The Stigma Associated With Mental Illness and Antidepressants

The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s easy to talk about the good, but when it comes to having real conversations about mental health, it’s sometimes an uphill battle.

We see so much about mental well-being, services, and hotlines available for those in need. In fact, it’s almost expected for schools and workplaces to promote the support they have in place to promote positive mental health. However, when it comes time to confront these topics (eg, specific experiences, disorders, challenges), as well as therapies and antidepressants available, it’s as though the room goes quiet and the conversation slowly, but surely, comes to an awkward halt.

There is a stigma associated with psychiatric illnesses and antidepressants. Additionally, there are also varying severities of stigma associated with specific psychiatric disorders (eg, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder). Accordingly, this stigma creates an undesirable characterization of this population contributing to feelings of despondency, low self-esteem, as well as difficulty and delay in identifying and seeking help.

It is also commonly misunderstood that changes to lifestyle and routine (eg, exercise, diet) are enough to treat mental illness — the “I can fix it on my own attitude.” As such, it is a misconception that using medications (ie, antidepressants) are indicative of a lack of effort. Indeed, lifestyle changes may help improve health, but depending on the severity and type of illness, medication may be an essential factor to improvement.

Additionally, it is commonly misunderstood that antidepressants are a one-stop shop to “fix” mental illness. Antidepressants are not a one-size-fits-all, and in fact, it is not uncommon to try several different kinds of antidepressants, or combination of antidepressants and/or adjunctive therapies, as well as coping with side effects, before identifying the right fit. In other words, there isn’t necessarily a perfect equation for figuring out what works best. It is also important to recognize the potential influence of culture in mental health. There are different levels of acceptance across populations as it relates to mental illnesses, as well as pharmacologic treatments and psychotherapeutic interventions.

There shouldn’t be shame or devaluation associated with mental illness and/or being on medication to treat it, nor should there be negative attitudes toward relapse. If someone were taking medication for high blood pressure, would you harbor the same attitudes towards this individual vs someone taking antidepressants for a mood disorder? Why should it be any different for mood disorders?

While antidepressants can help improve mood, they are also not magic pills that induce a state of euphoria. It’s important to have the appropriate systems in place to foster support and well-being, as continuous ill attitudes toward this topic will continue to instantiate a cycle of poor support systems and censorship of meaningful conversations and interactions.

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About Leanna Lui

Leanna MW Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.

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