Mental illness, medication, and the elephant in the room

Mental illness has always been the elephant in whatever room you’re in. Many people know someone who suffers from it but are still uncomfortable talking about it. The words “crazy” and “wacko” are often still used to describe people with mental illness – not exactly conducive to open discussion and helping people admit that they are struggling. But it’s worse than that because other than perhaps bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, many mental illnesses are looked at as something that you can overcome if you just try hard enough.

People with depression are told that they should just not be so sad all the time and think about all the good things in their lives. People with anxiety should try to relax and not get so worked up about things. Many think that ADHD doesn’t even exist because everyone gets distracted now and again. Mental illness is seen as a weakness of character, not an actual illness. On the other hand, people with more physical ailments such as cancer or MS are always described as courageous and strong and are given as much support as they need. Nobody suggests that people who are deaf or blind should just work harder and concentrate more and then they’ll be fine.

Bell Let’s Talk day is a day in January every year when Bell Canada donates money for each social media post that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. Since 2010, Bell has donated over $80 million to various mental health initiatives. I see hundreds of tweets on those days talking about mental illness, and it seems that it’s something that many people secretly (and not-so-secretly) battle with, or know someone who does. (I’ve also seen people who refuse to participate, thinking it’s a big ad campaign for Bell Canada. Maybe it is, but who cares? If they’re donating millions to charity and getting people to openly talk about mental health because of it, I’m happy to give them some free advertising.) You also see lots of Facebook posts and blog articles by and about people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and many other mental illnesses, discussing how they cope and how and where they get help. A lot of people feel empowered and courageous enough to “come out” and publicly admit and discuss their illness, and I think this is fantastic. At the end of January, everyone’s on board and it gives one hope that the stigma is finally on the way out.

The rest of the year is a different story. That’s not to say that everyone reverts back to “crazy people are just weak minded” but for many, the stigma comes back. And I’m sure many don’t even know it.

ADHDMy two kids were each diagnosed with ADHD around grade four (for posterity, Ryan’s currently in grade twelve and Nicky grade nine), and both have been taking daily medication since their diagnosis. The medications have changed over the years as well as the dosages, but both still take it every day. Gail and I are not embarrassed by this and neither are the boys; it’s just part of life for them. It’s never been a “family secret”, though I did confirm with them that they are OK with me explicitly making it public here. The medication helps them to be more focused and more able to tune out distractions. Nicky can also get “fidgety” and it helps with that as well. It doesn’t turn them into perfect children, nor do we expect it to. And it does not turn them into zombies, at least not any more than any other teenager with a smartphone.

Note that ADHD is a real condition and fMRI scans can show real physical differences between the ADHD brain and the “normal” brain. Nobody is saying that any kid who ever gets distracted has ADHD and needs medication, any more than anyone who ever gets sad about anything has depression and needs medication. The “disorder” part means that it happens far more often than in other people – often enough to negatively affect your day-to-day life.

Anyway, like I said, their ADHD and medication are not secret and so now and again the topic comes up in conversation with family members, friends, co-workers, and occasionally even strangers. When it does, I am amazed at how often people ask about the meds. Do they take the medication every day? Do they take it on weekends or over the summer when they’re not in school? Will they have to take it for the rest of their lives? I constantly wonder why people are so interested in my kids’ medication schedule.

Of course, they’re not interested in when they take it, they’re interested that they take it. I’m sure some are just curious but I frequently feel judged, as if they’re asking “You don’t give your children prescription drugs for such a mild condition, do you? And every day?!” I’ve even had people, including family members, directly suggest that maybe they shouldn’t be taking the medication.

In many cases, these are the same people who post supportive messages on Bell Let’s Talk day, the whole point of which is to end the stigma associated with mental illness. But suggesting that my kids stop taking their medication IS the stigma. You are suggesting that the medication is not necessary because they should be able to overcome their illness through sheer will. That’s just not how it works.

Gail and I are both insulin-dependent type 2 diabetics. Nobody has ever asked me if we take our insulin or other diabetes medications every day or on weekends, and nobody has ever suggested we try not taking it. Similarly, if you have migraines or chronic back pain, pain medication is a lifesaver and nobody who’s ever had either of these would suggest to someone else suffering with it that maybe they should skip their medication and try something else to cope with the pain. It seems that we all know that “Try distracting yourself so you don’t think about it!” is not going to work on a migraine, but some think that will work on depression.

I’ve seen images on Facebook talking about the number of children in the US diagnosed with ADHD and that half of them are on medication, as if that’s a source of shame. Think of the number of kids diagnosed with leukemia; 100% of them are on medication and nobody’s ashamed of that.

Of course I’m not saying that everyone with ADHD or depression should be on medication. I’m sure there are many people who have developed coping techniques for their illnesses and don’t need medication, but that’s just not possible for everyone. If you suggest to those people (or their parents) that maybe they don’t need it and maybe they should try not taking it, you are not helping. You are contributing to the belief that mental illnesses are not real illnesses and can be overcome by simply working harder. They can’t. So please stop.


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