Let’s Talk Pill-Shaming

Mental Health with Emily Fry.

There are now more of us than ever receiving treatment for our mental health. As of 2016, it was found that 12.1% of the UK’s adult population was receiving some form of treatment for their mental health, with 10.4% being made up of those taking psychiatric medication. I have been taking antidepressants for the last five years now and while there have been many highs and lows during this time, I have now arrived at a (mostly) positive place with my medication. When the possibility of starting on antidepressants was first broached by my doctor, however, I was somewhat hesitant to agree to start taking them. Up until that point, my understanding of what it meant to take these drugs had certainly been less than positive. Psychiatric medication is one of the leading ways in which people treat their mental health conditions, but in spite of this, the misconceptions that surround taking anti-depressants and anti-psychotics still remain rife in today’s society.

Arguably, one of the most prominent causes of these misconceptions is pill-shaming. Pill-shaming is a very real and very damaging aspect of mental health stigma, referring broadly to the negative responses a person is met with when disclosing that they are taking medication in order to treat a mental health issue. Generally speaking, pill-shaming is a product of ignorance – unintentional or otherwise. While various comments are rarely said with the intent of inflicting any harm, the effects of these can be insidious, triggering feelings of guilt and shame. When it comes to pill-shaming, it is almost as if there is some unspoken yet persistent belief that those who have opted to take medication have admitted defeat and have gone straight for the ultimate ‘quick fix’. Rather than at least trying to address these issues in a healthy way and make the appropriate lifestyle changes, people wrongly assume that those taking ‘happy pills’ would rather rid themselves of any responsibility when it comes to looking after themselves, the onus now falling on something that is independent of them. This is a misconception that panders to the utterly ludicrous and grossly offensive assumption that those who take medication are obviously just too lazy or simply incapable of looking after themselves. As unbelievable as all this may sound, there genuinely are people out there who think like this.

When I think about stigma, in an attempt to lessen my frustration, I try to at least understand why there are people who think in the way they do and where this misinformation comes from. I think my main issue with this type of thinking is that it doesn’t account for the fact that, for some people, medication is their preferred method of treatment. While those that attend therapy are praised for being proactive and taking a hands on approach to dealing with their mental health, it isn’t often that those who take medication are granted the same niceties. In addition to the fact that medication is some people’s preferred method of treatment, for others it is their only option. The simple fact – and one that we should really start acknowledging properly – is that therapy is not accessible for everyone. With the demand for services offering psychological and talking therapies being at an all-time high, individuals are now confronted with the choice of enduring waiting lists lasting several years, or paying out for private therapy. As the mental health epidemic continues to worsen, medication is the best and most accessible option for a considerable proportion of the UK’s adult population.

Yet, even as someone who considers themselves fairly well versed in the ways that stigma manifests, pill-shaming is something that I have struggled to not let affect me. “But, don’t you worry that you’ll be on medication for the rest of your life?”, a friend of mine once asked upon learning that my dosage had just been upped to the generally prescribed maximum. Of course this was a genuine question with no ill-intent, and while I was quick to respond to this, I quietly resented the fact that my friend had thought to mention this. I just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that I was being judged for something that, at least to me, was a positive – wasn’t it a good thing that I was taking steps to better myself and my mental health? It isn’t often that you hear someone object to a person taking medication to treat a physical condition or illness, so why is taking medication to manage depression and anxiety, for example, any different? Why was my choice to take medication suddenly up for debate?

It is very hard to not get defensive when someone expresses an opinion like this, but it’s even more difficult to not let them affect you. Because, unfortunately, once you begin to entertain this kind of thinking – sometimes even unknowingly – it becomes very difficult to not self-stigmatise. It becomes virtually impossible to not look at yourself and see an image of someone who is hopelessly weak staring right back at you. All the unhelpful responses and reservations start eating away at you, consuming you entirely until it makes you question and doubt your own judgement.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that we allow each individual to choose the treatment that is best for them and that we do not pass judgement or shame anyone while they are doing so. Whether a person decides upon counselling, some form of therapy, medication, or a combination of any of these methods of treatment, all choices are valid. I cannot stress enough just how much courage it takes to consider the help available out there, and so it is absolutely vital that we continue to challenge pill-shaming should we ever encounter it.

If you take anything away from this piece, please remember to be kind to anyone struggling with their mental health. Above all, please remember that if a person has decided to take medication in their journey to managing their mental health, that is their business and their business only.

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