Psych meds scare me. Why would anyone consider taking psych meds? The truth about psych medication.

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The most frightening and misunderstood thing about psychology next to seeing a therapist is having to take psych medication. I have seen countless families where parents are deathly afraid the possibility of psych medication and the reality is, I can totally empathize with those concerns. There is something repulsive about the thought that a little kid or even an adult would need medicine in order to function somewhat normally. Then there are all the fears about what that means about the person and unconsciously what it says about the parents (if kids are the identified client). I want to go ahead and talk about what psych medication is and what it is not.

I want to start by being upfront about the negative stigma around psych medication. It is interesting to me that many people do not even blink an eye if someone were to take ibuprofen or antibiotics when they are physically sick. For whatever reason, people get really freaked out when the medication is for mental health or emotional reasons. My guess is that there is something deeper and maybe even spiritual that is perceived to be disrupted because our mind is so closely associated with our soul and personality. Somehow the fear is that taking psych meds would disrupt our sense of self and mess with our personhood in an unpredictable way. 

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The other major fear is that people believe they will be “addicted” to the medication or be unable to function without them once they are using them. I would like to debunk that myth as most psych medications are not addictive in nature because there are no “high” or euphoric feelings when using the medicine. If anything, there is a higher chance of using illegal drugs otherwise known as “self-medication” when the proper medications are not being used to try and fix the problem. In my opinion, it is better to need medications that allow a person to live a stable life than have the bragging rights of not using medication but live a tormenting existence. 

Let’s start by talking about what psych medication is not. Taking psych medication does not mean that you are somehow crazier. There is this notion that there are people who are mentally and emotionally unwell and then there are those people who are so badly broken that they need medication for it. It just has nothing to do with a person’s status and it does not define them just like a mental health diagnosis does not define a person but rather describes their current experience. In many cases, psych medications will not heal and solve the problem. I know that may be somewhat confusing but the reality is that it is aimed to help people feel better but it doesn’t actually address the heart of what is causing those symptoms (in most cases).

So what is the purpose of the psych medication? Simply put, these medications are created to help manage unhelpful symptoms. Period. In many cases, the medication helps decrease distressing feelings, bodily responses, and helps manage unhelpful thoughts. I like to use this illustration to talk about the function of a common medication such as antidepressants. Imagine there is a baseline of when you are feeling pretty well. When stressors occur (or caused by something from within unexpectedly), a common experience is an intense spike in anxiety. In other moments, there can be an intense downward drop of sadness and a lack of energy. The medication helps someone close the gap between the highs and lows so that the anxiety never feels too high and the depression never feels too low. The feelings are a bit too sensitive for that person‘s well-being so the medicine temporarily narrows the bandwidth so the feelings don’t get in the way. This is true about many medications such as ones that treat ADHD, schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety, and other challenges. In many cases, there are too many distressing feelings and thoughts so “less is more.”

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The only time I even bring up medication is when the symptoms are moderate to severe in their impairment and distress. I know many clients especially parents who want to do the “talk therapy only” way to find healing. While the actual treatment often occurs through the process of talk therapy, there is a limit as to the rate in progress if the symptoms are getting in the way. I remember meeting a kid client who had really strong ADHD symptoms which resulted in the kid getting poor grades, being unable to make any friends, and leading to impulsive behaviors that him in trouble all the time. As much as I tried to teach behavioral skills, coping skills, and helpful ways of thinking, the poor kid just could not actually remember or follow through with these interventions because the kid would be too distracted! It is really heartbreaking to see a kid who is trying really hard to do the right thing but the mental health symptoms prevent the kid from being able to do so. In some cases, new mental health challenges develop because the earlier ones were not treated. What may have started off as ADHD concerns have now turned into depression or anxiety because of the kid’s inability to do what is needed. This can lead to low self-esteem and even hopelessness.

All of that being said, medications were created to improve the quality of your life if needed. If there are more negative side effects and harm done to your body then the benefits, then of course you would discontinue using the medication. I also want to note that there is no “one size fits all” medication. Our biochemistry within our bodies are very unique sometimes there is a “trial and error” process to identify the right medicine for you. Please be patient when working with your pediatrician, psychiatrist or nurse practitioner! Sometimes the medication is just a temporary intervention to stabilize a person’s mental and emotional state enough so that the real healing can occur at a much quicker rate and then the medications are no longer needed. My recommendation is to be open minded about the process and don’t be afraid to have a dialogue about medication with trained professionals as well as all the members involved. Whether it is for the benefit of a kid or an adult, please keep the well-being of the person at the center as opposed to letting the stigma and fear about medications get in the way. At the end of the day, the choice is up to you and the risk is generally low given that professionals are working with you every step of the way. 

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