Medication & Mental illness – Stigma & Shame

Medication is an important part of my treatment as a person who has been diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder (Rapid Cycling) for the past six years. It is a large part of my mental health treatment, but it is not the only part. This is an important differentiation to make.

I was diagnosed for six months before I ever took my first pill for my mental illness, despite the recommendations of my treating psychiatrist at the time. This was partly due to my own stigma and ignorance about medication, and also because I was afraid that if I started taking medication it would make my mental illness more “real”, if that makes sense.

Here’s a rough train of thought from back then when I was dealing with the decision to start drug treatment or not for my bipolar disorder:

  • Stigma and shame: Negative biases that medication was bad, the false attitude that only “psychotic lunatics” needed to take medication like this, that people who took medication for their emotions were weak or deficient or somehow less of a person.
  • Denial: I thought my symptoms were all in my mind; that my erratic mood swings, changes in energy, and impaired ability to function were just a matter of needing to “suck it up” or “try harder” at life. I also held on to the possibility that I had been misdiagnosed and that I was just having a rough time in life that just happened to last years. -_-“
  • Fear of judgement: I didn’t want to be that person that had a “mental problem”. I could imagine how negatively my family, friends, or coworkers would react. I didn’t want to be labelled or discriminated against. I felt alone and without support.
  • Tunnel vision: I couldn’t see how medication would actually help me in my situation because I was so focused on the severity of my symptoms at the time. I couldn’t see how just taking a few tablets would benefit me by changing the chemistry in my brain and body, although at the time I didn’t take into account the regular psychiatric therapy that would be a part of my treatment.
  • Fear of change: I had been experiencing such severe symptoms of bipolar disorder for so long that I felt taking medication would in some way change me; that I would lose a part of myself or become a zombie and numb to my emotions.

There are some people who can manage without medication, and that’s fine.

You do what is right for you and your body.

But not everyone with mental illness can manage their illness without medication.

Medication is not a choice. I think this is a common misnomer. For many of us experiencing mental illness, you cannot simply will yourself to be better. Believe me, I am sure we have all tried. For many of us, medication is a necessity of life to balance the chemicals in our brain. It is a form of medical treatment that is effective, but not without its side effects. Also, it is easy to forget that medication always goes hand-in-hand with varying psychiatric therapies to help manage the symptoms of the mental illness. Unfortunately, it isn’t about popping some pills and suddenly you’re happy. It’s about balancing the chemicals in your brain with drugs if needed, addressing psychological therapies to improve your symptoms and decrease side effects, and then creating wellbeing plans and mood monitoring to maintain the best mental health you can have.

I’ve had well-meaning friends tell me that I don’t need medication. They inadvertently perpetuate the stigma against mental health and propagate the myth that medication is something to be ashamed about. There is no shame in taking medication for your illness, just as a diabetic or someone with high cholesterol takes medication to help manage their illnesses.

We have to ask ourselves though, why isn’t there the same stigma for those who use an inhaler for their asthma, or inject daily to control their insulin levels, or even take a paracetamol tablet for their headaches?

Can I call you weak for wanting to take a pain killer for your sprained ankle?

Why is it therefore,”weak” for those of us experiencing the invisible struggles of mental illness to also take medication?

Think about it and then justify it to yourself.

It doesn’t make you weak to take medication for your mental illness; it makes you stronger for making the choice to do so and choosing to improve your mental health.

It takes a brave soul to admit that there is a real struggle inside and to then consciously choose to want better for themselves; to take steps to be a better version of themselves. It takes strength that only others who have had to make these choices can truly understand.

Find the right doctor that you can connect with and make the conscious decision to be better by finding the right treatment for you, whether that includes drug treatment or not. It might take a lot of trial and error to find the right doctor, the right medication, the right combination of medications, or the right psychological therapies, but a healthy mind is worth the pursuit.

Make the intentional and conscious choice to become mentally well and a better version of yourself. Once you’ve made that decision, I promise you will never look back.

*Bro fist*

Thanks for reading.

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1 Comment

  1. It can make you strong taking medication and maybe after a time you won’t need it or you might need it the rest of your days and that’s fine. What I don’t like is ‘some’ high functioning bipolar individuals think there superior than ‘us’ because they do not take meds and can work I commend them but we are all one group – people who have bipolar x


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