The stigma of antidepressants: a crying shame

I had a whole load of other ideas planned for my first post of 2018. And then a colleague sent me a news article on this topic, and three or four people (randomly and in quick succession) asked me for some advice about antidepressants.

Obviously, I’m not a Doctor, or qualified to comment on anything other than my own experience. I can only say that even as the mental health awareness movement gains steam, there’s definitely still a huge stigma about taking antidepressants.

It’s little wonder. The Daily Mail recently charmingly referred to them as ‘happy pills’ that Brits demand to ‘avoid feeling down’. I personally have never met anybody who was desperate to be on antidepressants because they’re a bit glum.

I’ve only met people who are desperately ill (me included, once upon a time) but don’t want to take them out of shame. And people who are on them but will never, ever talk about it.

Unfortunately, I’ve also met some people who are judgmental of those who do take them, as if this somehow makes you less capable of being a good friend, partner, parent, colleague, human.

This is ridiculous. For certain mental health disorders, medication is often completely essential, like insulin for a diabetic. For those whose anxiety and depression is stopping them from functioning—or putting them at risk of suicide—it seems horrendously worrying that stigma, shame and misinformation might prevent people from getting the help they need.

Yes, there are other routes people can take to conquer their anxiety and depression first, particularly in less severe cases. Counselling, exercise, meditation. It’s certainly true the NHS is under huge strain and can’t provide the levels of counselling and support required, meaning medication could end up being prescribed where talking therapy might work.

But that’s not the point I’m making here—my point is, if you’ve reached a point where you can’t even begin to fathom those activities, medication may help you get back on the even keel you need.

That was certainly the case for me. Here’s my history, for context: at my absolute lowest point (clinical diagnosis: severe anxiety and moderate depression), after several months of counselling, I was prescribed an SSRI called sertraline.

One reason people often don’t want to take them is the side effects, and I won’t lie, the first two weeks were horrendous. Shakes, shivers, retching, dry-mouth, constipation (cute), hot flushes, night sweats, sketchy dreams.

But then… clouds parted, albeit onto a still fairly miserable sky. My problems didn’t go away, but the mental fog and crippling anxiety gently abated. The issues in my life were still there, and I still had to deal with them, but the physical symptoms of the anxiety I’d been experiencing decreased hugely, meaning I was able to crack on with the business of sorting my life out.

I stayed on them for seven months, then slowly tapered off my dosage over three further months. I had resisted it for so long, afraid of the stigma, propped up by my own belief that tablets were just a temporary panacea and would somehow make me a shell of myself. They didn’t. When I was on them, I travelled, fell in love, was a bridesmaid, got a new job, took up a yoga habit. I lived my life. They helped me to live my life.

So whilst I’d love to say, ‘there’s no shame in taking antidepressants if you need them’, that would be wrong; there clearly is a stigma. I certainly felt ashamed, and put off taking them for a long time because of it. But, also: fuck shame. Shame also tells me I shouldn’t have little belly rolls on a beach, or dance really badly when I’m drunk, or fancy Dimitri from Anastasia as much as I do. (He’s a cartoon.)

The real shame is that people feel pressured to resist the help they might need.

Disclaimer: I can only ever write my own experiences. Antidepressants react differently with every individual, so what worked for me may not work for you. They can have adverse side effects, such as temporarily increasing suicidal thoughts, so always pursue any course of medication with correct supervision and an open dialogue with your Doctor.

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