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Resisting mental health medication for fear of being seen as weak

It’s late 2018 and I’m clutching the box of antidepressants (that belong to a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)) that my doctor has just prescribed for me. At 23 years of age, I’ve battled with anxiety and low mood for many years and just experienced one of the lowest points in my life. You’d think I would be feeling relieved and happy that I am finally getting the help I need and I’m on the road to recovery. Instead, I feel like I’ve failed. I feel ashamed. I feel weak and like I’m not strong enough to deal with my emotions on my own. If you can relate to or have experienced similar feelings, you’ll want to continue reading. And, if you are interested in this topic, you may want to come back to Inspire The Mind tomorrow for a blog written by Carmine Pariante, the blog editor and professor of Psychiatry at King’s College London, presenting some of the clinical and scientific evidence that underpins my (and perhaps your) personal experience.

Gemma pictured with her antidepressant medication. Photo by Gemma Harris

Fast-forward to today and I realise I couldn’t have been more wrong. I recognise that the moment I swallowed my first antidepressant pill is when my life changed for the better. I’ve spent over three years feeling better because of these very antidepressants and I’ve started to question: “Why did I feel like this?”, “Why did I let things get so bad?”, “Why did I leave it so long before getting the help I needed?” And, the answer lies within society and the huge amount of stigma that’s still around surrounding taking antidepressants.

It’s only now, at 26-years-old, that I am writing about this because I have realised that I am a better version of myself for taking antidepressants and I feel the complete opposite of how this stigma made me think I’d feel —  strong, not weak. I feel responsible to use my platform as a freelance journalist to share my story, show others that they are not alone, help them to overcome and challenge this potentially damaging stigma and remind people to be kind. I hope that opening up discussions on this topic and reassuring people that it is not a weakness to take antidepressants will help to save lives now and in the future.

Stigma struggles

Hands up if you’ve ever heard antidepressants being referred to as a “quick fix” or “happy pills?”

I thought so.

Well, it’s terms like these and their negative connotations that influence us to create potentially harmful stereotypes about antidepressants; sometimes these stereotypes are passed down through generations and ingrained in our minds without us realising.

For instance, my Dad advised me to try and avoid taking medication if I could help it. And, even my former hypnotherapist warned that I might struggle to come off them or they would just mask over the real problem.

Further, the #ShowUsYourMeds campaign that launched in summer 2020, to show people there’s no shame in taking medication for mental illness, proves there are myths and misconceptions about taking antidepressants that are fuelling this stigma to exist.

Among waiting times and costs, this stigma could be contributing to the 75% of people with mental health problems who were not receiving the treatment they needed in 2014. This percentage is now likely to have significantly increased with the number of people experiencing mental health problems having risen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo by from Pexels

This stigma could be harmful by stopping people, like myself, from getting the life-saving help they need sooner. It forces people, like myself, to suffer in silence.

This stigma made me leave it too long before I accepted medication for my mental health. I let it get to the point where I was crying uncontrollably in the middle of a high street, anxious and awake late into the night, not able to function at home or work, missing deadlines and sitting in my GP’s consulting room feeling hopeless. I left it until the point I felt I couldn’t cope.

I fought so hard not to be put on antidepressants; I’d tried hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), counselling, meditation, breathing techniques, yoga, you name it. While all of these helped, I was kidding myself that they were enough to help me on their own. I’d even had a prescription for antidepressants sitting on my bedside table for six months, but refused to actually get the medication for fear of being seen as weak.

Of course, having therapy alongside taking medication can be beneficial. Combined treatment of antidepressant medication and psychological interventions is more effective than treatment with antidepressant medication alone in major depression, panic disorder, and OCD, evidence has found. I’m currently having counselling and hypnotherapy alongside taking my medication, but I’m also proud to be one of the six million-plus people on antidepressants across England.

A sign of strength

These days, I feel more myself than I had done in a long time. Yes, I still experience low days and wobbles, but these are fewer and further between and I have my antidepressants to thank for that. I’m not ashamed tosay that I wouldn’t be doing as well at my (often demanding) job or in my social life without these little round masses of solid medicine that I take each day. I do intend to come off them one day but for now, they are helping me to thrive.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

I’ve since realised that taking antidepressants is actually a sign of success, not failure; a sign of strength, not weakness. Those of us taking medication should feel proud that we are actively taking a positive step towards improving our mental health rather than letting it take over us. With around 10 million people in England predicted to need mental health support in the coming years, due to the pandemic, I want to remind anyone who is struggling of this point.

If you are feeling as desperate, hopeless and out of your depth as I was, then I urge you: please, please go to your GP and ask for help. Don’t leave it as long as I did. Think about the number of happier, less worrisome years you could gain.

Just as some need glasses to read and others need medication for migraines, some of us need medication for our mental health and that’s no bad thing! And, as the co-founder of the positive lifestyle brand Power of Positivity, Kristen Butler says: “Never be ashamed of yourself. Be proud of who you are, and don’t worry about how others see you.”

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