Have you tried going for a run? Eating more vegetables? Meditating? What about taking St. John’s wort? All suggestions, made with the best intentions, that you’ve probably heard if you’ve ever told someone you’re thinking of taking antidepressants.
Well-meaning friends can’t be blamed for offering up the Headspace app, kale and the great outdoors as alternative means to calm an anxious mind. Barely a month passes without the great medication debate rearing its ugly head, as experts continue to disagree on whether antidepressants provide substantial help, make as much difference to our mental health as swallowing a Tic Tac or ― worst of all ― increase our risk of suicidal thoughts. Doctors and politicians are constantly going on about the risk of addiction to drugs. Not to mention the long list of side effects in the fine print: a lifeless libido, nausea, blurred vision and, ironically, anxiety.
Aside from the arguments over the usefulness of drugs, we millennials are faced with an abundance of other opinions. Are we, the generation of snowflakes, just making a big fuss about nothing? Are we simply jumping on the bandwagon by claiming we have what some are calling a “trendy” disease?
That’s a lot of noise for the estimated 40 million sufferers of anxiety and depression in the U.S. (out of some 300 million worldwide) to contend with ― particularly if you’re already feeling frazzled.
Confusion is exactly what previously kept me from turning to medication in my five-year battle with anxiety. On four separate occasions, I visited a doctor. Each time, I left with the obligatory printouts about the ABCs of anxiety and details on how to register for counseling or cognitive-behavioral therapy (neither of which helped).
Each time, I was gently asked if I had considered taking medication. Each time, I thought, “No way, I’m not that bad.” I thought if you were taking happy pills to get through the day, you must be bonkers. And I wasn’t. I was just a bit anxious. After all, everybody experiences grumbling worries when they turn over an exam paper, prepare for a big first date, hit a patch of midflight turbulence or face the steely gaze of a prospective employer in an interview.
At the beginning of last year, I realized I wasn’t just a little bit anxious. I had an anxiety disorder. Hyperventilation, tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, dizziness and a convincing feeling that something awful will happen usually strike when you’re about to confront a cheating partner or fling yourself into a skydive. Most people don’t experience such an extreme reaction to boarding a plane or going to a party or thinking too long about the future. They certainly don’t have days where getting on a train, talking to a salesclerk or holding it together until 5 p.m. seems impossibly overwhelming.
There’s nothing quite like the concerned and pitying looks on your parents’ faces as you sob into a bowl of Bolognese, unable to verbalize the sudden feeling that something terrible is going to happen, to give you the push you need to get help.
One afternoon last June, I left the doctor’s office teary-eyed and clutching a prescription for an SSRI. As the antidepressant started to take hold over the next several weeks, it was as though a fog were lifting. When faced with something that would have once made me feel overwhelmed and helpless, I was able to stop the panic from enveloping me. I could acknowledge my emotions, but not let them rule me.
Of course, the success of SSRIs for one middle-class white woman can’t be applied to society en masse. Women are statistically more likely to ask for help than men struggling with the same issues. I also benefited from an employer who allows some flexibility in working hours to visit the doctor ― once every two to three weeks at the beginning of treatment, and every three months after that.
Race plays into the equation as well. A study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that cultural identity and social stigma may discourage members of the black and other minority ethnic communities from seeking help.
All I can say with certainty is that taking antidepressants worked for me ― so much so that I was able to push myself outside my comfort zone in ways I never thought possible.
At its worst, anxiety controlled my future. I always wanted to go backpacking, but travel had so many inherent risks: Open water was home to lurking sharks, every mosquito was loaded with a deadly tropical disease, my plane would crash, I would hurtle through the window of a taxi onto a dirt road and wouldn’t be able to access medical care, and so on. I was far more comfortable at home.
Seven months after I swallowed my first dose of anxiety medication, I boarded a flight to Vietnam, embarking on a three-month trip around Asia.
Now, I’m not saying SSRIs turned me into a happy-go-lucky, bongo-playing backpacker who abandoned her worries along with her shoes as soon as her plane left the airport. I still dwell on decisions and mistakes longer than the average person. But medication has made me less likely to hurtle into the abyss of panic.
Confessing to your inner demons is slowly becoming less taboo as celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Ryan Reynolds and The Rock have opened up about their own mental health problems. Chrissy Teigen shared the reality of her postpartum depression, while Logic recites the number of the American national suicide prevention hotline in “1-800-273-8255,” one of last summer’s biggest hits. The stigma around mental illness is lifting through the vulnerability and visibility of more people.
For all the public preaching about mental health, we have to get the conversation rolling about solutions, not just problems. Some 1 in 6 adults have anxiety and depression, but only a third are undergoing any kind of treatment. Whether the drugs will work for any one individual is impossible to say, but they changed my life like they’ve changed thousands of others. It’s time to stop shaming people for getting the help they need.