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Medication Shaming is Everywhere and It Has to Stop

Woman looking out window, sad and depressed

Medication shaming and mental health stigma seem to go hand in hand. To me its always seemed that mental illness is slightly more socially acceptable if you’re able to manage it without meds. Those that do end up taking medication are left to tip toe around awkward conversations with co-workers and feel the scorn of family members.

We admit to our need for medication in hushed tones. Some of us remove ourselves entirely from situations where might have to confess that Prozac and Xanax are what hold us together.

Medication & Stigma

Pharmaceuticals have been an essential part of my health since I was first diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD after the birth of my son five years ago. It’s taken a very long time, and a lot of internal negotiation with my constant, critical self-talk, to arrive at a place where I’m ‘okay’ with the idea that I’ll be on these medications for the rest of my life. Needing meds to make it out of bed each day is just part of my reality.

While I work through my own internalized stigma, I also have to try to make sense of the cultural stigma attached to medication use.

For example, it’s bad enough that I have persistent depressive disorder, reoccurring major depression and high functioning anxiety, but the fact that I need anti-depressants (yes, I need them) to function is a significant character flaw. It’s this type of thinking that kept me from addressing my mental health years before my pregnancy.

Related: Sarah Kotranza: Anti-Depressants Saved My Life…Slowly

Living with Depression

The shame and fear of a mental illness diagnosis, together with my perceived weakness of needing medication meant I suffered much longer than necessary. I spent most of my teens and 20s living with persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia, which saw me chronically depressed but typically very high-functioning.

This would change as I would experience what’s known as ‘double-depression’ where I’d have a case of major depression along with the dysthymia. As you can imagine, this was a real treat!

Because my ‘normal’, everyday experience included constant and chronic symptoms of low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, low energy, and a depressed mood, I didn’t seek help. These symptoms would wax and wane with the seasons and stress, but I didn’t think it was a problem.

I completed high school near the top of my class, finished undergrad studies on the Dean’s List and started a Master’s program. My early career years were successful with quick advancement.  During that same time I got married, built a new house and traveled. I did all this without medication, but with incredible difficulty at many points.

Medication & Doctors

Medication shaming is innocuous and comes from sources that we may least expect, including doctors. When I meet a new doctor, I cringe when I have to disclose all my current medications. I immediately think, “Oh no, what are they going to think? Am I going to have to explain why I’m on each one? Do I have to justify that I need these meds to function? Do I need to prove that I’m managing invisible illnesses that require medication?”

I start these conversations with, “I work very closely with my psychiatrist to manage my mental health along with chronic pain issues. This combination of drugs is what works for me.” That fact that I feel the need to justify myself to health care providers, and that I’m always ready with an explanation of my health status speaks to the unrelenting stigma that accompanies mental illness.

After listing off my medications during a visit to Urgent Care for a sprained ankle I had a nurse say, “With those medications how on earth do you even stand up? Maybe that’s why you sprained your ankle.”

I’ve had other providers tell me that I just need to take more fish oil because, “who wants all those synthetic chemicals in their brain?” and one refer to my meds as “elephant tranquilizers.” Wow. Thanks for that.

Need for Medication

If doctors and their attitudes towards medication are bad, the rest of society is a whole lot worse. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic and other mood medications are demonized.

Much of this attitude is shaped by mistrust of pharmaceutical companies and a ‘suck it up, buttercup’ that is inherent in our collective approach to mental health. The pervasiveness of this stigma and shame means that many people struggle for years – and this has to stop.

With that said, many people have negative experiences with these medications. My journey to find the right mix of drugs wasn’t easy. They have all come with side effects, including weight gain, weird allergic reactions and strange physical health issues.

However I no longer struggle with severe anxiety or symptoms of PTSD. My depression is completely manageable. When I found the right medications, it was literally like a light went on and I now understood what it’s like to feel ‘normal’. Medication is a trade off – and I’m fully aware of that fact.

Related: I’m a Mom with Anxiety and Depression and Here’s How I Manage Both

Change the Medication Conversation

For those of us that are on medication, we can start to change the conversation about our illnesses. At the same time, when you’re in a situation where you’re experiencing med shaming first hand, you have every right to remove yourself and not participate. If you do stick around, here are five suggestions on how to redirect the conversation:

  • “Meds have been important in managing my mental health, and I’m not ashamed of taking care of myself.”
  • “Medication has been a life saver for me. You can speak to your experience and I’ll speak to mine, but let’s do it respectfully.”
  • “I really don’t think it’s fair to judge someone for taking the necessary steps to be as healthy as possible.”
  • “My brain chemistry makes me vulnerable to depression and anxiety. Medication helps me manage and live my best life.”
  • “So what? People have used substances – like alcohol – to manage depression and anxiety for thousands of years. I’m fortunate to live during a time where medication is a real, viable option.”

There’s no shame in needing medication to manage mental illness. Remember, it’s a tool in your kit – and each of us will need different tools in order to be healthy. Make your needs your main priority, and let others run around with their own often misguided perceptions of medication.

If you’re struggling with your mental health reach out to your doctor. Medication isn’t the only option, but for some of us it’s essential. Join our community of moms with lived experience with mental illnesses, like postpartum depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Sign up for our mailing list and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.

1 Comment

  1. Janet Aimé on December 26, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    Ya I hear all that. I take medical marijuana and it has changed my life and made it liveable. I don’t smoke it I take an extract that is very strong. Because it is not a pharmaceutical like others, people think it doesn’t matter or that I can live without it and this is not so! I must have it to live my best possible life and I resent people thinking it is not an essential medication. It is replacing a whole host of medications I used to have to take but take no longer such as antidepressants and opioids.