The Stigma Surrounding Psychiatric Medication

by Anne Marie Mingolelli, DNP, PMHNP-BC, APRN-BC, RN

What is it about psychiatric medications that cause such discomfort?  Is it the skeptical or disapproving looks you get from well meaning friends and family?  Or the suggestions that you try something “healthy” like a vitamin or eating less sugar? Or the “I had a friend” story that goes on to describe tragic results as a result of taking “those kind of meds”?

While others’ judgments are almost always coming from a lack of understanding, these types of statements can make parents and young people feel embarrassed, ashamed, and angry.  And this may be why is it easier to tell others you or your child is taking an antibiotic, insulin, or any other type of medication than an antidepressant or mood stabilizer.

There is a stigma surrounding psychiatric medications and this stigma is one of the biggest barriers people face when deciding whether or not to take them.  Unlike many illnesses, mental health illness can have a slow onset and can look like a “growing stage” or just exaggerated behaviors and moods that naturally accompany developmental stages.  Some signs are invisible – the thoughts, the sadness, the anxiety unseen by others but debilitating and tremendously persistent to those who are experiencing it.  The feelings, emotions, and behaviors can seem to come and go, at times these symptoms are severe and then things will calm down a bit and it’s easy to think the child or adolescent will “just grow out of it” or learn to behave better or just manage the thoughts and emotions without the need for medication.   And this may be true.  Or not.

Taking medication is not a decision to be made lightly.   It should be based on facts, not emotions, preconceived notions, or the opinions of others.  This decision should not be made based on the stigma that is associated with these medications.  The medication doesn’t define the person.  It is simply a form of treatment for an illness, just like insulin is a treatment for diabetes.  And just like with diabetes, medication should not be the only treatment – a healthy diet, adequate sleep, exercise, and therapy should also be a part of the treatment plan.  Sometimes, we just need help with our illness – and we shouldn’t be made to feel we have to defend that decision.  There is no shame in getting help to restore emotional and behavioral well being. Taking prescribed medication to treat a mental illness should not make you feel you are doing something “wrong”, it means you are doing something “right”.