The Wellness Industry Is Sneaking Medication Stigma Back Into Our Lives — Here's How to Fight It.

Earlier this year, a study came out suggesting that SSRIs — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the most commonly prescribed form of antidepressants — can cause “emotional blunting.” Those of us on Twitter who take mental health medication knew exactly what would come after. My feed quickly filled up with “hot takes” on how this was further proof that antidepressants ruined your life and stole your personality, how exercise and fresh air were the only real antidepressants you needed, and how Big Pharma was just trying to prescribe us all to death. I’ve read and heard takes like this all my life, and still — despite over a decade of antidepressants transforming my mental health, despite the countless other treatment methods I’ve tried — it’s hard not to feel affected. In the face of hundreds of strangers telling me that medication is my “crutch,” that I would feel better if I just picked up running, I struggle to remember that my personal life experience proves those opinions wrong.

The most recent national survey on antidepressant use in America found that, between 2015 and 2018, 13.8 percent of American adults took some form of antidepressant medication: that’s over 1 in 8 people, and that number only went up during the pandemic. Despite this staggering prevalence, the stigma attached to mental health medication is still alive and well — and dangerous. Every day, the stigma convinces people who have gotten lifesaving help from mental health medication that they would be better off without it, and it doesn’t just come from strangers on Twitter: it comes from family, friends, and even therapists. I expected things to improve in my lifetime, but the all-encompassing wellness and self-care industry that’s spent the past decade swinging into view has ushered in a renaissance of people claiming that antidepressants are just too unnatural to really be good for you, and, given how much these opinions make me doubt myself, I’m concerned for everyone out there in my position.

I suffer from major depressive disorder, and I’ve gone off my antidepressant medication multiple times in the last decade. Not because it wasn’t working, but because I went into periods of intense anxiety that I would never be able to quit it entirely, that my depression wasn’t really cured if stopping my medicine made it come back, or that I was “reliant” on too many things to get me through my day. On one occasion when I went back on my antidepressant, I quit coffee as a kind of peace offering to that inner critic: There. One less substance that I required daily.

When I go off my antidepressants, I’m doing absolutely every that anti-medication people recommend and then some. I resent having to list it all out, but in short, I am exercising, eating whole foods, taking mood-boosting supplements, getting daily sunlight, meditating, going to therapy, journaling, sleeping eight hours, practicing gratitude, and spending time with loved ones. It’s like trying to stop a flood with the palm of my hand. All of those things may be good for one’s mental health, but when it comes to certain forms of mental illness, they are not adequate treatment.

Anti-antidepressant people will argue that medication is a quick fix for problems only “real work” will solve, ignoring the fact that many, many people with mental illness have tried to do that work and found it insufficient. As a self-proclaimed “rogue therapist” recently wrote on Twitter, “SSRIs don’t replace meaningful relationships, nutrition, exercise, sunlight, fulfilling hobbies, valuable work, meditation…SSRI or no SSRI, you have to do the real work yourself.” I recently saw a new mental health provider who echoed the same stance: “Medication is a Band-Aid,” she told me. “Therapy is where the real work happens.”

When I’m faced with language like this, I have to actively remind myself that I’ve done all of that real work — and, for me, it still wasn’t enough to keep my depression at bay. I struggle not to feel like if I’d only worked harder, maybe exercised three times a day instead of two, or meditated for an hour daily, I might have been able to do it. But that kind of thinking gets me nowhere: or, more precisely, it gets me off my meds and spending six hours a day on the self-care necessary for me not to want to kill myself, and even then, it’s often not enough.

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