Here's How to Deal With Stigma Surrounding Antidepressants

September 19th 2015

If there’s one thing Americans don’t like to talk about, it’s mental health issues and the medications associated with them. There is, it seems, an unspoken rule that conversations surrounding antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications must only exist behind closed doors.

"The use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications has increased dramatically since the advent of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) in the late 1980s," explains Dina Nunziato, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Sarah Lawrence College. More than one in 10 Americans take antidepressants. In fact, antidepressants are the main type of medication used by people ages 18 to 44.

"The one in 10 number suggests that we, as a nation, are not as reluctant as we once were to turn to medication in addressing these issues," Nunziato reveals. "This is perhaps because SSRIs are considered much safer and with few side effects than older antidepressant mediations."

Forty million adults ages 18 and older—18 percent of the population—take anti-anxiety medication. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about a third of individuals with anxiety disorders are treated. "Ongoing education and conversations are needed to further de-stigmatize mental health issues," says Nunziato, “and research dollars are needed for the development of even more effective treatments.”

The stigma people face.

Despite the fact that so many Americans have anxiety disorder and depression—and are on SSRIs to treat them—there is still a great deal of stigma attached to mental health issues, and associated medication. A 2015 study from the RAND Corporation found that two-thirds of Californians polled for the survey would hide mental illness from friends or co-workers.

"These high levels of perceived stigma may discourage individuals facing a mental health challenge from getting needed support from friends and family, the workplace, school and mental health professionals," the lead author of the report, Eunice Wong, said in a statement.

The researchers polled 1,066 Californians "who had previously reported mild to serious psychological distress when they took part in the California Health Interview Survey, a statewide survey about a broad array of health issues," PsychCentral reported. Many of the respondents also reported facing discrimination due to mental health issues.

"I think so much of the stigma is that we have this association of illness as a physically visible thing—‘but you don’t look sick’—so people with mental illnesses are assumed to be exaggerating or faking,” believes Alex O.*, a New York City-based American Studies graduate student.

In terms of medication used to treat mental illness, there are a series of common myths associated with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. These myths can make people reluctant to openly discuss medication.

Miranda C., a 24-year-old New Hampshire native who suffers from anxiety and depression observes that "there’s something about America and that whole ‘lifting yourself up by your bootstraps’ stereotype … That you shouldn’t have to put a drug in your body to make you function in society, and that’s how I felt for the longest time. I was very hesitant to be on antidepressants because I didn’t want to be looked at differently."

“From my experience, there are a lot of patients who don’t recognize the symptoms in themselves as being part of a treatable disease, but rather a nuisance or just the hand they were dealt,” illustrates Eryn F., a fourth year medical student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

"And healthcare providers as well as patients often tiptoe around the subject or don't touch on it at all during routine health screenings,” she admits. “If your doctor doesn’t ask about it, people will be less likely to bring it up themselves. Healthcare providers are now being trained to ask those tougher questions and to screen even those patients who put on a happy face. When doctors don’t touch on it at all, that opportunity to destigmatize the topic by making it part of routine exams is missed.”

How to deal with stigma.

Some people have found ways to put distance between themselves and the stigma that is attached to their disease. Savannah D., a 30-year-old writer in Los Angeles has "a lot of friends who are comfortable talking openly about their anxiety and depression."

"Being able to chat about things like side effects and panic attacks helped me realize how common these issues are, and inspired me to be more open about my own," she continued.

“Depression and anxiety are mental health conditions which do not discriminate, yet those who are living with these conditions are often discriminated against," clarifies Carina Ahuja, Director of Advocacy and Program Development at the Presidential Women's Center. “We choose to counteract the damage done by stigma with a more powerful force, empathy. Empathy and understanding can go a long way in improving health outcomes and shifting attitudes."

*Last names have been omitted per request.

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