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Overcoming the Stigma of Psychiatric Medication

By Dr. Alex Dimitriu, 12/20/18

Even as the stigma associated with mental illness has – thankfully – dissipated over the last decade, millions of people still fail to get the help they need because the stigma around the medication that can alleviate their suffering endures. Fueled in part by celebrities talking about their struggles with depression, anxiety, and other conditions, openness about mental illness has become more acceptable. But even as people find understanding and support for their illness, they are also subject to a host of unhelpful and stigmatizing attitudes about medication, ranging from the implication that they’re just not trying hard enough to overcome their condition, to the recommendation that all they need is a certain diet, or exercise, or meditation, to the assumption that the cure for what ails them is as simple as taking a pill. Unfortunately, these attitudes are often internalized by the very people who could benefit from psychiatric medication and prevent them from seeking treatment.

The use of psychiatric medications, also known as psychotropics, has grown significantly in recent years. Various studies have estimated that 10% of American adults had taken an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, or anti-psychotic drug in the previous thirty days and that as many as 17% filled a prescription for a psychiatric medication in the previous year. The growing usage of these drugs has led to widely shared and incorrect attitudes. At the same time, that many people see the use of psychiatric medication as a weakness or a failing on the part of the patient, others downplay the struggle of overcoming mental illness because ‘there’s a pill for that. It’s important to dispel misconceptions about mental illness and the best way to treat it.

Many years of research and clinical experience have proven that the best outcomes for those suffering from mental illness result from a comprehensive approach that combines a medically crafted and supervised regimen of psychiatric medication with psychotherapy. Medication and psychotherapy work together. By relieving severe symptoms, medication gives patients the clarity and stability that enable them to benefit from psychotherapy that can address emotional and behavioral issues and bring about the changes needed. Medication treats the physical aspects of mental illness, managing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain just as a statin manages levels of cholesterol in the blood. Taking medication for mental health is no different than taking it for physical health. With chemical imbalances in the brain under control, the patient is free to work on improving behavioral and emotional imbalances.

Common misconceptions that stigmatize psychiatric medication:

“Isn’t medication a crutch for people who are too weak to manage their problems?” A psychotropic medication relieves the symptoms of a medical disorder. It is no more an indication of weakness than taking medication for high blood pressure. Stigmatizing the taking of medication as a weakness implies that if the patient would just get it together and work harder, medication wouldn’t be necessary. This is akin to advising someone with high blood pressure to just relax. In fact, it takes strength to recognize that you have an illness that can be helped with medication and that you need to use every tool available to take care of yourself.

“Won’t a psychiatric medication change my personality, dull my senses, turn me into a zombie?” There is nothing more destructive to a person’s sense of self, to the unique characteristics that define a personality than a mental illness. Motivation, concentration, even the ability to get out of bed, are often gone. Medication can alleviate the symptoms of illness that sap energy and impair functioning and restore a sense of self. That said, some medications do have troublesome side effects, and the same drug can affect people differently. The medication that works for one person might not be tolerated well by another. That’s why we sometimes have to try several medications until we find the one that works.

“Is medication masking my problem rather than fixing it? Is it just a temporary solution, a quick fix?” Psychiatric medication is not a miracle cure. It doesn’t produce an instant change in mood. It takes a while for the drugs to build up in the system and causes a gradual change that alleviates symptoms enough to improve functioning and enable getting the therapy that will help over the longer term.

Psychiatric medication has helped countless people reclaim their lives. It is an important support for the journey to well-being, not an easy way out. And taking every step necessary to get well is nothing to be ashamed of. Bringing medication out of the shadows will overcome the stigma associated with it and encourage millions of people to get the help they need.

Alex Dimitriu, MD, is founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in Menlo Park, CA. He is dual board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

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