Reducing the Stigma of Mental Health Medication
Mental health in the United States is worsening, while the need for mental health care is on the rise. About 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although therapy is becoming more normalized in U.S. culture, there is still a stigma associated with taking medication for mental health. Research shows that medication combined with therapy is the most effective treatment for depression and anxiety, the most common mental health challenges facing patients. But even as the use of psychiatric medications is growing, particularly in adolescents, shame, fear and misinformation around psychiatric medication are causing many people to suffer in silence.
“Mental illness is physical illness, we just don’t think of it that way,” said clinical psychologist Zeyad Layous, PsyD. Depression and anxiety don’t just occur in the brain, he explained; they have physical symptoms as well—such as fatigue, muscle aches and stomach problems—and medication can help ease those.
Where Does Mental Health Medication Stigma Come From?
There are a number of reasons people may be wary of taking medication for mental health conditions. Some of the common reasons include:
Fear of dependency
A big barrier for many people considering medication is a fear of being seen as weak or becoming dependent on it. “Our culture and society has a big stigma around dependency,” Layous said. Some people also may fear that they will need to take medication for the rest of their life, which is often not the case, he explained.
Fear of side effects
For men in particular, fear of side effects such as sexual dysfunction can be another barrier to taking medication. “There are ways that can be managed, either with some adjunct medications or even scheduling breaks,” Layous said. “It’s not always ideal, but if the medication makes you feel better, it might be worth trying to navigate.”
“Many people consider psychiatric medications as ‘mind-altering’ or ‘mind-controlling.’ Many still believe that the goal of medication for mental illness is to ‘zombify’ the person taking it or to change who they are,” psychiatrist Kathleen Rivera, MD, told Shape. But psychiatric medicine has come a long way, and there are dozens of options if one doesn’t work for you, Layous explained, and most do not have those effects on people.
Medical misinformation is rampant. For example, recent comments Elon Musk made on Twitter about antidepressant Wellbutrin suggesting it is linked to suicide prompted swift backlash from doctors accusing him of spreading medical misinformation. The drug has been approved “on the basis that it works and its benefits outweigh its harms,” said Tyler Black, a pharmacologist and clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
Stigmatizing language and portrayals
Whether in pop culture or the media, phrases like “crazy pills” and depictions of people with mental illness who become violent can stigmatize psychiatric medications, as well as those who take them. The same types of stigmatizing depictions don’t often show up in popular media for other types of medication.
Some diverse racial and ethnic communities have a stigma around mental illness that can be a barrier to treatment, explains the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in its guide to understanding stigma and discrimination. For example, in some Asian cultures, seeking professional help for mental illness may be counter to cultural values of strong family ties, emotional restraint and avoiding shame.
Judgment from others
Family or friends might not be informed about medication and can make hurtful or ignorant comments. When mental health advocate Maja Stevanovich was prescribed Adderall for her ADHD, friends accused her of drug abuse. “I confided in them, and their misinformation and thoughts on Adderall being a ‘recreational drug’ led them to pass judgment on me,” she told Shape.
Talking About Mental Health
It’s important to consider language when speaking about mental illness. Rivera notes that many mental health terms have become common adjectives that describe everyday behaviors, which can minimize the experience of those with an illness. For example, people may call themselves bipolar when they experience a sudden shift in mood, but that can feel disparaging to those who actually have bipolar disorder.
“People want to understand themselves and labeling is an easy way to categorize oneself,” said Layous. “But try not to use too many of those labels unless you have a diagnosis or have really educated yourself on what it means.”
Outside of casual conversation, there are also language adjustments that can be made when talking about someone who has a diagnosis. Whether an individual is discussing themselves or someone else, they can use “People First Language” (PFL), which puts the person before the disability and describes what a person has, not who a person is.
For example, therapist Emily Hionides-Horner, MSW, LISW-S, advises being mindful of language and labels around diagnoses. “This will help separate the person from the illness.”
