Despite the number of people experiencing mental health issues, medication still remains shrouded in stigma. According to “Clinical Psychopharmacology for Neurologists: A Practical Guide,” antidepressants are medications that can help relieve symptoms of depression, social anxiety disorder, anxiety disorders, seasonal affective disorder, dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder) and many other conditions. Like many people, my decision to go on antidepressants was incredibly personal and complex. Even after I decided that antidepressants were something that could help me, I remained self-conscious. Despite the fact antidepressants are one of the top-ten prescribed drugs in Oregon, there is still a lot of harmful misinformation and stigma around them.
For example, there is a stigma that taking antidepressants will take away your “sparkle” and your personality. It is not surprising that the fear of being prescribed antidepressants is the leading reason why symptoms of depression go underreported by patients. Additionally, those who suffer from moderate to severe depressive symptoms are unlikely to ask for help.
When I was first considering taking antidepressants, I was told by friends and family that I should go on long walks instead to achieve the same results. These comments always sucked to hear. They made me feel as though I should keep my mental health struggles to myself, tucked away, only for long walks. In addition to invalidating my feelings, it showed a bias against medication.
There is also a misconception that patients need to see a psychiatrist to be prescribed antidepressants. Most primary care physicians are also trained to deal with depression and you can get a prescription from them.
Antidepressants are categorized into seven different groups based on how they operate. There are differences between antidepressants in terms of how long they remain in the body, how they are metabolized and how much they interact with other medications. The most well-known prescription is Prozac (fluoxetine) which is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant.
Doctors tend to start patients on lower doses of medicine to see how their bodies will react and adjust from there. It can take a while to find which medicine can work and some people have to switch a few times until they find a good fit. It is pretty common to hear that the first few weeks of antidepressants have the worst side effects. With that in mind, I purposely chose to start taking them over winter break when I would not have to worry about school or having to interact with people. There are wildly long lists of side effects and everyone’s bodies react differently when new chemicals are being introduced to it. For me, I had an increase in anxiety. I went from having the occasional panic attack to having them almost daily.
I cannot pinpoint when I started to feel better. It was a very gradual process. Somewhere after three weeks, I started falling asleep on my own and was able to manage the side effects of the medicine. And, somewhere down the line, my depression became easier to handle. One of the key moments when I realized the antidepressants were helping was when I began to genuinely laugh again. It was very disconcerting to realize how long I had gone without being able to do that.
A year ago, I was so afraid of the stigma of antidepressants that I thought the only way out was to wait until I felt better. I am not here to sell you on medicine, or tell you that this is the only way to get happy or that I am never sad and I barf rainbows and blah, blah, blah. I am also not here to force-feed you a classic “things will get better” platitude. I know that, personally, I became a lot less self-conscious about taking antidepressants when I knew there were other people around me going through similar things. I hope hearing about my experience reassures you that you do not have to keep your mental health struggles to yourself, tucked away, only for long walks.