“There’s no shame in the medicine game.”
- Pete Davidson, SNL
A friend recently reached out for advice on how to support someone living with a mental health condition––his friend is living with major depression. For easier reading, I’ll call my friend Peter and his friend Paul. Neither are theory real names.
Peter knows I’m not a professional counselor, but I do have lived experience that I talk about openly. So he came to me to talk about Paul, out of concern, love and compassion.
At some point, the conversation pivoted to medication. Peter told me he was concerned about medication; specifically, he told me about the challenges Paul and his doctors were having trying to find the right medication.
I shared that it can take time to find the right medication and dosage, but that I did find something that works for me, and I take it every day. I also shared that I have no shame about that–I recognize medication is necessary for my personal mental health.
Peter’s response was: “Do you think there will be a time when you don’t have to take that medication?”
And there it was: The perfect opportunity to shift the conversation, educate and decrease the stigma of taking medication to manage mental health. Because the truth is, managing mental health is just as important as managing physical health. It’s a personal choice to take medication for any disease.
So back to Peter. I knew his heart meant well, so I smiled and gently asked Peter, “do you ask the same question when someone acknowledges taking medication to manage their high cholesterol, diabetes, thyroid, or high blood pressure?”
Peter immediately understood.
WHAT IS PILL-SHAMING AROUND MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT AND WHY IS IT A PROBLEM ?
According to NAMI in Illinois, pill shaming is when someone expresses negative opinions or assumptions about you when you tell them you’re taking medication to improve your mental health.
In real-world speak, this is when your friend or co-worker tells you you don’t need medication, you just need to spend more time outdoors, or work out more, because “when I do that, it makes me feel great!”
Or, “have you tried meditating? It’s amazing!”
Or, “do you eat enough leafy greens/have you tried cutting out gluten?”
Imagine yourself on the other side of these questions or comments. You’ll likely feel like the person you’ve just opened up to believes you:
- just haven’t tried hard enough or;
- aren’t making smart decisions for yourself
In essence, it feels as though they are doubting your autonomy when in fact, you have made a very difficult and measured decision to do what’s best for you and take medication to help rebalance your brain’s chemistry.
For context, here are the top reasons people cite for not taking medication as prescribed to treat mental health, according to Healthline:
- I don’t have a problem
- Needing medicine says something bad about me
- I feel better. I don’t need medicine now
- I don’t have the money
- The side effects are worse than the symptoms
- I don’t like feeling shamed
Three of the top six reasons are related to feelings of shame or judgment from others. My own lived experience reflects several of these points. I’ll tell you what I learned about myself in my own treatment process …
WHAT MY OWN EXPERIENCE HAS TAUGHT ME
When I share my story, I share what worked for me. Everyone is different. Personally, I attempted to wean off my medication twice. Both attempts were during a period when I was feeling well.
I asked myself, “why take this medication if I am feeling well?” What I neglected to realize was, I was feeling well because of the medication.
On both occasions, my mental health remained stable for about 2-3 weeks after stopping my medication. But subtle changes began to take shape but my mind was too ill to recognize them. My mental health significantly declined and I didn’t notice my own signs. I retreated into a dark hole of depression and slipped back into a harmful pattern of behavior: I hid behind my mask of high performance.
I lost hope. I lost my dreams, and my sense of self-worth. At my worst, my mind could find a logical reason why everyone (family, friends, co-workers) would all be better off without me. I felt alone and isolated … and like a burden if I spoke openly and asked for help.
As a result, I was ashamed and felt like an imposter at work. I was a high performer living with a secret that I was on my journey of sobriety from alcohol while living with major depression and suicidal thoughts.
I was afraid to ask for help in the workplace because I feared being seen as weak and incompetent, and damaging my professional integrity. All of this stemmed from that one, seemingly benign question I had asked myself when I was feeling good: “why take this medication if I am feeling well?”
But, though I felt very alone, my story isn’t unique. One in five Americans are currently living with a mental health condition. What is unique is that I am comfortable being vulnerable, sharing my story and using my lived experience to teach leaders how to create a workplace culture where everyone feels safe asking for help.
I also learned that silence is toxic. I almost lost my life because I remained silent until a compassionate, observant leader noticed my subtle signs of distress and had a safe conversation with me that changed my life.
If someone chooses to take medication to address their mental health, we must support them and not shame them. Medication is a personal choice.
I have no shame saying I take two pills a day for my mental health because I am alive and healthy. Without medication, there is a possibility that I will not survive. I choose to stay healthy and alive!
Why shame someone who is taking steps to address their mental health, or question the need for their medication?
EXCHANGE SHAME AND QUESTIONING FOR ACCEPTANCE AND PRAISE
If you take one thing away from this story, let it be this: Instead of shaming, let’s praise. Let’s celebrate their decision to seek treatment (that works for them) to address their mental health.
Let’s also praise my brave leader who saw the signs, took action, opened a safe conversation, and allowed me to speak openly about my mental health.
She saved my life.
We spend a lot of our time in the workplace–most of our waking weekday hours, in fact. Do you or your workplace leaders feel prepared to see the signs and open a safe conversation about mental health in the workplace?
Are you fostering positive language around mental health and creating safe spaces for people to work and converse? It’s ok if you’re not sure… it’s not ok to not be sure and do nothing to change it. Reach out for more information about how to bring The 4 Pillars of Creating and Maintaining A Mentally Healthy Workplace Culture to your team.
You are invited to schedule a consult to learn how to shift the dialog about mental health and create a mentally healthy workplace culture where everyone feels safe asking for help.