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A family member notices you taking an antidepressant and suggests that if you smiled a little more you’d be able to beat that depression without drugs. Other well-meaning friends or family don't hesitate to share their opinions — often based on myths or misinformation — about psychiatric medications with you, or anyone else. It's pill shaming and it's simply another way of stigmatizing mental illness, doctors say.
One in six Americans takes some kind of psychiatric drugs, mostly antidepressants. Many people who have a prescription for psychiatric medications also use talk therapy, mindfulness or exercise to manage their symptoms. But it's the prescription pills that typically bring out the judgy comments.
The website Good recently tackled 12 ‘Harmless’ Comments People Make about Psychiatric Medications. Saying insensitive or misleading things about psychiatric medicines can make people less likely to seek treatment or take medication as prescribed.
Experts share the most common reactions to psychiatric medications and what the truth really is.
1. You’re going to become an addict.
“The vast majority of medications that I prescribe are not addictive,” Dr. Ken Nash, chief of clinical services at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “You are not going to be addicted.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Ken Duckworth agrees. While taking medications comes with risks and side-effects, the majority of psychiatric medications are not habit forming.
“Over-prescribing of opioids drove … the heroin problem,” the medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) told TODAY.“The biggest crisis is not from psychiatric medicine.”
2. You’ll have to take the drugs for the rest of your life.
Often people believe if they start taking a medication they will always have to take it. But that’s not true.
“For some conditions, like recurrent depression or bipolar disorder, there is not a curative treatment. There is nothing you can take and it is better forever,” Dr. Michael Thase, director of the Mood and Anxiety Program at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “It is possible that 10 to 15 years from now there might be a curative treatment.”
Duckworth said he avoids absolutes when taking to patients.
“I will say ‘I am not that good. I can’t predict how your vulnerability will evolve or what the treatments will be in the future,’” he explains. “I wouldn’t say to somebody, 'You have to take these psychiatric medicines for the rest of your life.'”
3. Taking medicine is a crutch.
So often people don’t want to take medication for their mental health because they think it’s a crutch, which won't help them solve their problems. But the experts said this is the wrong way to look at it.
“There are times when people really benefit from using a crutch … in helping you recover,” Thase said. “You are not using a medicine as a scaffolding to hold you up. You are using it to treat the underlying symptoms.”
4. You don't need drugs for mental health.
Too often mental health vulnerabilities are thought of as a personal deficiency and taking medicine shows that a person is weak. But that’s simply not true.
“I don’t hear many people criticizing diabetes treatment,” Duckworth said. “These medicines are helping people manage mood, deal with voices and with impulses that are counterproductive.”
5. Why are you so emotional if you’re on drugs?
People mistakenly believe that if someone is on medication for a mental health condition that they’ll never feel sad or have bad days. Medication treats the symptoms but does not alter who you are.
“You are going to have bad days and bad days are not a reflection of psychiatric illness. It is not a helpful thing to assume that a person hasn’t been taking their medications because they are dreary,” Duckworth said.
Nash agrees. A husband with depression who does not help with chores before treatment will not magically start doing laundry because he’s on medication, for example.
“The medication will not cure everything, I tell them up front, ‘This medication will help you with certain parts. It won’t change you as a person and it won’t change your whole life,’” he said.
6. Being on medication means you’re ‘crazy’
People with mental illnesses have a condition that creates symptoms, which might make people feel sad, have problem sleeping, experience anxiety or changing moods, for example. Doctors prescribe medications to treat symptoms not because people are “crazy.”
“Having faith helps you be more resilient. The problem is when you insist that this is the only way out.”
“Crazy is a layman's term and I don’t know what that means,” Nash said.
7. If you believed in God, smiled more or tried harder you wouldn’t need drugs.
When it comes to mental health, people often tell others to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and overcome it. Treating mental health is not simply a matter of willpower and advising people to try harder can be harmful because people feel they do not need to ask for help.
“Having faith helps you be more resilient. People who have faith are better able to withstand suffering better. Having people who support you helps … being able to smile is likewise a sign of resilience,” Thase said. “The problem is when you insist that this is the only way out.”
8. You should only try something natural.
While meditation, yoga and exercise can help with some mental health conditions, natural remedies, such as St. John’s Wort or marijuana do not always provide effective treatment. Supplements are not well regulated so experts are unsure what is actually them and there is little research on how marijuana impacts mental health.
“One of the things you don’t know about things that aren’t regulate are how are they made. We don’t study marijuana because it is a schedule one drug,” Duckworth said. “Why would you take an unstudied treatment over something that has trials?”