“Choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.” Jerry Garcia
When I made the decision to use psychotropic medications to treat the severe symptoms my son was experiencing, it was with great trepidation. It was because my son’s suffering was extreme, he had completely withdrawn from the world and any contact he did have often resulted in violent, hostile, aggressive interactions. Jordan didn’t have the capacity to articulate, reflect or understand what was going on. Eventually if left on this path I’m convinced that he or someone else would experience significant harm as a result of his state of mind. He had already physically attacked teachers, students, myself, my mother, my siblings and random strangers. For many, the choice to use medications can mean the difference between life and death, the difference between living and existing. For my son, it’s meant a life full of meaningful interactions and activities. The side-effects he has experienced are mild and any potential long-term consequence do not outway the quality of life he has now.
Even so, there are important, legitimate reasons for not taking psychiatric medications. First and foremost these medications cause unpredictable changes to the way our brains function. They can significantly alter our thoughts and feelings. Neuroleptics, antidepressants, lithium, antiepileptics, stimulants and tranquilizers all affect our brains, for bettor or worse. There is no way to determine what an individual’s response to these medications will be. Some people will experience physical, cognitive, and emotional consequences of these medications, that are equally or more debilitating than their mental health issues. These include but are not limited to: involuntary muscle movements and contractions, extreme restlessness, impaired body temperature regulation, weakened immune system, heart problems, liver and kidney problems, hormonal and sexual disturbances, chromosomal and pregnancy damage, seizures, confusion, delirium, intellectual disturbances, loss of creativity, lack of concentration, memory problems, apathy, emotional deadness, depression, suicidal states and agitation. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence to suggest that all major classes of psychiatric medications produce physical and psychological dependency and have distinctive withdrawal effects. Often these are mistaken for signs of relapse.
Psychiatric medications treat symptoms, not the underlying issues. They are not always the safest or most effective pathway to mental health. Today patients frequently receive psychiatric medications without being evaluated by a mental health professional. Many visit their primary care physician and leave with a prescription and no awareness of alternate or adjunctive treatments and therapies available. Evidence based therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, might even work better and reduce the risk of relapse after discontinuation.
Mental illness is complex. It is associated with physical and/or emotional trauma, chronic stress and many health issues. Other factors such as age, poverty, social status, education
and literacy, employment and working conditions, support networks, personal health practices, substance use and living environments can also play a significant role. In some instances psychiatric medications can be very helpful, even essential, but they can also be very harmful. It is important to make informed choices about whether to use them or not. It is also necessary to realize that there is “no magic pill”. Like mental illness, mental health is complex, and as such, benefits from a comprehensive approach that explores and addresses underlying issues and contributing factors. Every person’s experience with mental illness is unique, and thus each person’s journey toward mental health is different.
“There is not one path. There is not even the right path. There is only your path and you know it’s yours by how it feels to you.” Sue Krebs