‘Stigma’ can often be a vague and misunderstood concept. Yet the existence of Halloween costumes portraying “mental patients” is a pretty concrete example of the stigma surrounding mental illness and its treatments. Following films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted, the cultural image of mental health wards, as seen in these costumes, is that they are either occupied by murderous criminals, or shambling zombies sedated by pills.
To people who find themselves in the process of being prescribed medication, this stigma – and associated worries about loss of the self and the numbing of emotions – makes the decision into a moral one, rather than a consideration of what’s best for your health.
“I have found, in brief, that taking medication for depression and anxiety has changed my life”
This decision is especially prevalent for university students. The limiting factor of time and the looming stress of exams and coursework mean that it’s not always possible or practical to thoroughly unpack difficult issues in therapy and engage in a deep tackling of our issues. Medication is often criticised as being a ‘quick fix’ (which translates to a lazy or illegitimate treatment), but when juggling short-term stressors, of which university brings many, a short-term or temporary intervention might be exactly what a student needs.
So behind the stigma and the criticism, what is it really like to take medication for mental health problems? I’ve been taking Citalopram, an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), for nearly three years. In that time I’ve found that many people are scared of antidepressants, and woefully misunderstand them.
But I have found, in brief, that taking medication for depression and anxiety has changed my life.
Of course, medication is not for everyone, and SSRIs & other anti-depression medications should only be taken when prescribed to you by a medical professional. If you think medication could be beneficial to you, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact your GP. The University Counselling Service can also help you with discussing the possibility of medication or other mental health treatments. For me, however, this was definitely the right choice. Yet stigmatising representations of mental illness nearly prevented me from seeking this help.
When studying A-Level Psychology, my lecturer said that antidepressants were not a good treatment, and should only be used alongside therapy or counselling. By the time my exams rolled around I was so anxious that I frequently experienced dissociative episodes, and ran out of my first exam while experiencing the worst panic attack of my life.
“Its effect for me was more like cutting off the high peaks of stress and deep lows of sadness”
I was receiving counselling during this time, but all the ways I’d heard medication talked about made me incredibly apprehensive. It took me until halfway through my first year at Cambridge to finally try antidepressants, and even then it was only because of the support and reassurance of a friend who had been taking the same pills himself.
This is often the case: it seems that sometimes the only way this stigma is unworked is through talking to a person who has or is taking medication, and realising that they are still a person, and not wholly numb or absent from their own life.
Starting on Citalopram was quite rough. When discussing it with people who are themselves beginning treatment, I always say that the first two weeks are the worst, and you may experience a variety of side-effects, the big one for me being loss of appetite. Any medication you take comes with a list of possible side-effects, and at the risk of sounding like your GP, it really is worth being familiar with this list and not hesitating to contact your doctor if something feels wrong.
At first it can be quite difficult to really notice the differences, as your perception is that you will start to think and feel in whole new ways, but that’s really not true. While I expected it ‘remove’ anxiety and stress, its effect for me was more like cutting off the high peaks of stress and deep lows of sadness. Your body, your brain and your emotions all have a relationship with antidepressants, and it’s important to keep an eye on this, even when taking pills becomes more routine.
The effect taking medication has had on my life cannot be understated, as it really has changed how I live day to day. I’m no longer afraid of interacting with other people, and it does feel like I’m able to access a part of life that was lost to me before. Throughout my life, however, I’ve been confronted by an image of the treatment of mental illness as being a destructive process, fundamentally changing personalities and abilities. We must work to overcome this stigma.
Mine and countless others’ experiences show that overcoming this obstacle and seeking treatment can be overwhelmingly beneficial. One of the least obvious ways medication has helped me is that all I have to do is swallow a pill. Some days you might not want to look after yourself, and some days you might want to be self destructive. If that’s something you struggle with, having a kind of self-care that doesn’t require mental or physical effort can be lifesaving.