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Here’s how to battle the stigma surrounding antidepressants

There's no pill to cure the stigma.

There is a very real stigma regarding the use of medication when one is suffering from a mental illness. When it comes to more visible mental illnesses, like psychotic disorders that cause a person to hallucinate, the stigma surrounding medication is still there, but perhaps less intense.

In other words, when people are able to see a mental illness and separate it from the individual’s identity, the stigma decreases just a little bit. With invisible illnesses like depression and anxiety (not to be confused with feeling depressed or feeling anxious), however, the stigma remains sky high.

Too many of us believe depression and anxiety are the individual's choice. Click To Tweet

But that’s not the only reason we stigmatize mental health medication. Diabetes is technically an “invisible illness,” but no one questions the use of medication there. We don’t question the use of insulin for diabetes, because in that case, it’s one hundred percent clear to us that the illness is not the individual’s choice or fault.

Unfortunately, too many of us still believe depression and anxiety are the individual’s choice or fault.

Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide. Click To Tweet

Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide, and The World Health Organization estimates that 121 million people currently suffer from depression. Despite this, too many of us speak about depression and medication without any experience or education on either topic.

A good rule of thumb? Don’t say anything to someone with depression that is taking medication that you wouldn’t say to someone with cancer getting chemotherapy.

The following statements and questions are entirely unhelpful to someone struggling with mental illness who is considering medication.

1. Have you tried going to counseling or therapy instead?

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There is a common misconception that someone that takes antidepressants is not also making other beneficial lifestyle changes to improve their mental health. Taking medication and making lifestyle changes are not mutually exclusive. You can do both, and most people do.

This cartoon created by Deanna Zandt is one extremely common example of the what an individual might (and often does) go through before considering medication. Individuals who are considering medication have almost always already tried every other possible alternative and found themselves still in a bad, scary place.

Taking medication and making lifestyle changes are not mutually exclusive. Click To Tweet

It is also good to know that medication and therapy go hand in hand. Medical professionals almost always require that an individual taking medication must also attend regular therapy sessions; both medication and therapy are known to work better in accordance with one another.

Although this question is well-intentioned, note that it sounds a bit like you’re pointing fingers at the victim or deeming them uneducated on matters of their own health, which can definitely hurt.

2. Why would you want to rely on something as a crutch?

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Maybe for the same reason a person with a broken leg might choose to use actual crutches or a wheelchair?

Society still believes mental illnesses are incomparable to other medical problems. Click To Tweet

A decision which isn’t judged negatively in the least, because deep down, society still believes that suffering from mental illnesses is incomparable to any other medical problem?

3. You’re so different on your meds! They’re changing your personality! Wouldn’t you rather be yourself?

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Nope, I’d really rather not be miserable to the point where I am unable to move or function. If different means healthier, I would absolutely prefer to be different. Depression and anxiety are not types of personalities; they are illnesses that prevent actual personalities from flourishing and revealing themselves. 

4. You can’t just give up!

Um, I’m not?

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How is that that society equates seeking help – medical help from a medical professional – with “giving up” on our health?

This question is the equivalent of telling someone who decides to take blood pressure medication that they’ve given up on their blood pressure. Let that sink in for a minute.

See what I mean? This phrase is particularly painful to those who take medication, because it completely delegitimizes their effort to take care of themselves regardless of how difficult it is to do so, and a lot of people with depression already struggle to feel like they are doing enough, even when they are.

5. Antidepressants? Do those even do anything?

Okay. 

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If you don’t know enough about the medication that is taken by individuals who suffer from mental illnesses, please take some time to educate yourselves before making another person feel bad. The internet is a wonderful place full of information, and SSRIs are not difficult to understand. No, medication is not perfect. Yes, it is the right choice for some individuals, depending on their unique situation.

No, medication is not perfect. Yes, it is the right choice for some individuals. Click To Tweet

6. There’s no such thing as a happy pill, you know.

Really!? I didn’t know. Thank you so much for telling me.

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This phrase works under the assumption that someone with depression or anxiety or any other mental illness is unaware and, quite frankly, stupid. Every doctor, psychologist and psychiatrist makes this clear to his or her clients and patients. If there was a pill that could cure depression, depression wouldn’t exist. That is common sense. The purpose of medication is not to cure. But does that mean it is completely useless? Insulin does not cure diabetes. Is it totally useless? You tell me.

The purpose of medication is not to cure. Click To Tweet

Of course, there are things to consider, such as side effects of different medications. A majority of individuals do see medication as a very last resort because of this, and that’s perfectly reasonable – I am not by any means promoting that everyone with depression should or must take antidepressants. And It’s alright to ask about side effects if you are genuinely concerned about a loved one!

But asking, “Does it have any side effects? I’m worried about you and want to know that you’ll be alright,” is different from and much more welcome than the phrases listed above or something like, “You do know those medications have side effects, right?”

What should you say, if the above options are unwelcome?

Maybe don’t say too much. Maybe just listen.

Depression and anxiety are not types of personalities. Click To Tweet

Maybe ask if there is any way you can help, not because you don’t want them to seek medical help, but because you want to ease the suffering depression causes them. If you honestly think a walk through nature will help, instead of scolding your loved one for taking medication, take them for a walk. Be an added positive force in their life.

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And remember, people who try medication are just trying it, after all. There is no guarantee that any given medication will help, so they are free to decide at any point that it’s not for them. Doctors start patients on extremely low doses and slowly build up as needed, making sure it is always as easy as possible to stop taking the medication without any withdrawal symptoms.

Doctors also take addiction-related history into account when prescribing medication. This is a full-on medical process; it is not, by any means, the equivalent of “taking drugs” in the recreational sense.

To anyone that is currently taking medication or considering medication under the guidance of their doctor:

Medication can be one of the many things in your life that work together to heal you. It never works independently and always supplements other forms of healing, such as a healthy diet, exercise, proper sleep, therapy, prayer, etc.

Medication can be one of the many things in your life that work together to heal you. Click To Tweet

Try your best to have patience.

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Someone that has never suffered from something like depression simply does not know what it feels like, and usually, that’s why they say stupid, hurtful things in an attempt to help. The goal is not necessarily to make people know what it feels like, because they never truly will, no matter how much you explain. The healthier goal is to help people realize that they don’t understand what I’m going through, because that’s when they will be able to truly listen.

To anyone that wants to debate that depression, for example, is different from a broken leg:

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You’re right. In many ways, it is even more difficult to deal with, because the individual is never one hundred percent sure about how much control they have over their emotions; he or she is constantly putting in effort to find out how much they can heal themselves before seeking help.

Too often, the experience of depression is an isolated one. Click To Tweet

Someone with a broken leg does not have to worry; he or she knows that no amount of positive thinking or changes in routine or time spent outdoors will fix their broken leg. This person just goes to a doctor and everything is handled for them. 

Maybe don't say too much. Maybe just listen. Click To Tweet

Maybe the person can’t walk, but he or she knows why they can’t walk, and so does everyone else. When someone with depression is unable to get up in the morning, their experience is too often an isolated one that completely lacks empathy and concern from others. 

Aafia Syed

Aafia Syed

Aafia graduated from Johns Hopkins University with her degree in Writing Seminars. She is currently pursuing a career in early childhood special education. Aafia is vocal about her personal challenges with mental illness and advocates for mental health awareness whenever possible. Her goals for the future include seeing Hamilton on Broadway and contributing to the destruction of the patriarchy.

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