home Commentary, Culture, Society 5 ways you stigmatise people taking psychiatric drugs

5 ways you stigmatise people taking psychiatric drugs


Medications for people with mental health problems have been around for decades, with many new and improved versions tested and introduced over the years. And, with one in four people experiencing mental ill-health in any given year, these meds can be a valuable – in fact, an essential – tool in the management of depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia and other conditions that cause people mental distress.

However, these drugs are not perfect. Many people have to try a few before they find one that suits them, or will need a combination to get optimum results. They have side effects, like any medication, and some people find these unbearable. Yet they are ultimately life savers.

Not that you’d think so if you believed some of the very prevalent myths that abound.

1. Psychiatric meds turn people into zombies and change your personality

While it is true that some psych meds can be sedating, the strongest side effects tend to be short lived and pass within a few weeks. In fact, some people take these drugs for the sedating qualities and, if you find them unpleasant, it is time to talk to your doctor to consider a change of dose or a change of medication.

The idea that taking a medication will change your personality really gives too much power to these small pills. You are still you, regardless of the medication you take, and your core personality is here to stay.

2. Psychiatric meds are a ‘crutch’

This misconception relies on the idea that using a crutch is somehow a bad thing. I walk with an elbow crutch or two; without them, I can’t get very far. This makes my crutches a freeing and essential part of my life. They are not a negative coping mechanism.

Similarly, if psychiatric drugs help somebody to cope, that makes them a good thing. If they help to lift somebody out of a deep depression or quiet down distressing voices that other people can’t hear, then hurrah. Good for them.

3. Antidepressants are ‘happy pills’

While this would be wonderful in many ways, it is not true. If you give an antidepressant to somebody who is mentally well, they won’t suddenly feel overjoyed. Antidepressants correct a problem, they are not a hedonistic lifestyle choice.

4. The problem comes back if you stop taking them, so they’re pointless

Some people report that they take psychiatric medication for a while and, when they start to feel better, they stop taking it and their symptoms return.

The general medical consensus is that this happens either when somebody has not taken the meds for long enough to really get settled, or that it happens to people who would have episodic mental health problems in the long-term anyway. Just like stopping taking painkillers might mean pain comes back, and stopping taking insulin might mean blood sugar problems come back, for some people, taking psych meds is best done in the long term.

This is just the nature of mental ill-health; short-term medications will not have a long-term impact, especially if they are not combined with other forms of support.

5. Antidepressants make people violent

This week, the BBC aired a documentary about whether antidepressants could lead to murder. As well as playing into dangerously stigmatising misconceptions that people with mental health problems are violent (when, in reality, we are far more likely to experience violence than commit it), the programme also looked at whether the SSRI category of antidepressant could be particularly culpable when violent crimes are committed.

The documentary, called Panorama, looked at the shooting in the cinema in Aurora in the US, positing that the sertraline that James Holmes had been prescribed 17 weeks earlier could be responsible for his killings.

This is despite the fact that even his own defence team rejected that as a justification during his trial. Plus, he wasn’t even taking the medication when the shooting occurred and, prior to starting on sertraline, Holmes had already expressed thoughts of violence to his psychiatrist.

This can only lead to the conclusion that the Holmes / Aurora case was as messy and lacking in clarity as any such major, complex case. To make a reductive argument about the medication he had been taking is irresponsible and inaccurate.

The sensationalised and misleading documentary prompted the Royal College of Psychiatrists to tweet a reminder that “Antidepressants save lives. There is no evidence of causal relationship between SSRIs & murder”.

The danger of these claims

When I was a teenager, a contraceptive pill ‘scare’ led to many people stopping taking their contraception and a resulting boost in unplanned pregnancies. Similarly, the misconceptions above can lead to people stopping taking their essential medications and risk withdrawal symptoms and a recurrence of their original problem, for no other reason than misinformation.

Challenging the myths, on the other hand, leads to a more accepting society where people can talk openly about their problems and the steps they are taking to improve their wellbeing.

Photo: wackystuff/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.