On a regular basis, Still I Run ambassador Kristle Lowell shares with us her journey with mental health. Kristle is a World Champion Trampoline Gymnast who deals with her anxiety and depression in the public eye. Here’s her most recent post about the shame and stigma surrounding medication for mental health.
Almost every mental health patient who takes medication has lived this moment. We look over at the clock and realize it’s time to take our medication. So we slip away to the bathroom to take our medication, trying not to make a sound with the bottle. Or we lie to friends and coworkers about what the medication is for saying “I have a headache”. If you’re like me I keep my medication in my bag and have to open it quietly, sneak a pill out, and dry swallow it to avoid detection. Why is it okay for people to take Advil or allergy medication out in the open, yet we feel shame and stigma attached when taking medication for a mental health condition? Stigma is very real and mental health patients are some of the most discriminated against minority around. If there is anyone one group that does not need the shame of stigma with medication it’s the mentally ill. There is no telling the effect people’s comments have on patients. Some people feel so ashamed that they stop taking their medication. This is something that should never be done unless consulting with a doctor.
If you love someone suffering from a mental illness who is taking medication here are some of the comments that bother us the most.
“Aren’t there other options?”
Of course there are other options. I respect however people find peace with their mental illness. I think therapy, prayer, exercise, running, and natural supplements are all wonderful options. Unfortunately, these options don’t work for everyone and sometimes it’s a combination of all of them that work for people.
I personally exhausted all means before trying medication. No matter how people find relief, they should be respected with their decision. It’s like someone with diabetes. A diabetic takes insulin, sticks to a particular diet, and makes life style changes to improve exercise. The same goes for mental health. I take medication, exercise, and talk with a therapist. I don’t really understand why my particular way of staying healthy is looked at so differently than a diabetic staying healthy in society.
Medication for a mental health condition is not weakness. It’s correcting a chemical imbalance. It’s not a weakness in character, but a flaw in chemistry.
“Why don’t you try holistic supplements or something more natural?”
Please, never recommend to any psychiatric patient that they add a supplement without having them check with their doctor first. The other day I went to the vitamin store and was deeply disappointed by the salesman who tried to tell me my medication was garbage. He suggested I try some 5-HTP and SAM-E. Please realize that people at the health food store are not doctors. Before I tried embarking on the RX route, I tried natural supplements. They made me so much worse! I tried Kava Kava from my local vitamin store and that only resulted in night terrors, a racing heart rate, and vivid dreams. I’ve never had an experience like that from a prescription. After that, I decided to go to the psychiatrist who thankfully got me on the right medication. Since then I’ve had people call me all sorts of names for it like “pill popper,” saying I should try essential oils instead. I am not sure where the essential oil movement started, but clearly, they are not essential to me if I’ve gone my entire life without ever having used one. If these work for people, that’s fantastic, but they don’t work for me. Medication does. I think overall when you find out a loved one or friend is suffering and taking medication, please respect their course of treatment. No one can possibly know what another person is feeling or what they have experienced or tried.
“Are you off your meds or something?”
This is one of the most offensive things that can be said to a mental health patient. Everyone reacts to situations and stress differently. If we react in a way you wouldn’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean our meds are not working. Maybe it means we experience stress differently. People don’t say to allergy sufferers who sneeze “Ugh, are you off your meds?” Why can’t the same be true for mental health?
“Only in America! They start giving out prescriptions at birth nowadays. You're fine and you don’t need to take that.”
Yes, we are Americans. Home of the brave. But being brave doesn’t always include Bruce Willis jumping off a skyscraper with a fire hose. Brave is being able to stand up and say “I need help.” Brave is facing stigma day after day and seeking help anyway. Some of the bravest people I know aren’t action movie stars. They’re regular, everyday people who have come back from the “depths of hell” and have not given up. Courage isn’t always a one act play, it’s silently pushing on when you think you have nothing left. Maybe Americans do have the most prescriptions, but what those numbers do not reflect is the fact that in some countries prescriptions aren’t necessary for certain drugs. In other developing nations, prescriptions aren’t even available for antibiotics, let alone antidepressants. We’re very lucky, here in the United States, to have access to the mental health medications that we do. Regardless of how each culture handles mental health and prescriptions, they should all be respected.
“Those are highly addictive. I had a friend…”
Addiction and therapeutic use of prescription drugs are completely different. Everyone has “that friend” who became addicted after using a prescription, but that doesn’t mean it happens to everyone. It is true that a very small population of people get addicted to prescription medication, but that doesn’t mean we should stigmatize everyone else. For the most part, people that take prescriptions for their mental health are just trying to get help.
Haven’t you read the side effects?
Of course, I’ve read the side effects and I carefully weighed the potential long term side effects with my quality of life. It’s a choice I made. Would I rather have dry mouth OR be so nervous I cannot do the things I love? Would I rather risk being talkative OR risk not being able to hold down a job because I can’t get out of bed? The side effects listed on commercials and prescription bottles are scary, but drug companies have to list them for legal reasons. It’s important to know that possible side effects don’t become a reality for everyone. Of course, it’s always nice to know all the listed side effects so you know what to keep an eye out for.
Medication is not a cure all
It’s true, medication doesn’t cure everything. Even though I take medication to help with my anxiety and depression, I still have anxiety and depression to deal with. Medication has simply given me the means to cope and develop other life skills to overcome it. No pill is going to make everyone’s life perfect. It’s like I mentioned earlier though, sometimes people need a combination of things to help. For me that’s medication, therapy, and exercise. Together those three things help me live a good, quality life.
“Please don’t take your meds in public. You’re setting a bad example.”
I’ve been horribly stigmatized for dealing with a mental illness in the public eye. The words “crazy”, “drama queen”, and “straight-jacket” are uttered to me on a daily basis by people that don’t really know me. All they know about me is that I’m an athlete with a mental health condition. Once, I was even asked to not publically take my medication because that person said I’m setting a bad example to kids. By taking my medication in public, I was “telling kids it’s okay to take ‘drugs’ too.” I don’t encourage this but if someone is struggling I do.
For years, I was told I just needed to “suck it up” when it comes to depression and anxiety. Because of that, I lied to myself and told myself I was just weak and not trying hard enough. That thought process actually made things worse for me though. Now I know that’s not true. I’m never ashamed to take my medication in public. I refuse to step into the bathroom to take my medication like it’s some dirty secret. If asthmatics don’t go to the bathroom to silently use their inhaler, why should I have to? Sure, I will use discretion, but I’m not going to hide.
Overall, I believe no one should feel ashamed for taking medication. No matter what form of treatment a person uses to help with their mental health condition, they deserve respect. My lasting advice is to be kind to one another. No one knows what someone is going though. Words are more powerful than you think and can cause lasting hurt. What might be an off the cuff remark for someone, might be the reason someone stays up all night crying.
I share all of this with you in hopes of lifting shame and stigma off of those suffering in silence and with the hopes of educating people who maybe don’t understand what it’s like to take medication.