I take antidepressants.
Medication. Meds. Crazy pills.
I don’t know where I would be without them.
Actually, I do know where I would be without them. Because I’ve lived it. I spent years fighting against the suggestion that I should put these pills anywhere near my body. I held onto the lamppost kicking and screaming, gnashing my teeth so they couldn’t drag me into what I saw as an irreversible wormhole.
There are a myriad of reasons why it took so long for me to grudgingly take those little white nuggets in my hand. These things can rarely be boiled down to one single issue. I don’t like taking tablets because I’m scared they will stick in my throat? That was definitely a reason. The pills taste crappy? That’s another reason. I was a stubborn teenager who didn’t want to be told what to do? Yes, probably that as well.
But the main reason? The main reason was that the world around me told me I shouldn’t.
From all angles I had a symphony of voices telling me that these pills were bad. That I shouldn’t be taking them. That to take them was to give up. That taking them meant that I was weak. That they would play tricks with my mind. That they would make me someone I wasn’t. That they were evil, nasty, despicable things that were only taken by the worst kind of loser.
I was scared. And I didn’t want them anywhere near me.
I thought I was better than that. I was determined to prove that I was better than that.
This is a dangerous societal myth. And it needs to stop.
Last week, the BBC aired an edition of Panorama in which they investigated the possibility that antidepressants played a part in the crimes of The Batman Killer (James Holmes). Now, I am all for taking a good luck at different types of medication and exploring the myriad of side effects that can be found. That’s a fundamental part of safety when it comes to drugs. I’m also not a scientist. I don’t have a knowledge of these things at a chemical level. I understand that.
What I do not understand is the apparent obsession that various elements of the media have with proving that depression and anxiety medication is evil.
Stephen Buckley, from the mental health charity Mind, was quoted in the BBC article accompanying the programme:
“Millions of people take SSRIs and other antidepressants and many find them useful in managing their mental health problems. Side effects from medication can be serious but it’s important to recognise that severe side effects are incredibly rare.”
So why this seeming crusade against antidepressants in particular?
I call it a ‘fetishistic hard-on’. And I think that is a pretty accurate description. Because all medications have side-effects. The majority of these side-effects are rare, as in the case of James Holmes (potentially), even if they have gigantic ripple effects on the occasions they appear. We know that this is an unfortunate fact about the majority of medications – and yet the potential one-in-a-million side-effects of mental health medications seem to garner greater focus than any other.
No doubt this comes from the societal fear of any sort of medication that deals with the brain; unlike medication for any other organ, medication that touches on brain chemistry stirs the fire of anxiety. For some reason, as a society we don’t view the brain as just another organ that can get sick and be given medicine – we view it as something else, something more, maybe even the soul itself.
And woe betide the fate of anyone who dares tamper with that (for anything other than a life-threatening situation – brain operations to prevent imminent death seem to be something we give a little leeway to, even if it still makes us desperately uncomfortable).
And I understand that. I talk all the time about the exquisite way that my brain works; the quirks it gives me; the way that my neurodivergence is inherently tied into my whole existence as a person. I have rallied against ‘cures’ for my autism for this very reason.
But this just feels different in my gut. My depression, something that had been swirling in there ever since my childhood, was a chemical imbalance in my brain that was actively causing me harm. Not physical or visual harm, but harm nonetheless. I was ill, and I needed treatment. Treatment that I will probably have to take for the rest of my life.
The problem lies in the fact that the world is determined to prove that their squeamishness around mental health medication is correct. And they will grasp onto whatever they can find. It makes people feel ‘icky’, and they will inherently look for things that support their gut feeling. As a result, fervent investigations into the ‘bad’ side-effects of mental health medications are more likely to garner attention and, therefore, sell more papers or produce more website hits. This then fuels the idea that, more so than any other medications, these particular pills are bad and scary.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. And which people get hit every time it comes around again, and again, and again?
People like me. People who desperately need this medicine to survive, but are so drowned in the culture of disapproval and fear that they will do anything possible to avoid the one thing that could make them better.
I suffered for years because of this societal fear of antidepressants. When I think of how my life could have been different had I entertained the concept of antidepressants earlier, I want to cry. When I finally crumbled at the age of twenty-one, it was a long and difficult process to crawl back into the light. It took several years, and some horrible experiences, before we found the right type of drug and the right dosage of that drug. If we had started the process at sixteen or seventeen, when I desperately needed it to start, we could have worked out all the creases in those more formative years rather than those first years of adulthood.
For a very long time, I felt that I had failed for succumbing to my need for medication for my mental health. People would ask when they found out: ‘when are you going to stop taking them?’. It was a race to get better and stop ‘needing’ them – only when I was off the medication could I proclaim that I was no longer a failure.
It took years to come to a point where I was at peace with my need for medication. It took an internal war before I realised that this may be something that I would need for the rest of my life – and that that was okay.
You would not classify a diabetic as a failure for having to take insulin for the rest of their lives. They have a disorder, a dissonance of chemicals in their bodies, that they can correct by putting this other chemical into their bodies. Well, I am the same. I have a disorder, a dissonance of chemicals in my body, and I can correct this by putting this other chemical into my body – the only difference is that the chemical imbalance is in my brain.
When we seek to assert the idea that antidepressants, and other medication aimed towards mental health, are inherently bad and dangerous, what we are doing is pushing people away from the very thing that may help them. When we place an imbalanced focus on the side effects of mental health medication over any other, we are creating a culture of fear and distrust that kills people.
As Ed Sykes from the Science Media Centre wrote in an article for MQ: Transforming Mental Health:
“Imagine a pill, taken by millions of people every day, that unwittingly turns some of us into murderers. That was the scenario laid out in the recent Panorama on antidepressants, it was the message trailed in the media in advance of the show and it was the line used in the press release to drum up interest. That’s a very powerful and scary message, and when you’re talking about a drug that saves thousands of lives every year – and that already has a bad public image – then we need to be extra careful. Putting people off antidepressants costs lives.”
There it is. Putting people off antidepressants costs lives.
My crazy pills have done nothing to hurt you. All they have done is save me.
So leave them alone!