Unjustified prejudice hinders treatment of depression

Mental illnesses are already horrendously stigmatised. Photo: Getty Images
Mental illnesses are already horrendously stigmatised. Photo: Getty Images
Every morning, shortly after waking, I carefully press out two yellow and green pills from their silver foil and pop them in my mouth. I swallow them with a mouthful of coffee, and then go about my day.

Fluoxetine, also known as Prozac and Sarafem, is an antidepressant, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

In very basic terms, Fluoxetine prevents certain nerve cells from sucking up all the juicy little neurotransmitters (serotonin) that keep me feeling happy and normal. It is used to treat major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, panic disorder and bulimia nervosa, among other conditions. Thanks to these daily pills, I am able to keep on top of my depression and anxiety.

But there are many people who take umbrage at the fact I use medication to help balance the chemicals in my brain.

There are those who would say I'm just looking for a ''quick fix'' for my depression, or that I'm ''addicted'' to these pills, and that I'm too lazy to work through my mental health issues. Social media is replete with these toxic and damaging messages. You only have to scroll through Instagram to see brightly coloured pictures of mountains and forests overlaid with the words ''this is the only medication you need''.

Well, good on those people who can miraculously cure their mental health issues with a simple stroll through the botanic gardens. For other people, it isn't so easy.

When I was 18, a gangly awkward teenager fresh out of home, I began to suffer from severe insomnia, anxiety and depression. I was already struggling with a pretty pernicious eating disorder, and I was swiftly spiralling downwards into utter misery. I remember sobbing on the phone to my parents, asking them for help, for advice, for any snippet of information that might offer some hope from this despair.

And my parents were kind and consoling, except what they offered - prayer, church visits, and bible readings - didn't help. I floated the idea of trying antidepressants past them; at this point I had been diagnosed with clinical depression and my doctor had recommended I try Fluoxetine. They were worried I would get ''addicted''. They thought that taking medication was ''unnatural'' and unnecessary. I didn't go on medication. Things got worse.

Yet a year earlier, when I had tumbled out of a tree and snapped both my tibia and my fibula in my right leg, my parents didn't have a problem with me being prescribed tramadol and morphine for the pain. These medications were arguably more addictive than simple SSRIs, but the fact that they helped my physical pain meant my parents didn't blink an eye.

Mental illnesses are already horrendously stigmatised. The demonisation of antidepressants only adds to this stress and prevents people from accessing the help they so desperately need. I've found that the consequences of untreated depression or anxiety are much worse than the negligible side effects of my antidepressants. I weighed the costs and benefits and found that I was much better off on Fluoxetine. Obviously, this won't be the case for everyone, but those taking antidepressants shouldn't be shamed for doing so.

No two people are the same; no two brains are either, and neither are any two diagnoses. Depression results from a combination of genetic, environmental, biological and psychological factors. An individual's treatment plan ought to take this into consideration, and will often involve antidepressants. The stigma that depressed people don't need medication is a highly dangerous one. It prevents people from seeking the mental healthcare they need.

Depression is more complex than just ''feeling sad''. Consequently, it cannot be ''fixed'' by walking through a forest, or wafting fragrant doTERRA under one's nose. Neither crystal therapies nor yoga ''cured'' my depression. But by maintaining a careful balance of exercise, relying on friends and family, meeting with a psychologist, and taking antidepressants daily, I am able to stay alive, and relatively healthy.

Moreover, medication does not have to be taken indefinitely. Often, antidepressants can be a kickstarter of sorts, a facilitator for the healing process. Antidepressants can help one get one's life in order, and help one engage in productive behavioural activities such as exercise and counselling.

In many cases, the risks of side effects from medication can be minimised. It's reasonable to be wary of starting new medications, but psychiatrists and doctors are aware of the risks and benefits of the medications they prescribe. Antidepressants aren't merely ''happy pills''. Instead, they help free the brain up from negative thinking, and enable oneself to find a new interest in life.

If it weren't for these little yellow and green pills, combined with the support of loved ones, therapy, exercise and sunshine, I might not be alive. No-one should be afraid of seeking help or taking medication because of the stigma and prejudices associated with medicating oneself. You can take antidepressants and do things the ''natural way''.

Taking medication does not prohibit oneself from socialising with friends or walking through the beautiful New Zealand bush.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.


Rhodes scholar, Oxford.

Definitely 'lazy' then.





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