Medicating Mental Illness For A Lifetime
Thursday, August 18 2011 Natalie Jeanne Champagne
When I walk into my psychiatrist’s office, I often feel like I am wearing a shirt stating: people with a serious mental illness will require medication for the rest of their lives. It is a tough pill to swallow−pardon the pun−but something I think about often. I have been taking psychiatric drugs since I was twelve years old. Twenty-six now, I have taken the same bipolar medications for a few years (finding the right ones was a huge struggle), and my lab work consistently comes back clear. The Lithium is not shutting down my kidneys, the Lamictal is working as it should, Prozac and Concerta wake me up each morning, and Seroquel allows me to sleep at night. All is well. My body is not falling apart: the medication keeps my mind alert. It makes recovery possible .
Sometimes though, I imagine the handfuls of pills I take three times a day sliding down my throat and into my stomach, flat lining the highs and lows. I cannot help but wonder what these pills might do to my body in the future.
Stability Compromised by Side Effects of Medication for Mental Illness
No medication is risk free. Many medications for mental illness make you tired, listless, and depressed (this is, of course, ironic). Some make you manic, flying higher than you should, and others do nothing at all. Your psychiatrist will often tell you: “This medication usually takes a few weeks to a month to work”. Or longer: it's a waiting game.
It can take years to find the right psychiatric medication and once you do you might have to live with the side effects, some of which will go away, others can follow you throughout life. For example, my hands constantly shake from the Lithium (my handwriting leaves much to be desired and I am eternally grateful keyboards were invented!), and I am tired more than I should be. I have learned that you have to accept the illness in order to feel comfortable taking medication to treat it.
Recovering from a chronic mental illness like bipolar disorder carries baggage: bottles of pills, refills, and the need to remember what you must take and at what time of the day. It is, quite honestly, a huge amount of work.
Does the Benefit of Taking Medication for Mental Illness Outweigh the Risk?
It’s a controversial topic and based entirely on the individual. I have heard and met people who took medication for mental illness for many years and decided to wean off of it. I have also met people, myself included, who understand that their illness is chronic and stay on their medication. Now that I am stable, though winter is still extremely difficult for me, the idea of going off them frightens me. What would happen? Who would I become? What if I were perfectly fine? These thoughts, perfectly normal, mean that we are human. It is a compromise: medication can help you become well, it can help you recover, and it can cause side effects that make life difficult.
Does the benefit outweigh the risk?