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OPINION

'Pills Are Pills': Lake Area Student's Perspectives On Mental Illness & Stigma

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Child Sitting Alone Under A Tree

During the 2019-2020 debate season, I performed a self-written speech about the stigma around anxiety medication, inspired by my own experiences and observations. I was cut short of an opportunity to compete with my story at a national-qualifying district tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless, messages need to be shared, stories must be told, and treatment of mental health must persist. Like everything since March, the message has taken on a new meaning. For many, this situation may serve as the peak of their anxiety, which is why after all these months, I have decided to go through with the publication of my story. Before you begin, I ask that you clear your mind of all judgement and predisposition towards mental health. I hope that when you turn the page, you walk out with understanding and an open mind. 

This is “Pills Are Pills.” 

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Eat some vegetables. Drink more water. Join a gym. Do yoga. Spend more time with friends. It will make your anxiety and your depression disappear because you fixed your life.

There are all things that the people who take medication have heard or been told at some point. If things could just change everything internally and externally, everything would be better. It can’t be that hard.

For two years, I have witnessed a family member take medication for an anxiety disorder. What is an anxiety disorder? According to the American Psychiatric Association, an anxiety disorder is defined as differing from “normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness, and involves excessive fear or anxiety.” Personal accounts of seeking out help generally come with a common thread: The fear of reaching out and acknowledging the issue. What creates this issue is a subconscious, ongoing stigma that the general population has an overwhelming tendency to influence and ignore. By not accepting that people struggle with mental health issues, we push those that are struggling away from finding a personal solution.

An anonymous writer for the National Alliance of Mental Health said it best, writing “Shame kept me silent for a long time until the walls that concealed my secret finally crumbled under the weight it carried.” Today, join me into the chaotic world of anxiety disorders, and let’s look together at what is the societal stigma that surrounds being medicated for anxiety disorders; second, what harms does the stigma create for medicated individuals, and finally, how do we as a society abolish the stigma. 

What exactly is the stigma in question? I can speak on account of my loved one that there is an overwhelming feeling of shame and fear over reaching out for professional help. According to NBC News, "Overall, 16.7 percent of 242 million U.S. adults reported filling one or more prescriptions for psychiatric drugs in 2013.” Depression and anxiety are rooted in a chemical imbalance in the brain.

According to Healthline, “The most common evidence used to support the chemical imbalance theory is the effectiveness of antidepressant medications. These medications work by increasing the amounts of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain.” Since this all takes place in the brain, it is generally labeled a mental illness. Let’s focus on that word for a moment. Visualize with me. Mental illness. What does that make you think of? Hospitals? Facilities? White rooms? “Crazy” people? Be honest with yourself, because that’s what I saw in my head when I first heard the term all those years ago. That’s why it was such a challenge for me to understand how that could be the experience of someone I loved. 

What exactly did my loved one go through to become aware of their mental illness? Journey back in time with me to when you were seven years old-It was a fun age, right? Were you obsessing over barbie dolls or baseball or other fun toys and activities? When they were seven, they were obsessing over what exactly was wrong with them that everyone seemed so freaked out about, with these odd “mental disorders” and whatnot. They ended up being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Throughout their life, their OCD has varied. Pieces of it were obsessing over material items, other pieces were obsessing over social expectations, and other pieces were over themself. And when they talk about themselves, they don’t mean it in a self-absorbed manner. It wasn’t about appearance, if they were better than other people, had higher test scores, fancier things, etc. It was about all of the adults in their home environment telling them they had a disorder that they needed to get a cap on or it would hinder many pieces of their life. But they were only seven years old and didn’t have the mental capacity to understand what a disorder was, let alone fix it.

