Medication Mythbusting: what does it mean to take meds for mental illness?

83

No one has ever told me to try yoga instead of medication, and for that, I am personally grateful. I have been told, though, that medicating would get rid of my personality, that I would be inauthentic and unnatural as long as I’m medicated, and that medication should only be a temporary crutch. These points are insulting and absurd. They perpetuate damaging rhetoric which discourages people from seeking completely legitimate help.

Let’s start by addressing the misconception that taking medication for mental illness removes your personality. There is a difference between an individual and their mental illness. True, it may be hard to spot with the untrained eye! Someone’s disorder-induced recklessness, hyper-cleanliness or rituals may seem like harmless spontaneity, respectable neatness or cute quirkiness. However, there is a difference, and effective medication can isolate and treat the “quirks” that are really symptoms of mental illness. I’m not going to say all medication is effective — it often takes a lot of trial and error to find the right combinations and dosages — but when someone finds what works, they’ll be able to keep their personality intact, even the more “extreme” aspects. Someone’s illness may compel them to do dangerous and impulsive things, but just because medication removes the danger doesn’t mean it will remove their natural spontaneity.

Because of its ability to quarantine a disorder, I believe effective medications actually make people more authentic to their true selves. If someone is distressed by the actions and desires they feel like they can’t control, then it seems unfair to claim that those stressors define their true selves. Effective medication can empower people to take back control from their illnesses and disorders and define themselves on their own terms.

Furthermore, it’s hurtful to claim that this kind of treatment is “unnatural.” Plenty of natural things are terrible. Everything from headaches to epilepsy is natural, but that doesn’t make them good or right. We have access to treatment for so many physical ailments, and mental illness shouldn’t be any different. No one should feel guilty for alleviating a natural problem.

Moreover, no one should be ashamed for relying on medication, no matter for how long or short a period of time. For some, medication may be like training wheels: it provides a little extra stability while you figure out how to ride on your own. For others, medication may be more like the handlebars: maybe you can figure out how to do without them, but for the most part, they sure do help guide things, and you’d hardly consider removing them. The medication can even be the bike itself, getting you from point A to B. It’s okay to wish you didn’t need medication, but it’s also so important to evaluate if your desire to avoid medication comes from a place of confidence in your ability to manage your symptoms or a place of societal pressure.

Of course, medication is a different experience for everyone. I’d never claim that everyone needs it, but I would recommend that when a doctor suggests it, or a friend tells you they take it, or when you find yourself at the end of your rope, that you take a moment to unpack any resistance you may have to it. It’s a tool –– that’s all. It’s not a cure-all, but for many, it’s certainly a helps-a-lot, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Authors for this piece are Junko Anderson and the Active Minds E-board, a chapter of the organization at Occidental College. Active Minds is a national organization that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding illness and promote good mental health.