The last five months have marked a transformative period for people up and down the country. Not only have we had to adapt to new ways of living, working and thinking, but we’ve had to do all that against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
It’s no secret that the last five months have been taxing on plenty of people’s mental health – from the isolation of working from home to the anxiety of keeping ourselves safe, lots of people have found themselves struggling more than usual. But amid the growing rates of depression and anxiety, lockdown has also had another, less obvious impact on our wellbeing: it’s forced us all to consider the relationship we have with our mental health, and find new ways to take care of ourselves and those around us.
Facing a situation unlike one we’ve ever encountered before has forced us to re-evaluate how we think, feel and process the world, and has led many of us to learn more about our emotions and tackle underlying problems exacerbated and/or brought to the surface by the pandemic. For the first time in our adult lives, lockdown truly forced us to stop and think – and in doing so, gave us the time to think about the impact our current ways of living are having on our mental health.
For many women, this has meant re-evaluating the relationship they have with antidepressants. Used to treat mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, OCD and PTSD, antidepressants remain one of the most commonly-used mental health treatments – in 2018, a total of 70.9 million antidepressant prescriptions were dispensed in England.
Changing the relationship you have with your medication – whether that’s taking it for the first time (figures released by the NHS online pharmacy service Echo in May showed an 113% increase in the number of antidepressants dispensed by the company since the beginning of lockdown), going back on it after a break or making the decision to cut down your dosage – is a deeply personal decision, so having the time to navigate that process and take things at your own pace makes takes some of the pressure off.
As someone who has been taking antidepressants for over two years to help with my OCD, I know firsthand how monumental making any change to your medication can feel. In lockdown I too have changed my relationship with my antidepressants – despite deciding (with the support of my psychiatrist) to come off my medication way back in January, I only felt ready to start cutting down about two weeks ago. Like many people, I found the slow pace of life working from home has provided the perfect opportunity to make that move.
To find out more about why lockdown has provided many people with the chance to change their relationship with antidepressants, I spoke to three women about navigating medication and mental health during this strange time. Here’s what they had to say.
Jade Rowley*, 29, felt ready to take antidepressants for the first time after years of turning them down
“I was first recommended antidepressants about three years ago when I was struggling to manage my anxiety and depression on my own. But I turned them down.
“I honestly couldn’t pinpoint one specific thing that nudged me to turn them down at the time, but retrospectively I think it was a combination at me not being ready to take that step, not properly understanding what the effect of taking them would (and wouldn’t) be, and feeling (ironically) too unstable to introduce anything new into my life.
“Just before lockdown I wasn’t doing well and it took having to stop in my tracks as the pandemic went on to realise that I wasn’t taking my health seriously enough. In all honesty, I knew I needed help for a long time. Without the distractions of work, an overspilling social life, too many drinks most nights of the week and my reluctance to sit with my own thoughts, watching the world (and myself) slow down meant I finally ran out of excuses for not doing something about it.
“My experience with taking them has been up and down as expected. It was quite a physical shock to the system because I didn’t expect my body to respond as it did – I was the most exhausted I’ve ever been and nauseous enough for me to think I was pregnant – but after some time I’ve really started to see the difference.
“I don’t think I’d personally find it so beneficial without therapy (another new addition to my mental health care) alongside it as I work to untangle the root of my depression, but I can honestly say I’m both proud and relieved to have taken those early steps – even if it did take me longer than I’d hope.”
Victoria Sanusi, 26, felt empowered to come off of her antidepressants because she could manage her withdrawal at home
“Over the past few months, I’ve come to realise my depression and anxiety stems from a particularly traumatic experience that happened to me when I was a kid. Realising this and working through things in therapy now means that dreaded depressive cloud I used to feel doesn’t linger around me.
“The more I went to therapy the more I realised I could potentially deal with my mental health issues without medication. I’m a big cry baby and I noticed that it was hard for me to get in touch with my emotions, I’d hardly get emotional or happy so I had a feeling that my medication could be numbing my feelings.
“Lockdown made deciding to come off my medication a lot easier because I’ve been able to work remotely. I’ve worked for many companies that haven’t been understanding when it comes to mental health issues, where even asking to work from home would fill me with dread because I knew they’d think I’m dossing about. I’ve had my mental health used against me before at work and so I’m terrified for that to happen again.
“However, now working from home is normalised due to the lockdown and I’m working for an understanding and caring team, I knew this would be a great time to try coming off my medication.
“I can be at home and when the symptoms really hit me I can lay in bed during my break and just cry. Not having to go into an office when I feel mentally distressed was an important part of it too — I know myself and I hate being sad in front of others, so I’d put on a face which just adds to another layer of exhaustion. The fact I can be at home and not even have my webcam on, to not have to fake a smile and be able to deal with my shit on my own has been really helpful and empowering.”
Isabel Sachs, 34, felt comfortable speaking about her antidepressants for the first time
“When I was 16 I had anorexia, and that put me into a depressive state. I’m from Brazil, and mental health was still quite a taboo there at the time, so it took my parents a while to understand that I was sick. But eventually I did go to a psychiatrist and he put me on antidepressants, and I was on them for maybe five or six years – it took me about 10 years in total to properly recover from my eating disorder.
“After stopping my antidepressants – I eased myself off them – I felt mostly fine. I am quite an anxious person and I’m very prone to having anxiety crises, but until lockdown, I was kind of managing it.
“But then lockdown came, and I lost my job, and I went into a whole depressive state. The only difference from when I was younger was that this time I recognised what it was, and I eventually went to a psychiatrist because my parents and husband were worried, and he diagnosed me with depression and put me back on an antidepressant (the first one I had really didn’t agree with me, but now I have one which works).
“At first I felt ashamed that after all those years and all that work, I was back at what I felt was stage zero of my crisis. But the way my psychiatrist explained it was really nice – he was like look, sometimes you break your leg and then you just need crutches to let it heal. And this is just what it is – I think you just need some crutches for your mind at the moment.
“Currently, I am still on my medication. We are going to review my case in two months to see how things are, because if I’m feeling better and more secure, then we can start reducing things slowly. I’m really happy that I made the decision to go back and decided to be very open about it with everyone around me.”
Always consult your doctor before making any changes to your medication. For more information on antidepressants, including how they work and alternative treatments, check out the NHS website.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
For confidential support you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*name has been changed