Why It’s Important to Destigmatize Medication for Mental Health
Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a recent survey found that almost 65 million Americans started taking medication for their mental health in 2021 to cope with the stress of this global pandemic. However, contrast those findings with another report from the Mental Health Million Project which reveals that 50 percent of those with clinical mental health issues have not sought out any treatment or medication.
There are several reasons for this, the study continues, such as barriers to treatment access, limited financial resources, lack of knowledge about the options available, or mistrust in the healthcare system as a whole. But for an estimated 25 percent of the survey respondents, fear of stigma played a major role in their decision not to seek help, while another 13 percent cited fear of medication itself as a main deterrent. This is not exactly surprising in a culture that all too often scoffs at the use of mental health medications, calling them “crazy pills” or attaching harmful labels to someone who actually needs a prescription.
Assumptions that Fuel Mental Health Medication Stigma
As Kathleen Rivera, MD, physiatrist at Nuvance Health in Connecticut, points out, “Many people consider psychiatric medications as ‘mind-altering or ‘mind-controlling.’ Many still believe that the goal of medication for mental illness is to ‘zombify’ the person taking it or to change who they are.” This narrative can fuel societal skepticism around mental health medications, which then causes some people to feel shame for being prescribed a tablet that could, in fact, help stabilize their condition. These individuals often face a hash choice: either deal with the stigma of medication or combat a mental illness without helpful intervention.
The reality is that, while mental health counseling can be enormously beneficial to promote internal healing, balance, and wellness, not everyone responds to the talk therapy format. Some people need more intensive help than a therapist can deliver in a 50-minute counseling session. Moreover, some psychiatric conditions are the result of biological or chemical imbalances in the brain, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which likely means the most effective treatment method will be to re-stabilize that brain chemistry with medication.
Change the Narrative Around Mental Health Medication
It’s an injustice for people to suffer the mental and emotional impacts of an untreated chemical imbalance due to an entrenched cultural bias, which continues to stigmatize the need for mental health medications. Imagine how much someone with clinical depression, anxiety, ADHD, post-traumatic stress, or another diagnosable mental illness could thrive if they were prescribed the right medication without any judgment or skepticism from the society around them. Their quality of life might increase drastically without that extra burden of stigma.
If the healthcare sector intentionally worked to normalize mental health medication dispensing in more physician offices, rather than forcing individuals to fill their script at a pharmacy that charges an exorbitant price, then medications for mental health could become more financially accessible. Likewise, if the mainstream culture at large made a consistent, sustainable effort to change the narrative around these medications from one tainted by stigma to one built on acceptance, then more people could start to feel empowered in their choice to seek out mental health treatment—whatever this means for them specifically.
Destigmatize Mental Health Medication in the COVID Era and Beyond
Circling back to the CDC statistic referenced earlier, if 65 million Americans have required some form of medication for their mental health in 2021, this begs the question: How many felt shame in filling those prescriptions, and how many more Americans could benefit from medication, but are too afraid of what others might think? This is why it’s so important to break the destructive cycle of stigma—both in this era of COVID-19 and well into the future.
No one deserves to carry the weight of false assumptions, skeptical comments, or overall lack of understanding as a result of the decision to care for their own mental health. If a person needs the help of medication to achieve balance and stability in their life, they ought to feel validation and empowerment to make that choice, rather than met with scorn for taking a “crazy pill.” For some individuals, non-pharmaceutical resources like counseling sessions, meditation practices, deep breathing exercises, and self-care rituals are enough to sustain mental health. But others require medication—and there should be no ounce of stigma in this at all.