Some Thoughts on Medication

The topic of medication comes up frequently in my work. There’s still a lot of stigma around psychotropic medication.

Some communities have every right to be suspicious of psychotropic medication. If an adult’s experience with psychotropic medication in particular, or the medical field in general, is one that repeatedly disregarded their autonomy and well-being, of course they’ll be hesitant to expose their child to that or try it again themselves! I believe it’s on mental health professionals and prescribers to take seriously the harm done by our field(s), both in the past and even now. There’s a world of difference between thoughtful, collaborative work between a doctor or mental health team and patient to identify an effective medication, and the type of disrespectful, abusive, coercive experience many people of color, disabled, and low-income folks have had. We can’t hope to build the trust needed for the former until we acknowledge the latter.

There are other objections to psychotropic medications that I feel can be addressed more simply. For instance:

Sometimes I hear people say really dismissive things to themselves, along the lines that they should “just” exercise, eat healthy, pray, etc. as if taking medication would be cheating somehow, and as if their depression or anxiety isn’t exactly the thing keeping them from engaging in those activities! What I value most about medication is that it can be the boost a person needs to feel good enough to start doing those things. Healthy, life-improving, mood-boosting activities require us to believe we are worth the time, resources, and effort they take, which is a hard belief to maintain if depression is asking, “Why bother? It’s not going to help,” or anxiety is saying, “You? Doing that? Don’t be ridiculous.”

Psychotropic medication can be hugely beneficial for some people. Life-changing. Freeing. Wonderful. (There isn’t a “but” coming, just an “and.”) And at the same time, the process of trying psychotropic medications and adjusting doses can be scary, stressful, tedious, frustrating, and discouraging. Patients often have to go through a trial-and-error process to find a medication that helps. Two people might both be having similar anxiety symptoms, and yet respond differently to the same medication.

Some tips:

If you have a biological family member who has similar symptoms to you, and they’ve found a specific medication helpful, it’s worth sharing that information with your doctor/prescriber. Given your genetic relationship, the medication could be a good fit for you as well.

If your prescriber starts you on a medication that takes a few weeks to kick in, pay attention in the first week or two for negative side effects. If you notice a side effect, track its intensity over time: sometimes they go away or get less noticeable.

Ask a trusted person (partner, close relative, good friend) to see if they notice any changes in your mood, attitude, or behavior. Sometimes those around us can see improvements before we can. Your loved ones may notice that you seem more attentive and engaged in conversation with them before you can really feel a significant reduction in your symptoms.

If you don’t already have a habit of journaling about or otherwise tracking your moods, it’s a good idea to start one while trying new medications. This blog post offers multiple suggestions, the simplest of which is a PDF that lets you track a month’s worth of moods. 

Finally, if you’re seeing a therapist, be sure to tell them about any new medications you’re trying, and how they’re affecting you. We therapists generally can’t write prescriptions and don’t recommend specific medications, but we can be helpful as you try medications, cope with side effects, and monitor your mental health symptoms. Moreover, it’s generally recommended that medication be combined with psychotherapy in order to most effectively treat mental health conditions. The more your therapist knows about you (including the medication(s) you’re taking), the better they can support and work with you to help you feel better.

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