Instead of saying:
“My father is mentally ill”
“She’s so OCD”
“I have bipolar disorder”
“My father struggles with mental illness”
“She was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder”
3 Ways to Reduce the Stigma of Mental Health Medication
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers some suggestions about what we can do as individuals to help reduce the stigma of mental illness and taking medication for mental health conditions.
Talk openly about mental health.
“Research shows that knowing or having contact with someone with mental illness is one of the best ways to reduce stigma,” the American Psychiatric Association (APA) writes in its guide about stigma. “Individuals speaking out and sharing their stories can have a positive impact. When we know someone with mental illness, it becomes less scary and more real and relatable.”
A recent survey found that about 3 in 4 teens seeking information online about depression said they were looking for personal anecdotes from people who had suffered from depression. Layous advises considering where and when you share stories about your mental health, to make sure it’s with a trusted person and/or in a safe space.
Be conscious of language.
As previously mentioned, the language you use when discussing mental health matters. MakeItOK.org offers an interactive tool to help guide your conversations about mental health to help stop stigma. For example:
If someone says, “I have anxiety,” don’t say, “We’ve all been there” or “It could be worse.” Saying, “Thanks for opening up to me” or “Tell me more” would be a better way to respond.
If someone says, “You don’t need meds,” Layous suggests saying, “My medication regimen is my business. I appreciate your concern, but I’ve discussed this with my therapist (or doctor) and I want to see if this can help me.”
Be honest about treatment.
Psychiatrist Jessi Gold, MD, decided to open up about taking antidepressants herself when she realized it was a key part of reducing the stigma. Through her patients, she has witnessed the impact celebrities have in normalizing the conversation around mental health and helping people. “I have seen that firsthand in my office when people talk about Demi Lovato’s story, for example,” she wrote in InStyle. Many other celebrities have openly discussed their mental health diagnoses and shared about them on podcasts.
“The more people talk about it, the more people start to think about it, and I think that’s important,” said Layous.
Resources to Learn More About Mental Health and Medications
Researching all of the medication options available and finding a doctor to prescribe the right medication can feel overwhelming. Layous suggests that people start by talking to their primary care provider or therapist, if they have one. A primary care doctor may be willing to prescribe certain medications or refer individuals to a psychiatrist. A therapist may be able to give the individual a referral to a prescribing doctor.
However, there are other resources that individuals who are considering seeking treatment may also find useful as they make these important decisions:
Types of mental health care professionals. Whether a person is looking for a counselor who provides therapy or a clinician who can prescribe medication, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains the different types of professionals and what their credentials mean.
How to find a mental health provider. This New York Times article offers advice and tips for finding a therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health provider during this time of unprecedented demand.
How to find a therapist of color. For people of color, finding a mental health provider they can trust and who is culturally competent is especially challenging. This New York Times article lists a growing number of organizations dedicated to connecting patients with therapists of color.
Understanding mental health medications. In this robust resource, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains the different types of medications—along with their possible side effects—including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, stimulants, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers.
Medication frequently asked questions. NAMI answers FAQs, such as “What are the side effects of antidepressants?”, “When is it OK to stop taking my medication?” and “Will I become addicted?”
Questions to ask a doctor about medication. NC State University counseling center offers information about psychiatric medication, including questions an individual can ask a psychiatrist or other physician to determine if medication is a good fit.
Getting the most out of your medication. Everyone is different and not every medication is right for every person. Some people will see results immediately, while relief can take longer for others. Mental Health America (MHA) offers suggestions for dealing with side effects, tracking progress and what to do if an individual is considering stopping medication use.
The best tracker apps. According to Medical News Today, these are the best apps to keep track of moods and symptoms, which can help individuals monitor the progress of their therapy or the effects of medication.
24/7 Pharmacy Chat. MHA has a partnership with Walgreens to answer patients’ confidential medication questions online.
Information on OnlineCounselingPrograms.com is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling advice. Always consult qualified professionals with any questions you may have about mental health treatment.