How to Handle the Medication Stigma

Me: *Discreetly takes medication*
Person: What did you just take?
Me: My anti-anxiety medication.
Person: You’re on anti-anxiety medication?
Me: Yeah.
Person: Really? You don’t seem crazy at all.

I used to be on an anti-anxiety medication that I had to take with lunch, so conversations like this happened more than once. Odds are that if you have to take a medication when you’re away from home, or even if you’re just open about the fact that you take medication, you’ve probably had some version of this conversation.

Most people react well, or at least respond tactfully, but every now and then you get a negative response. I used to get flustered and really upset by that, so I figured I’d put together a little guide on how to handle the medication haters.

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Most of the negative responses I’ve encountered fit into one of three categories:

The anecdotal evidence for why medication doesn’t work

What it looks like:
“My aunt’s boyfriend went on antidepressants and it actually made him way worse and he tried to kill himself.”
“My mom went on anti-anxiety medications and it didn’t help her at all.”
“I went on antidepressants when I was in college and it made me feel awful.”

Why it’s a problem: If we based all of our medical choices on anecdotal evidence, we’d all be sick or dead. Just because I’m allergic to amoxicillin doesn’t mean you can’t take it. Everyone responds to treatment differently, and the one-size-fits-all treatment mentality just adds to the stigma surrounding mental health and makes it that much harder to get help.

How to respond: I’m assuming here that you want to remain diplomatic and spread positivity and education with your responses. I usually try not to dismiss them or their experiences, but I still stand my ground. “I’m so sorry that you/your mom/your uncle’s cousin’s brother had such a bad experience. It took me a long time to find the right medications for me, but once I did, it made a huge difference in my life.”

The failed compliment

What it looks like:
“Wow, I never would have guess that you’re medicated. You seem so normal!”
“You don’t seem like you have bipolar!”
“No way are you crazy enough to be medicated!”

Why it’s a problem: First of all, I know I don’t seem crazy. I’m on medication and in therapy precisely so I don’t seem crazy. Second of all, the notion that you should be able to see my illness just adds to the mental health stigma. The idea that you have to look or act a certain way to be considered mentally ill makes it so much harder to recognize an illness and get treatment for it. Mental illness looks different on everyone, and the first step to fighting the stigma is to stop pretending that we can recognize it on sight. Third, when you throw around words like “crazy,” and “normal,” it diminishes the complicated experiences of people who struggle with mental illness.

How to respond: “Well, you don’t seem like an insensitive ass. I guess we were both wrong.” No, I’m just kidding. Although I’ve considered that response more than once. This one’s tough, because it’s so ingrained in us to thank someone for what was intended as a compliment, but don’t do it! Try “Most people who are medicated for mental illness aren’t the people you would expect.” or even “Well, I’ve been in treatment for [insert number] years, I certainly hope I don’t seem crazy.” And if you really want to be educational, throw in a, “Hey, did you know that 1 in 5 American adults experience mental illness in a given year? Bet you wouldn’t pick out 20% of the population as ‘crazy’ either.”

The dismissal.

What it looks like:
“Ugh, do you really want to be on pills for the rest of your life?”
“You have so much to be happy about, why would you need medication?”
“Aren’t those basically placebos anyway?”
“Have you tried thinking positively/yoga/acupuncture/exercise/etc.?

Why it’s problematic: First of all, it’s just personally insulting. Most people who are medicated didn’t make that decision lightly, and that choice is between them and their doctor (and their parents, if they’re a minor). Second, it goes back to taking ownership of your body. This is just another way of saying “I know what’s best for you and your body better than you do,” and that’s not okay.  Third, it’s that mental illness stigma again. The notion that you can treat mental illness by choosing to be happier is as absurd as the idea that you could treat asthma by choosing to breath easier.

How to respond: This is the one I have the hardest time with. I usually go for something along the lines of, “Actually, I use a lot of different treatment methods. Medication is one of them, and it’s just a vital to my health as medication for any other illness.”

When people say rude, hurtful, ignorant things, it can take every fiber of your being not to rage at them for being part of the problem. Just remember that they didn’t choose to be ignorant any more than you (or your loved one) chose to be mentally ill. Every interaction you have that centers around mental illness is a chance to fight the stigma that surrounds it. Use your voice and your unique experience to battle that stigma and make the world a little brighter and more educated.

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