Refuting the stigma behind antidepressants and mental illness

Pam Rentz
Urban Health Media Project

While great strides have been made toward normalizing the concept of “self care” and incorporating mental health care into daily routines, the use of antidepressants and other mental health medications remains clouded by stigma.

Melissa Sporn, a clinical psychologist in McLean, Virginia, and Aqsa Siddique, a third-year student at the University of Maryland, discussed the hesitancy and stigma behind using medication to support mental health on Urban Health Media Project’s “Therapy Thursday” Instagram Live

People tend to underestimate their need for support, Sporn said:  “I don’t need this, I don’t need therapy.” But, she asked, “What would you look like if you did?”

Unlike people living with other diseases, those with mental health issues often reject treatment. Sporn noted the vast majority of people would not say they didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation if they were diagnosed with cancer. 

“Many of us are so good at caring for others, but what about caring for ourselves?” Sporn said. 

From 2015 to 2018, 13.2% of American adults reported taking antidepressants in the last 30 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Siddique hesitated to take medication. 

“I used to think, ‘if I take this then I’m going to be moving backwards in life,’” Siddique said. The public policy student took antidepressants and anxiety medication on and off for the majority of her teen years. 

Though she had doubts about the medications’ effectiveness and had relapses after stopping them, Siddique is ultimately grateful she took the leap with the doctor to begin exploring those options, she said. 

Therapy supports medication, but healing still takes time, Siddique said. “You’re going to have good days, you’re going to have bad days, and you’re going to have days where you feel like you’re back at square one,” Siddique said.

On average, it takes four to six weeks for antidepressants to start working, and many people can use medications for a limited amount of time.  Patients should use the medications for four to nine months after treating a depressive episode before considering tapering off, according to the American Psychiatric Association

Sporn encourages those who are on the fence to weigh the costs and benefits. They may experience minor side effects from the medication but will struggle with anxiety or depression without it.

Taking may allow someone with mental health issues to participate in activities they may have otherwise missed, she said, such as skipping family gatherings because of social anxiety or sitting out a senior year excursion because of depression. 

Sporn explained how it can be easy to assume someone is doing fine from the outside, only to find they are suffering internally. 

The day people shed the shame of seeking help and move into pride of wanting to better is the day mental health awareness will reach acceptance, said Siddique.

“We should all take our mental health as seriously as our physical health,” she said. 

Pam Rentz is a junior at Florida A&M University majoring in journalism and minoring in African American studies who served as a summer intern at Urban Health Media Project,  a D.C.-based nonprofit that helps train high school students in health journalism.