My Experience with Mental Health Medication

Being a student with mental health issues sucks. On top of worrying about finishing assignments and making time for friends, you also have to try and juggle your mental illness. It's not like when someone breaks their arm and gets sympathy and everybody signs their cast. What you get is anything from mild sympathy, to people thinking you're crazy, or even people thinking you're faking it. Instead of getting your cast signed, you get awkward silences and darting eyes. The person with a broken arm is often immediately offered medication, and no one judges them for taking it to help with their pain. But, when someone with mental health issues takes medication, there is often a lot of judgement and stigma surrounding that. I also take medication for my thyroid, because that doesn’t function well on its own either, and yet I don’t feel judged or ashamed for taking that.

Almost three years ago I made the decision to go on medication. For a long time, I had felt like my mental health issues had been stopping me from living my life to the fullest and I was tired of it. My former doctor, as well as my mother, were big advocates for homeopathic remedies, so from a young age I was taught to cope using natural solutions. Which, just to be clear, I am not saying don’t work. I am a big supporter of natural remedies and the techniques I used helped me cope immensely, and I do recommend them. I learned how to do breathing exercises to cope with panic attacks, to count and categorize my surroundings to stay calm, that smiling and repeating positive things could boost your mood. But still, I did not feel that it was enough. I would soon be going off to university and leaving my family-aka my support system-behind, and I wanted to make sure I was stable enough to do so.

I decided to take my mental health out of my own hands, and into the hands of modern science.

I felt the stigma surrounding it as soon as I started telling people I intended to go on medication. “Oh you know it’s not a quick fix, right? You’re just masking your problems.” “Do you really want to be putting those chemicals in your body?” “Those pills will make you a zombie, just try meditation.” “It’s just a placebo effect you know.” These comments made me feel small, like I just wasn’t trying hard enough, which is one of the worst ways you can make someone with a mental illness feel, because all we do is try. For years, I had been trying to get better with no luck. But that was not my fault. Mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, which is in no way a person’s fault. No one chooses to be mentally ill. Modern science has figured out a way to help with this, so why should I not at least try the help of medication?

But there wasn’t just a stigma from outside people, there’s also a personal stigma I felt. I’ve often found myself feeling angry. Angry that my brain doesn’t produce these chemicals on its own, angry that it’s unfair that others in my life can just wake up and go without having to worry about taking their meds. I’ve often found myself hiding my medication, or underplaying what it is. The same thoughts that I would be mad at other people for judging those taking medication to help their illness, I was thinking about myself.

CAMH states that by the time Canadians reach the age of 40, 1 in 2 people have or have experienced mental illness. So, the question remains: if mental illness is so common, why is there still stigma around it? And even more concerning, why is there stigma around receiving help for it?

After going through 2+ years and 5+ different medications, I can say I have started to come to terms with the idea of having to take medication on a long-term basis. Am I totally okay with it? No, but neither am I okay with the fact that I have to take thyroid medication long term. My views have changed from frustration toward my mental illness, to frustration toward the pharmaceutical companies that charge an arm and a leg for medications, which is an argument I’ll save for another article.  

Here are some more statistics from CAMH:

  • People aged 15-24 are most likely to experience mental illness
  • Only 50% of Canadians would feel comfortable with telling friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness – compared to 72% who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer
  • 55% of people said they would be unlikely to enter a spousal relationship with someone who has a mental illness
  • 40% of respondents to a 2016 survey said they have experienced feelings of anxiety or depression but never sought medical help for it

While I am definitely an advocate for destigmatizing medication, I also think it’s important to understand what exactly you’re getting yourself into before filling a prescription. Medication can help immensely, but it may not be as instantaneous as you’d hope. But don’t let these facts scare you away if you think they could help, talk to your doctor to see if medication is the right fit for you.

It takes time to find the right medication

I have been on more than five medications over the past two and a half years, before finding one that works well and lets me feel like me. My doctor warned me about this but I didn’t really believe it. It was a very frustrating process to go on one only to find out that it made me cry a lot, or not be able to cry at all, or made me throw up all the time. It’s not an easy process, and requires a lot of support to get through.

 

It can drastically change your appearance

This is something my doctor did not prepare me for. I remember looking up the first medication and seeing “weight gain” under the side effects, but of course they say it only effects some people. Well I guess I was some people, because within a month I had stretch marks all over. Physically, it sucked gaining weight, but it was even worse emotionally. Sure, my mood was better in some regards, but my body image took a drastic blow.  With other medications people may lose weight, some get acne or lose hair… But some are absolutely fine. Make sure you look up all your medications and take the side effects seriously, and talk to your doctor.

 

They won’t magically make you better over night

Most medications take weeks to kick in, and months for you to start really feeling the full effects. Truth be told, you will probably feel like crap the first week or two while your body adjusts, but push through (unless you’re having crazy side effects, in which case go to the doctor). It also won’t magically cure your mental illness. It is one of the steps to recovering, but not the whole thing. Most people use it in combination with therapy, at least at first.

 

Additional links of support:

CAMH statistics

Anxiety relaxation techniques

Meditation guide

On campus resources

Near-campus counseling

Distress and crisis centre Ontario

And one of my favourite ways to cheer myself up…

Vine compilations

Ps.

I am not a medical professional, all things said here are either my own experiences, or statistics from the CAMH website. If you are considering getting help for your mental illness, talk to your doctor. And don’t feel ashamed for getting help! You deserve to live your best life without fear of judgement.