A second problem that creates the stigma: Excuses. VICE’s Maria Yagoda said it best, writing “The not-so-sub subtext is: Your depression is a fad. And if you’re medicated or depressed or whatever, your problems aren’t medical – they are cultural, and can be surmounted if you just put your mind to it.” Everybody hates to listen to excuses, but per human nature, we’re going to make them at some point. What is the most common that applies to this situation? “You’re being a teenager, you’re just moody, it’s temporary, it’s just a phase, you’ll be fine.” Everyone hates to listen to excuses, but when it comes to mental health issues within our family, our friend groups, our community, or even ourselves, we have an excuse prepared as to why we or they are not actually struggling. This creates an environment where those that are struggling have to run from the problem and avoid confronting it, which could be very detrimental to their long-term mental health. 

What exactly does this stigma create? According to Verywellmind, many that struggle with general anxiety disorders generally face the barrier that if they were to confide in anyone about their issue at hand, they could have serious social or professional repercussions. What may not be evident to people is that those suffering from anxiety and depression don’t need to be tip-toed around. That creates an unrealistic environment, and no one can thrive in an unrealistic environment. What we can do is take miniature steps to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We make sure that we, personally, don’t provide any of the social and professional repercussions that can very easily be a concern. 

Let’s look back at VICE’s Maria Yagoda. Yagoda, who is openly medicated for anxiety and depression, gave a very compelling story. While using a taxi service, she was asked by her driver about her profession. When she answered that she writes about mental health, she was “corrected.” According to the taxi driver, the rise in depression diagnoses is caused by the chemicals in tap water, so you don’t need medication to treat the issue-just use essential oils to get rid of those nitty-gritty toxins coursing through your bloodstream! You may think to yourself “Ty, this is one ignorant person, but it doesn’t represent an entire society and an entire community of people.” On the contrary, I believe this leads us to the question: How was this problem created?

How did we get here? I spoke in the earlier half of my speech about the origin of the stigma. We ignored the growing problem that it grew into something unfathomable. What would an example be? A woman being lectured by a taxi driver that she doesn’t struggle with mental health issues and she needs to flash her entire life‘s work of researching and writing about mental health down the drain, as she isn’t actually struggling with a mental illness. At the same time, my family member, like Yagoda, doesn’t have an issue speaking about their struggle. As far as they and myself are concerned, it’s no different than someone taking a pill for sleep.

Pills are pills, and they serve their individual purposes in the medical field. They were told that they shouldn’t tell people so they don’t think differently of them, so that they’re not mocked, and it’s not anyone else’s business anyway. As I’ve proven with the basis of this entire essay, no one needs to be thought of differently because they take medicine for a common issue, they don’t need to be mocked over their medical history, because that’s cruel on every level, and it isn’t anyone’s business, but if someone feels it’s appropriate to share, they shouldn’t be ashamed.

This brings us to the ultimate question “What is the solution?” I don’t have a solution for you, at least not a concrete one. I cannot responsibly stand here and tell you that every situation involving anxiety and depression should be treated medically or psychiatrically, and I cannot responsibly say the opposite. What I ask is that we enact the baby steps I spoke of earlier when covering general anxiety disorders. We need to take the baby steps whenever we see appropriate to try and combat this stigma. I also want to leave you with this: If it’s hard for you to think about somebody you love struggling with mental health issues, it’s even harder for the person that’s struggling first hand. 

To reflect on our topic: Eating vegetables, doing yoga, joining gyms, and finding other leisure hobbies is not a solution for mental illness. I have covered the stigma around anxiety medication, what creates the stigma, what the stigma itself creates, and discussed solutions.

For parents: Please allow your home to be a safe and judgment-free environment to discuss mental health. Make it clear that all social factors fell at the door and your only focus is finding your child help. I’d also like to suggest to any educators that are reading: If you spot any at-risk behavior, please look into Red Flag reports at your campus. I also ask that you remember this: If it’s hard for you to think about somebody you love struggling, it’s even harder for the person that has the true struggle.

Pills are pills, as I stated earlier, as medicine is medicine, and everyone takes medicine. Anxiety medication is common medication, and no one needs to be thought of differently because they take anxiety or depression medication. Anxiety medication is common medication, and taking it is a non-issue. Therefore, we must do everything we can as a society and as individuals to help break the stigma around anxiety medication. 

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