Updated: Oct 7, 2022
Understanding medication helps us make the best choice for our bodies and minds.
"There is clear stigma about mental illness and mental health challenges. However, another related issue involving stigma is the use of medication to improve one’s mental health."
In my experience, people seem to have gathered the idea that there is something wrong with taking medication for depression or anxiety, or other mental illnesses, to the extent that those who would likely benefit from them are embarrassed or even afraid to try them.
This is unfortunate, because it leads to unnecessary suffering. Medication is a personal choice and may not be right for some, yet it is not to be feared, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking it if that is one’s decision. We don’t judge people for taking insulin for diabetes or Tylenol for a headache; why so for depression, where the medicine used serves to restore order to a chemical imbalance in the brain?
In fact, some clients who only go for therapy as opposed to trialing medication would quickly and effortlessly find relief (and would not deplete their pocketbook) if they tried a medication instead or a medication in combination with therapy. I saw this time and time again when working in community mental health. After waiting about 4-6 weeks for the medication to take effect, many of my clients' symptoms (such as depressed mood) significantly improved.
Wondering if you should you try only medication, only therapy, or both together? It is widely recognized in the field that the very best outcomes occur when therapy and medication are combined to join forces. However, it's best to consult with a physician; each of us has a unique story and family history, both of which need to be taken into consideration when making this important decision.
Many people have heard stories, by word of mouth, that psychiatric medication comes with all sorts of side effects, or can ‘numb you out’ until you’re not ‘you’ anymore. While any medication may have side effects, I believe that these medication-related issues are less common than people think. Also, a single anti-depressant or a simple combination of medication arguably does not have the power to create strong effects unless the dose is too high or it is not the right fit for your body. And if it does make you not 'you' anymore, it’s time to switch! That being said, some anti-depressants which are indeed suitable for your body can cause mild side effects. They can also cause stronger side effects for a short period of time, which then subside.
As there are a number of different medications on the market, if one medication is undesirable or has a problematic side effect, it’s just a matter of asking one’s doctor to help. They may help by switching the medication, but they may also help by lowering the dose, slowing down the timing of increasing the dose, suggesting you take it at a different time of day, providing medication to combat the side effects, or making an alternative recommendation. An open conversation with a doctor could make a world of difference. No doctor wants their patient to suffer due to a medication, and if they don’t know what's happening, they can’t help.
One special acknowledgment: it should be noted that one class of antidepressants, known as SSRIs, can increase suicidal thoughts. This occurs primarily in children, adolescents, and young adults, and should they try a medication from this class it is important that they be monitored closely on it when it is initiated. This is thought to occur because their energy level can improve before their mood does, posing a safety risk. As always, proper communication with your doctor is key.
If your doctor recommends a medication and you don’t feel comfortable trying it, don’t feel pressured to fill a prescription if it’s not right for you. This is your own body and you decide what's right. It is merely important to better understand that it may significantly help and be worth it to try, and to appreciate that fears or beliefs about medication may not actually be based on fact. Also important to note is that starting an antidepressant is not about starting a medication for life; for many people it represents a timeframe of months or a periodic approach.
Antidepressants build up in your system and create a continual presence in your body. They offer improvement and stabilization of mood, allowing you to get your life back. They are not "happy pills" but instead are meant to make you feel like yourself again. They are different from anxiolytics for anxiety, such as the benzodiazepines Xanax, Valium, or Ativan, which provide relief right after you take them but no relief at other times (and are actually addictive). Notably, antidepressants are NOT addictive. If you want to go off them, however, you must do so gradually.
The links below from the well-respected Mayo Clinic in the US and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), based in Toronto, provide quite a bit of information on antidpressants, which are used to treat both depressants and anxiety.
Disclaimer: this article is based on experience in the field and generally available information on psychotropic medication. It is not meant to replace a doctor or pharmacist's explanation or advice.