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The Low-Down on Taking Medication for Mental Health

Adults |

Though we’re making progress, heavy stigma continues to surround the choice to take medication for mental health issues. Just as we’re working to normalize going to therapy when we need it, we need to increase complete acceptance of taking medication to feel better. Using language to describe outdated, inaccurate generalizations like “happy pills” communicates that taking medication to treat mental health concerns is the easy way out – and that could not be more false.

Medication is not a one-size-fits-all quick fix. 

Just like everyone’s experience of mental illness is different, so can be everyone’s experience with taking medication for it. Because our bodies are all unique, one antidepressant may work wonderfully for one person but make someone else with depression feel even worse. Figuring out the right medication and dosage might take some time and collaboration with your doctor – but finally pinpointing the right routine can make all the aches and pains along the way worth it.

When starting a new medication, unpleasant side effects are common while your body adjusts to it. Make sure to discuss your expectations with your doctor as sometimes they can persist for weeks or even months. If you feel like the medication you’ve been prescribed is making you feel worse and you’d like to stop taking it, make sure to check with your doctor first. Stopping your medication cold-turkey can trigger withdrawal symptoms that might be even worse than whatever side effects made you want to stop in the first place. As a rule of thumb, if you’re ever in doubt, talking with your doctor or psychiatrist is the safest bet.

Medication can help someone gain back the energy, insight, or ability to help themselves.

Oftentimes, people dealing with mental health issues like depression just don’t feel like “themselves.” This means that they’re likely not making decisions in the same way that they would be if they were feeling better. When you are severely anxious or depressed, for example, you can feel completely paralyzed and/or panicked – you have all of these negative thoughts and emotions swirling around in your head, but you just can’t seem to bring yourself to do anything about them. Medication can help you get to a place where you can. If it’s the right dosage and formula, it can really help someone get back to “baseline” so that they can think more clearly and act more intentionally. 

If someone you care about was suffering, you would want them to feel better.

There is nothing wrong with taking prescribed medication if it helps someone feel better. Just as someone with a heart condition might take blood thinners, or a person sick with a virus would take antivirals. Our brains are part of our body – a physical, living, breathing organ. They are not immune to hiccups like we might think – and sometimes they just need a little extra help like the rest of our bodies.

Whether it’s a stimulant for ADHD, an antidepressant to help you “show up” every day, or a mood stabilizer to help regulate your emotions, it is completely ok to take what you need to take to be your healthiest self. As Lady Gaga bravely said, “I take a lot of medication to stay onboard.” When prominent figures speak out about taking medication for their mental health, it makes it easier for the rest of us to feel comfortable both taking it ourselves and talking about it. It’s powerful to see people who society values and deems “successful” to admit that they too have their struggles.

This is not an argument that everyone will benefit from medication and should go on it.

We just want those who are suffering to know (or who know someone who is) that medication is nothing to be ashamed of. Your brain deserves just as much love, care, and attention as the rest of your body. For many issues, talk therapy just isn’t enough, and in these cases, medication management is a huge part of healing. Prescription medications have the potential to be incredibly dangerous, though, when they are taken recreationally or without a prescription. Make sure to always discuss risk with the prescribing doctor and do not take anything not prescribed specifically to you. 

Finally, your medications do not define you.

Often, one of the reasons people are reluctant to a) accept a prescription in the first place, and b) disclose that they’re on medication to anyone, is that they think it means they are “less than” for needing it. For many diagnosed with ADHD, for example, they think that having to “resort” to pills means they’re just not mentally disciplined enough, and if they just try harder, they might not need it. This is just not true – and it is a battle that will never be won. What is possible, though, is that medication can help you take that first step toward improvement – and eventually, you might just be able to accumulate enough behavioural strategies that you maybe don’t require as much of it. That said, your dosage may not ever decrease – and that is totally ok too. What matters most is how you feel. 

For some, medications can be completely life-changing when used properly. For a handful of mental health issues like bipolar disorder, medication is the #1 most effective treatment when combined with psychotherapy. Remember that medication management can often be a journey to find the right dosage and formulas, and there is no shame in doing what you need to do to feel better. If you feel like medication might be helpful for you, make an appointment with a psychiatrist. If you don’t know one, ask your family doctor for a referral.