This week, I had a conversation with someone about being on mental health medication, in this case, anti depressants for clinical depression. We reminisced that as teenagers, we just weren’t taught properly by school or in society about mental illness. It wasn’t talked about here in the UK back in the 2000s and everything was really hushed up, cloak and dagger, as if you had to be ashamed of it. As if anything to do with our mind was shameful- no one really had much education, unless it happened in your family.
I know that for many people, even in 2022, taking medication for their mental health carries this sense of shame.
For me personally, I was so ill that there really was no choice for me as a 15 year old, but to be started on medication. My symptoms of bipolar disorder first appeared at the age of 15 with depression and anxiety episodes, followed by mania and psychosis. So, I was on anti psychotic medications as well as what is known as a mood stabiliser, a medicine for mood disorders that stabilises moods (in this case, the bipolar poles). I also took regular anti depressants and anti anxiety medications and still do daily. My medicine regime is pretty intense but it means that my bipolar is well controlled and in remission- and that I am stable. My family has a hereditary illness that can be severe- so medication was the right choice for me.
However, for those without a severe mental illness like bipolar or schizophrenia, you may be recommended to try anti depressants first. There are varying different types which work on seretonin reuptake in the brain and help to balance brain chemistry.(although scientists cannot pinpoint the cause for depression fully yet). These can be used in combination with therapy and exercise to help treat depression and anxiety.
Some families and cultures hold great shame to be seen taking mental health medication and so hide it from loved ones. Others stop taking it, believing they are stable and well because the medication has balanced them out- and then crash into depression. For some though, anti depressants are a shorter term thing. The point is, its all so individual and there is no one size fits all medicine- you must do what is right for your recovery but definitely do not suddenly stop them.
In my family, my Dad was already on mental health medication- Lithium for bipolar, when I became ill. So, I was lucky that I had a loving supportive and accepting family, including plenty of medical professionals who understood. It was a steep learning curve for everyone though. And yes, as a teenager, I did hold some shame for taking medicines because I just wanted to ‘fit in’ and be a ‘normal’ teen. Coupled with the fact no one openly talked about mental illness at school or in general (this was just before social media!) and I felt this overwhelming sense of shame that my brain chemicals had let me down. I never once skipped taking medication though.
The thing is with mental health is that you can’t see it. But, you can absolutely feel when something is wrong and when you feel chemically depressed or other mental illness. This is usually depression unlinked to a life event- you wake up with it and you know its back, you feel despondent and unable to cope.
Yet, because you can’t see it- shame is even greater because how do you explain it to others? And are you ‘weak’ or ‘crazy’ to need medication to function?
The answer is No. To have to take the correct prescribed medication for you daily is an effort. You have to commit to it and to seeing how some medicines go. To go through episodes of mental illness makes you stronger and more resilient, surviving each day. You are not weak, your brain just needs help (like helping diabetes or a heart problem) and the words ‘crazy’ or ‘unhinged’ just serve to reinforce stigma. There is no need to be afraid or filled with shame or self loathing- but it is valid to feel this way as you are human!
In 2017, it was estimated that 792 million people worldwide lived with a mental health disorder (one in 10 globally). 46 million of those had my disorder, bipolar. However, this is the tip of the iceberg because mental illness is often underreported due to stigma. So- you are not alone. There is treatment out there to help you.
Remember not to be ashamed of needing medication to cope with life’s challenges (alongside therapy etc). The stigma is slowly falling and I will continue to write and share to this end.
You are not weak! You are powerful beyond comprehension .
Do you take medication? Does it help you?