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Why Is There Psychiatric Medication Stigma?

Category: Mental Health
7 minute read.

If you’ve experienced mental illnesses like depression or anxiety, you’ve probably heard it all before when it comes to taking psychiatric medication.

“You should just exercise more and eat better!”

“Try meditating, it totally cured me.”

“Power through it yourself, it’s mind over matter!”

Psychiatric medication management can be a crucial factor in treating mental health, but despite this there is still stigma surrounding taking psychiatric pills. This can come from friends and family, societal attitudes, or even the healthcare system itself. Pill shaming can have serious consequences for those living with mental illness, such as feelings of guilt or shame and even difficulty finding proper treatment.

Let’s explore how this stigma affects people’s lives and what we can do to reduce it.

The History of Mental Health Stigma and Pill Shaming

Stigma against mental health in general can be traced throughout the ages. In ancient Greece, to “stigma” was to mark someone as a sign of shame or disgrace; it was a way to show otherness. It originally was used to brand slaves or criminals, and for centuries those afflicted with mental illness were treated as such.

The mentally ill were imprisoned, tortured, or even killed until the Enlightenment when mental health establishments were finally developed to support them. Unfortunately, the progress made during this time was reversed during the Nazi regime when eugenicists sterilized and killed thousands with mental illness. The euthanasia of the mentally ill was hardly 90 years ago, and this is made clear by the ignorance and discrimination still surrounding mental health today.

The scientific study of mental illness stigma was first developed in the 1970s, with much controversy surrounding it. Some noted that the labeling process of mental disorders in itself contributed to the stigma, along with mental hospitals that further isolated the mentally ill instead of enabling them to live normal lives.

Pill Shaming Today

As for pill shaming in general, this can be linked to the opioid crisis in America which has substantially grown in the past two decades. In the late 90s, a third of the U.S. population reported chronic pain and initiatives such as the Joint Commission pushed for more attentive care towards patient pain. This, combined with a push from drug companies, led to the overprescription and misuse of painkilling opioids.

The opioid crisis has led to an alarming increase in overdose deaths, strained healthcare resources, and social consequences such as an increase in crime and homelessness. Although there is increasing pressure on healthcare providers and policymakers to address the crisis, it remains a significant challenge for the United States healthcare system.

Millions were, and still are, affected by this epidemic. On top of this, psychiatric medication misuse is on the rise, with Adderall and Xanax being common party drugs. Adderall abuse jumped by 67% from 2006 to 2011 amongst young adults, with resulting emergency room visits increasing by 156%. From 2004 to 2008, emergency department visits resulting from Xanax abuse increased by 89%.

 Why Do People Pill Shame?

So, how does the history of mental health stigma inform us when it comes to pill shaming?

It could be because psychiatry has only been around since the 19th century, leaving many to question how valid the practice could be. This, coupled with the public knowledge of the overprescription of medications, could have led to a widespread distrust of the necessity of psychiatric medication.

Concerns regarding the overprescription of psychiatric medication may also be due to the recent boom in Adderall prescriptions. The CDC has reported an incredible spike in Adderall prescriptions between 2020 and 2021, with prescriptions for women increasing by 10% and for men by 5%.

Combined with the stigma that already exists against mental health in general, these seem to be significant contributors towards the negative perceptions of taking psychiatric medication.

Who Pill Shames

Anyone can have psychiatric medication stigma. The common perpetrators are:

Mass media. Movies and television shows often portray people living with mental illness in a negative light, and medication is often depicted as a last resort option with negative side effects. These portrayals can lead to a widespread misunderstanding about what medications do, how they work, and why they are prescribed, which in turn feeds into the stigma surrounding them. Similarly, many news outlets have published sensationalistic stories about psychiatric medications, furthering misconceptions and contributing to the existing stigma.

Families and communities. Family members may express negative opinions about taking psychiatric medicine, or make comments that indicate they see it as a sign of weakness or failure on one’s part. This type of behavior can create an environment in which someone feels ashamed to discuss their struggles openly or seek help when needed.

Society. Popular culture often portrays those who take medication as irrational, dangerous, or even immoral. As a result, individuals may feel like other people view them differently and be reluctant to talk about their mental health needs for fear of judgment or ridicule.

The healthcare system. The healthcare system itself has been known to put up barriers for those seeking psychiatric care. Doctors may be reluctant to prescribe medication due to cost or insurance coverage considerations—even if it would be beneficial for the patient’s overall well-being. Also, some insurance companies refuse to cover certain types of psychiatric drugs or place restrictions on how much medication can be prescribed at any given time. All these factors can lead to delays in care and make getting help more difficult for patients living with mental illness.

Yourself. Self-stigma against taking psychiatric medication bars many from seeking the treatment they need. Self-stigma can come from internalized shame and negative attitudes toward needing help for your mental illness. This is a common obstacle people face in their mental health journey and can be a difficult one to overcome.

How We Can Fight Against Psychiatric Medication Stigma

It is essential to recognize how stigma affects people’s lives so that we can work together toward reducing it. Some steps you can personally take to overcome this stigma are:

  1. Talking about your own mental health struggles. If you are able to talk about your own journey with mental health, having an open and honest conversation can be all the difference when addressing the ignorance that might surround this topic. Reinforcing that anyone can struggle with mental illness and to normalize talking about it can help neutralize the stigma.
  2. Seeking out and spreading accurate information. If you have personal reservations towards medication yourself, take the time to educate yourself on what each drug can do and how it helps people. Only after informing yourself can you make sure that accurate information is out there.
  3. Listening to others. Keep in mind that medication affects everyone differently, and what hasn’t worked for you might work for someone else. Being compassionate and open towards hearing other’s experiences can help minimize stigma not only in others but yourself as well.

By creating an open dialogue around mental health issues and destigmatizing the use of psychiatric medications we can ensure that everyone affected by these conditions gets access to quality care without fear of judgment or discrimination. For those ready to seek out treatment, LAOP provides specialized programs run by compassionate and professional staff. With our research-based treatments and services, we’re here to help no matter how far along you are on your mental health journey. To learn more, contact a member of our admissions team today.