth: Taking medication means I am weak.
Fact: Seeking support for a mental health issue requires significant courage. Naming a problem and asking for help makes us feel vulnerable, which leads many of us not to ask for support in the first place. By asking for support, you are taking great care of yourself and working towards a healthy, long-term solution.
How to defy the mental health medication stigma
One of the best ways to defy stigma related to mental health and medication. Below are a few tips on how to be a stronger advocate:
- Educate yourself on the various types of mental health medications and how they are used. Seek information from trusted sources like peer reviewed articles or trained providers.
- Educate others, but be sure to only share information that you can verify is legitimate.
- Reflect on your own personal beliefs about mental health medications. What led you to have this belief? Have you ever challenged these beliefs?
- Be intentional about how you speak about medication. If someone tells you they started taking a medication for their anxiety, telling them “I didn’t think you needed that,” may cause more harm than you realize. Also, if you hear someone pill shaming, encourage them to be mindful of what they are saying.
- Share your story if it is safe to do so. Humans are empathetic by nature and when we share our stories, people are more likely to listen than they are if we read a fact sheet or share statistics.
What it’s like to take mental health medication – from people who have been there
In fact, several of our Ambassadors currently take mental health medication and appreciate how the meds support their mental health needs. Here’s what they had to say:
“I’m on Zoloft for PPD/PPA – it’s been a game changer. As a first time mom, I was struggling with being a mom and a wife and me. Now about 4 months in on the meds, I’m back to enjoying all the moments, not crying randomly, and finally have my appetite back / can sleep (I couldn’t sleep even though I was exhausted).
The meds have helped me in my professional life too- I wish I would have gotten help with anxiety prior to PPD/PPA. It would have helped tremendously when I was in grad school and in some high stress roles.”
“I went on an SSRI before my last year of grad school to help manage my anxiety disorder and it has been extremely helpful. I had been previously advised to take medication to support my treatment, but was worried to do it due to the stigmatization. Now I’m very happy to be on meds and will probably continue to take them the rest of my life.”
“When I relocated to Chicago from Indianapolis in 2020, I promised myself and my loved ones that I would get healthier physically and mentally. I had long struggled with anxiety but never sought appropriate treatment and the pandemic propelled me into a state of fear and panic. After seeking help from a psychiatrist and a therapist, I was prescribed hydroxyzine to assist not only in times when I knew I would feel anxious (ie flying), but also at night because my brain would frequently awaken when I woke to use the restroom and keep me up for the remainder of the night. The combination of therapy and meds have changed my life and I’m only sad I didn’t do it sooner!”
How to understand if mental health medication is right for you
You may be curious about how to determine if mental health medication is right for you. One way to explore this question is to consult with a prescriber. You can locate a prescriber through Psychology Today who that meets your needs and preferences.
Additionally, you can speak with your primary care provider to ask for a referral. When you meet with a prescriber, they will guide you through an assessment which will identify how medication may support your needs. Throughout this whole process, you get to decide if you want to ultimately take medication.
Asking for support and trying something new is scary, but it’s also important. Mental health medication can be deeply freeing. If we break the stigma, more lives can experience that betterment.