Mental Health: Medication and their Misconceptions

Medicines for mental illnesses are, like every other aspects of the topic, really, really weird. When you have a headache, you take aspirin. Kind of a no-brainer there. But what about having mental illnesses? It’s not like you can just pop a pill and make depression disappear. Or is there?

Okay, I’m messing with you. There isn’t. At least, not entirely. It’s really complicated, but I’m going to try and explain how medication for mental illness works and what it’s like taking them.

(Disclaimer: I am not a trained medical professional. I am merely writing based on me personal experience and understanding of the drugs, and should you find yourself in need of medical treatment of the kind, do consult a licensed physician. You can tell this message is serious because it’s bolded, italicized, and underlined.)

My Experience

I’ve taken the following list of medications. Risperidone, lithium, quetiapine (autocorrect tried to change this to ‘unhappiness’), fluvoxamine, and one other old medication that I’ve forgotten the name of.

These medications all have their side effects, and lithium and that last medication were taken out entirely due to me having quite severe adverse reactions to them. And depending on the person, the reaction would differ in effect and severity.

For me, I found out that due to having taken very little drugs of any form throughout my life, I had a high ‘sensitivity’ to the medications. Effects takes hold faster for me, and the side effects more prominent.

For example, risperidone. I was told they were average to be taken at 2.5 mg a day by my doctor. However, I could only handle 0.25mg of it. Any more, and the side effects greatly affected my daily life. At first, I took about 1.5 mg a day, but I was so dizzy and nauseous throughout the time, I ended up being advised by my counsellor to discontinue it until I can see my doctor again. While taking it in 1.5mg, I vomited often and could barely walk straight, often tripping and falling on stairs.

Fluovoxamine did not have any of those side effects, and I took them for about 2 months in small dosage. But it did have other effects like affecting my cognitive process over a long periods. Simply put it, I was confused and slightly dumber after taking it for a while. It affected my work, and I was eventually waned off it.

These were the two drugs that had mild effects after the adjustment. Of the five that I took, only quetiapine I am still taking, but only as a sleep aid during bipolar manic insomnia. Even then, also in small dosages as that’s more than enough for it to kick in.

That last medication I mentioned was so bad that it affected my memory, which is part of the reason why I can’t fully remember it. Lithium on the other hand, was also terrible, but I can remember it clearly.

When I was first introduced to lithium, my doctor told me that there is a very, very slim chance that I might experience something called ‘erythema multiforme‘, which results in rashes on the skin that is potentially fatal. And this is really the gist of medications for mental illnesses. Even when they are supposed to help you, the adverse effects can sometimes be even worse, because we don’t really know what they do except that they sometimes help. Hearing your doctor tell you that you might die from the medicine meant to save your life is not very comforting.

Luckily, that reaction did not happen. But I was dizzy, confused, and suffered from short-term memory loss, which lead to an accident on the road. Though not as severe as the other medication. I also had more auditory hallucination, and was taken off it almost immediately.

Misconceptions

There are three common misconceptions on medications for mental illnesses.

One, people think it’s like taking painkillers or cough medicine. Fast working and almost one-size-fits-all. As you can tell from the above, that is not the case. Everyone’s medications are adjusted by trained psychiatrist, who unlike psychologist, specializes uniquely in the medication.  You could take as little as I do or ten times more than the normal dosage and get the same effects. Or, none at all. Or, potentially death.

It takes weeks and months to find a combination that works. And truth be told, my doctor said that it’s likely that the effects from my taking of risperidone were entirely placebo, as it was the first medication I took and anxiety and me researching on the medication could have caused the side effects. So yeah, placebo sometimes works better than the actual medication.

Second misconception is the thinking that taking medication would completely cure you. That is just nowhere near true. I was hesitant to go off medication, because I was not sure how bad I was at the time. Now though, I’m living only through with therapy and occasional help from quetiapine to sleep.

Doctors are often hesitant to completely cut off patients from drugs, since they can’t be sure they would go into a relapse. The thought process is usually set around the idea of controlling and preventing relapses than a cure. But ultimately, the decision to go off drugs are up to the individual, and I think most doctors, psychiatrist of psychologist, would continue supporting the patients through those choices.

And third and last, just because you are taking medications or not taking medications, doesn’t mean you’ll get better. At the end of the day, mental illness is a very personal battle, and medications can only help alleviate or lessen some of the damage.

When properly medicated, it can make the world of a difference in the fight, and it can feel like you’ve been equipped with a sword and shield when you were previously bare naked. But it does not change the fact that you are facing a dragon and that your condition might come back and bite you in the back again.

(Note: For more links on resources, blogs, or articles about mental health and services, visit the Links and Resources page.)

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5 thoughts on “Mental Health: Medication and their Misconceptions

  1. There really is no one clear solution or answer. I know some people on medication who have nearly no side effects, but I’ve heard some bad stories too. I guess it’s kind of a gamble and “seeing if it’s worth it”.

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  2. I know that medication is not an option for many people and, based on what a few of my close friends who have mental illnesses say – that the side effects of the medication out weighs the benefits. One of my friends who only had mild depression initially took medication where one of the potential side effects was suicidal thoughts and it would take up to 6 months to work so while taking it she went from mild/moderate to extreme depression in four months – and yes she started having suicidal thoughts so she had to come off, but she couldn’t go cold turkey, they had to basically reduce the dosage and give her a different drug to try and counteract the symptoms of suicidal thought while she was still taking the other and reducing her dosage and that one basically made her sick, she lost lots of weight because she couldn’t eat.

    As you say, that’s the thing with medication. Everyone reacts differently, it doesn’t work for everyone and in many cases you have to suffer for a while for the medication to take effect.

    I wish people would understand that mental illness is no less serious than any other illness but it’s not as simple to fix as many others. Some of the medication works for some people and doctors have no idea why. So when this friend I have spoken about is told ‘yeah but you could always just take medication, right? I mean there are all sorts of pills you can take’ she gets really upset and it makes me angry how people can be so narrow minded.

    This entry has been insightful, as always.

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    • That’s pretty much what it’s like, what your friend went through. Hope she’s better now. I find a simple explanation to people who don’t understand the medication to be the best. There’s no point getting angry, because once you do, the chance to educate is gone.

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      • Exactly. It all comes down to education. I honestly think awareness should be taught in schools and in the workplace. After all at work you normally have things like sexual harassment courses and appropriate work behaviour – why not understanding this? And if we start it young, children and young adults will grow up and understand this vital information about their health.

        I try not to get angry, I’m generally a peaceful person but sometimes I think the frustration gets to me.

        My friend is fine now, this was some time ago and she swears by therapy. Luckily she has found a fantastic therapist who gives her regular activities and coping methods that work for her and she has a daily light exercise regime to help get things under control.

        As I say my understanding is not personal as such as I have never suffered any mental illness myself but I have many close friends who do – friends who are like family to me, so sometimes things do seem personal.

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