Mental Illness and the Meds: Dealing with Stigma
By Heather Siegel, ARNP
I want to talk about the stigma against mental illness and psychiatry. The phrase “mental illness” itself is a problem that supports the stigma in society, and within us. When I think about being personally diagnosed with a “mental illness” I feel immediately that it suggests that the problem is within me. We need a phrase that reflects the fact that the discomfort some of us feel is a result of a mixture of so many factors: genes, stress, work, school, family, friends, loss, tragedy, horror. The phrase we choose also has to reflect that the current discomfort we are feeling isn’t permanent, but has come from a loss of balance and can be temporary. I have some proposals for replacements for “mental illness” (and I want to hear yours):
Melancholy? (I’ve always loved this historical one)
I think most of us hate our depression, our anxiety, our insomnia, our PTSD, etc. We not only hate it, but feel shame for being afflicted with it. This hate is born out of the narrative that our “mental illness” means something is wrong with us. What if our Nervous Depletion/Brain Fatigue is actually a symptom of how ill-suited our culture, society, childhood histories or lifestyles are to the bodies and brains we have? In this case, the treatment is to reshape our lives and environments, to the extent that we are able… to better nurture the brains and bodies we have inherited from our ancestors and evolution. And to engage with ourselves more compassionately in terms of how we think of this aspect of ourselves, and how we think of our whole self.
Reflecting on all of this has helped me to feel much less bad about my own depression. It is a part of the story of who I am right now. Of course I still don’t like it. But I’ve learned to recognize moods arising in me in response to stressors. This insight allows me to increase the good gestures of self-kindness to subdue the moodiness before it takes the reins and begins to dictate my speech, actions, and thoughts.
I used to want to get off my antidepressants as soon as possible. As if that would mean I had healed and recovered. Some people never allow themselves to try medications at all. But I’ve since come to realize that being on medications or not is not the measure of success in my life. Instead, the medications are one small piece of a whole bunch of decisions I make (the food I eat, exercise, relaxation techniques, watching funny TV shows) that enable me to be the best person I can be – to my son, my husband, my parents, at work with my patients, with my friends. And this measure of success is the one that is most important to me.
Heather Siegel is a Family Nurse Practitioner, Certified Nurse Midwife, and anticipating her additional credential as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner this Spring. She is also a mom, a wife, an avid dancer, an intellectual, a philosophizer, and all around goof ball.