“They’ve changed my life”: Why we need to destigmatise antidepressants

Rebecca Brown 3 June 2021

In this personal essay, Rebecca Brown explains why we need to lose the stigma around antidepressants in the bid for better mental health

I struggled with my mental health for years before I finally made the decision to start taking antidepressants. Prior to this, I’d been offered them numerous times by doctors (usually when my psychological symptoms had manifested physically) but I’d always refused, insisting that I could cope, or that I’d put myself on yet another waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy instead. In my mind, antidepressants were the last resort. I felt like I should wait until I was at my absolute limit—when I categorically could not go on—until I gave in and took them.

"In my mind, antidepressants were the last resort"

I was staying at my parent’s house when I reached my breaking point. At the time, I was dealing with crippling OCD and became obsessed with the idea that I might be thrown in prison, despite not being able to pinpoint what I’d done wrong. One morning, I mistook the sound of a neighbour's lawn mower for a helicopter and assumed the police were hovering above the garden, waiting to arrest me. Soon after that, my mum, who was alarmed at my behaviour, suggested it might be time I considered medication. At first, I thought she was overreacting. I’d been anxious for years and I’d got this far without it, so why would I take it now?

However, a week after our conversation, I found myself in a dangerously dark place. My brain was determined to convince me that I was a terrible person and bombarded me with intrusive thoughts until I could no longer argue with it. I tried everything to quieten my mind—exercising, sleeping, deep breathing—but nothing worked. I was mentally and physically exhausted. All I wanted was to escape my thoughts, even if that meant no longer existing. I realised that I’d reached the finish line; I couldn’t go any further without trying medication.

"I tried everything to quieten my mind—exercising, sleeping, deep breathing—but nothing worked"

I phoned my GP, who asked me a series of questions, before prescribing me 50mg of the antidepressant, sertraline. For three weeks, the tablets sat untouched on my kitchen counter, before I finally brought myself to take one. Even though my emotional wellbeing was at rock bottom, I was still questioning whether taking medication was the right thing to do and whether I could get by without it. It was only then, as I talked myself out of taking the tablets day after day, that I realised just how strong my aversion to antidepressants was.

Stock antidepressant tablets

To be honest, I felt weak for needing medication. I felt as though I should have been able to pull myself out of that dark place and I wondered what it said about me that I couldn’t. My mental health condition also suddenly seemed very real, despite the fact I’d been aware of it for years and I’d even had therapy in the past. I think that accepting medical treatment somehow felt like I was being officially labelled as “mentally ill” and I was worried that this would lead people to make judgements about me, such as that I was mad or incapable.

"Antidepressants aren’t a cowardly choice, they’re a medical—often life-saving—necessity"

Clearly, I’m an advocate for antidepressants; they’ve changed my life and I don’t know where I’d be without them. However, I feel that it’s important to acknowledge they’re not for everyone and there are potential side effects. Personally, I’ve experienced night sweats and headaches since taking them and I’m aware that coming off them can be difficult, too. So far though, I’ve found that the positives have outweighed the negatives. I should also mention that antidepressants aren’t the only form of treatment that’s helped me to manage my mental health. I’ve previously found intensive CBT immensely useful, however, I was on an NHS waiting list for five months before I could have it. This time around, I couldn’t have waited that long.

Dave Smithson, Operations Director at Anxiety UK emphasises that choice is very important when it comes to treatment of mental health conditions. “We know some people don’t respond to medication and some people don’t respond to therapy. It’s about finding the right treatment pathways and it can be frustrating sometimes because you can be on two or three types of treatment before you find the right one that suits you,” says Dave. “That could be down to a multitude of things, like CBT is very work-focused and there’s often lots of homework to do between sessions. Some people just don’t like that approach, they don’t find it works.”

Illustration of man with depression

Whether it’s therapy, medication, or something entirely different, you should never feel as though you can’t seek treatment for your mental health due to the stigma associated with it. I see now that I avoided taking antidepressants for so long because I’d actually internalised the stigma. Despite realising and working through this, my fears about being judged still haven’t completely disappeared. While writing this article I kept worrying that a future employer might read it and choose not to hire me, or that a friend might think I’m attention-seeking. However, I know that in order to eliminate stigma, people have to speak out about their experiences.

It took me a while, but I’ve learnt that there’s no shame in choosing antidepressants. Taking medication doesn’t mean that you’re weak, or that you’ve failed yourself in some way. It usually means that you’re taking control of your mental health because you want to enjoy your life, and if anything, there’s strength and courage in that decision. That’s what I’m telling myself now, anyway.

If you're struggling with your mental health you can access mental health services here.

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