The Stigma of Brains on Drugs


By Chay Tanchanco, PPS, AMFT


Even within the world of mental health awareness, there is much controversy and debate about whether medication is or isn’t helpful. Especially online, one can find many testaments and imploring posts about taking every other precaution before taking medication or that with enough meditation and willpower, there is no need for medication.


I do believe there is a place for intensive care that medication cannot solve. I also believe people often respond to the social trends with their own difficulties with the process of health; in other words, with the increasingly fast-paced life in American culture, medication is often marketed as a “quick fix” and there is a just cause in slowing that down. But after interviewing a few people who have struggled with mental health issues for many years and have had varying experiences with medication, I have compiled some of their wisdom.


1. Psychiatry works best in conjunction with a steady relationship with a person who helps your mental health grow.


In their stories, they echoed how many things they attempted (healthy and unhealthy) before they came to the acceptance that medication might help. When they listened to the stigma against medication, it fed their own fears that they were never going to get better. But with the right psychiatrist (because just like therapists, you will find helpful and not helpful relationships, too), they found that medication enabled them to actually work through therapy.


“Think of it like high blood pressure,” one interviewee said. “Everyone takes medication for high blood pressure. It’s normal, there’s nothing wrong with it. You also have to change your diet, exercise, and get regular check ups to make sure it’s working. But taking the medication can help loosen blockages, things that have built up over a long period of time that won’t be dissolved without more major intervention.”

2. Medication is not a “quick” fix.


Among the interviewees responses, it struck me how difficult it was for all of them to find the medication that fit their needs and how necessary it was for them to adjust their dosage with the right psychiatrist. Some had an “on and off” again relationship with medication, which seemed to only frustrate them more as they did not have a good relationship with a psychiatrist or therapist to talk through their feelings or problems when they had it. All of them said that they tried more than 4 medications before they saw results with a positive effect on their daily lives. Each trial is recommended for at least 2 weeks, if not 3 months. And on the wrong medication, they suffered or quit.


3. Valuing their own healthcare and having others’ support truly saved their lives.


Mental health is such a vulnerable issue for all of us because even now we are still dawning on the fundamentals of healing. It is easy to fall victim to accepting what one doctor says about your experience and your condition, and giving in to solutions that may not be the right fit for you, because we are still learning so much more about our brains and bodies and minds than we’ve ever known before.


When the interviewees have had support, they’ve felt empowered to get second opinions, end unhelpful therapy/psychiatry relationships, and stick to medication and therapy when it was hardest to keep going. A couple of the interviewees had struggled with bipolar disorder (the most notoriously difficult disorder to keep a steady relationship with medication) and had experiences bouts of depression so intense that they seriously planned on ending their own lives. As a parting wisdom, one of them said to me:


“The stigma scared me, it made me feel even weaker for ‘needing’ meds to ‘save’ me. But yoga or meditation wasn’t going to solve my problems. My favorite psychiatrist empowered me, brought me to the point where I had autonomy. He said that medication, if it works, will help me access therapy and my daily life again. And it does.”

If our truest intention is to help people, then we need to take a hard look at how stigma prevents people from getting the real care that they need while also not allowing meds to be thrown wildly at problems and call them solutions. And my takeaway from each conversation I’ve ever had about mental health in general:

Building compassion as a society continues to be the baseline toward healthy progress.

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