Augustine: We need to erase the stigma surrounding psychiatric medication

Kathryn Augustine, Op-Ed Contributor

A clear double standard exists in our conversation about mental health. In the eyes of society, actively avoiding treatment for physical health issues seems self-sabotaging. However, deciding not to take medication for mental health issues is, to a certain extent, encouraged by societal norms.

The stigma surrounding taking medication for mental illness is nuanced. There’s the myth that mental illness exists only in the mind of the person and that the individual is at fault, so the need for medication seems absurd. Some believe anxiety or depression can be “fixed” through other means like a weekly yoga class. Others are concerned with image: “What if your employer thinks you’re crazy? Is there something wrong with you?” Outsiders can even accuse people on medication of taking the easy route to recovery.

As someone who has taken medication, I’ve never felt that I can be open about this. Personally, while taking medication has helped me significantly by reducing my anxiety throughout my day-to-day life, I feel that discussion around the topic is uncomfortable and awkward even with my close friends. However, I do wish that I could have a dialogue with others about mental health freely without fear of being judged. I wish that it wasn’t something that I had to actively hide.

Should someone with anxiety avoid taking medication and live in a constant state of stress just to avoid societal backlash? Should someone with depression actively conceal the fact that they take medication to feel socially accepted? In today’s climate, perhaps those seem to be the best options. However, it is blatantly unacceptable for society to continue to look down on those who garner the courage to seek treatment as less competent or weak.

For this reason, people may avoid taking medication altogether or decide to stop during treatment. This can have detrimental consequences as extreme as suicide, permitting the issues at hand to worsen. Without medication, many people would not be realistically able to hold a job, maintain relationships or participate in everyday life. Society’s toxic culture should not be the factor that holds individuals back from something that can improve their daily life.

The fact of the matter is that mental illness is not brought on by the individual. Quite often, mental illnesses arise from biological causes. And while therapeutic programs are helpful to a certain extent, supplementing with medications can physically address those biological issues and shape the functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly known as SSRIs, block the reabsorption of serotonin, a neurotransmitter with many roles including regulating mood. The result is that serotonin is available in greater quantities, easing symptoms of disorders like anxiety or depression.

By continuing to spread and support the message that taking medication for psychological issues is something to be ashamed of, to be kept private, we ensure that mental illness remains an obstacle for many people, thereby dampening their quality of life. Beyond that, we are restricting conversations that people with mental illness can have about mental health when they are bounded by the thought that taking psychiatric medication is something they shouldn’t discuss.

One in every four young adults ranging from the age of 18 to 24 has a diagnosable mental illness. The leading cause for not seeking help? Stigma. Given how widespread this issue is, we need to normalize the use of psychiatric medication.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.