26 November 2021

It’s OK to take medication for your mental health

By

The first few days – even the first couple of weeks – were quite a ride. After months on an emotional rollercoaster, the initial 48 hours after starting antidepressants was an endless run of loop the loops. Like an electrocardiogram springing into the extremes of cardiac arrest, the ups and downs became more violent and unexpected – a formless dread that was less attached to negative thoughts or worries.

Then came the nausea and disorientation. Then the feeling that the senses and the nerves detecting them had become somehow detached, the mind forever one step behind the flesh and blood.

Then came … feeling … kind of … OK. The feeling that after weeks of being unsure how to face it, I might, after all, be able to go back to work. That feeling became a quiet confidence, then a puzzlement as to how I could have seen the job as such an insurmountable challenge. After that, I started feeling good – better than ever, in fact.

There was a mixture of factors that got me through the mental health crisis that crept up in silence over months then ambushed me last summer. But I’m certain the medication was a vital factor. So I was concerned about a recent decision by the clinical watchdog NICE to issue new guidance to the NHS suggesting adults with mild depression should be offered talking therapies, group exercise and mindfulness in the first instance, instead of medication.

There is still a stigma around mental health that needs to be broken. But likewise, the stigma around taking medication for it where appropriate needs to be fought too.

Some people are afraid of what it might do to them, as if it could send them reeling into madness, never to return. Others feel shame at the prospect of taking drugs to control their emotions, or a sense that negative feelings should be manageable through sheer will.

I’m no expert and this is just a personal opinion based on experience, but I believe the best way to treat mental ill health is to throw everything at it: daily exercise and meditation, cutting out alcohol and eating a good diet, talking therapies including CBT and, if it works for people, medication.

Putting the drugs into a separate box – as if they’re somehow undesirable – won’t help reduce the stigma against them. NICE argues that the side effects and withdrawal from taking pills for mild depression can outweigh the benefits – which can be true for some people.

But people take drugs with side effects and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms to get through physical health issues, some for their entire lifetimes, without the same stigma following them around. Drugs to treat physical conditions are held up as paragons of medical science, while antidepressants are treated with scepticism.

It’s little surprise mental health drugs are being prescribed more often when talking therapies on the NHS have endless waiting lists, with the result often being some group CBT sessions that (at least when I tried them more than a decade ago) weren’t up to much.

The good news for those unable to go private is that CBT is doable at home with books or the internet, while meditation and exercise can be done for nothing too. The medication, and more in-depth therapies that some will no doubt need, are the bits people cannot do without the help of professionals.

People have different needs. But medication has not just helped me through a mental health crisis, it’s left me feeling happier and more confident than I ever remember feeling. I spend less time trapped in negative mental chatter and worries, and feel able to perform better for work on the spot or with a reasonable amount of prep – rather than time-consuming hours that would bleed into the rest of my life. Of course, I exercise and meditate too, anything I can to try to stay healthy.

Others, even with mild mental health issues, might find medication offers a much better quality of life that didn’t seem possible before.

Either way, poor mental health can shorten life expectancies and (in the worst cases) kill people suddenly when they take their own lives. Medication can help prevent that, so fighting the stigma against it might help too.

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Emilio Casalicchio is a journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.