Updated on 20 May 2020: There’s no getting away from the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on the mental health of people everywhere. We are, as experts have warned, on the brink of a “mental health crisis” – a combination of isolation, health concerns and uncertainty about the future has left many people struggling with rising levels of anxiety and depression.
This has had a knock-on effect on the number of people seeking professional help for their mental health, including in the form of medication. According to new analysis from the online NHS pharmacy Echo, the company have dispensed 113% more antidepressants since lockdown began. Considering that antidepressant usage was already on the rise before the coronavirus pandemic hit (NHS figures reveal that, even before Covid-19, there was a 7% year-on-year increase in antidepressants dispensed from February 2019 to February 2020), it seems more people than ever feel confident seeking help for their mental health.
However, this doesn’t mean the stigma around antidepressants has disappeared. Unlike taking medication for “physical” conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, there remains a taboo surrounding the use of antidepressants – as if seeking help through medication is somehow ‘shameful’ or a ‘failure’ to cope.
In reality, however, these are lifesaving medications that are incredibly helpful for thousands of people – so it’s vital that we talk about it to ensure more people feel confident in seeking this kind of help.
Here, Stylist’s junior digital writer Lauren Geall explores her relationship with antidepressants – and why talking about her medication is so important to her.
As reported on 18 October 2019: My morning routine is probably much like your average 20-something living in London. I get up, jump in the shower and slather on a few coats of mascara before catching the train for my hour-long commute. The one difference? I take a 150mg daily dose of sertraline – an antidepressant I use to keep my Pure OCD and anxiety under control.
I am one of the 7.3 million people who were prescribed antidepressants in 2017-18 (I was first prescribed sertraline in April 2017), and have been taking the drug ever since. Sertraline, a form of antidepressant called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), works by blocking the “reuptake” of the often-termed “happy chemical” serotonin, meaning more of it builds up in my brain.
I remember the first time I took an antidepressant quite clearly. I went to the GP for what I told them was “just a bit of anxiety” – when in reality I was suffering from disturbing intrusive thoughts that I not only didn’t understand, but was too ashamed to talk about. I had previously self-referred myself to my local mental health service and received online “chat” therapy, where you speak to a therapist via an instant messaging service, but that hadn’t helped. I was then prescribed 50mg of sertraline.
Those first couple of days – and then weeks – were extremely hard, both physically and mentally. Not only did I have to deal with what my body was going through as it got used to the antidepressants – nausea, sweating and a constant alternation between uber-alertness and extreme sleepiness – but I was also battling my own mind.
It’s a well-known fact that antidepressants make you feel more anxious for the first couple of weeks you take them, but it wasn’t always my mental health that got in the way. Surprisingly, despite advocating for people to be open about their mental health and being quite happy for my friends to talk me through their problems, I also felt quite a lot of shame at even having to take the pills in the first place.
I just felt completely defeated. Not only because my OCD was continuing to worsen as my intrusive thoughts increased to a point where I struggled to think straight - I went through a stage where my Mum and sister took it in turns to stay with me at university just so I could get through my end of year exams. But it was also because I felt a completely unexpected shame at the prospect of relying on medication to tackle my symptoms.
I was fine with telling other people to accept help and take care of their mental health, but found it completely unacceptable that I had ended up using medication. I felt at the mercy of these tiny tablets, and, perhaps most significantly, I felt utterly out of control.
Having taken the sertraline for a couple of months, I ended up returning to my GP and telling them it wasn’t working, but I didn’t get any more answers. It was only because I was luckily in a privileged enough position to receive care privately through my dad’s health insurance policy, where I eventually got diagnosed with severe high-functioning Pure OCD (try cracking that one out down the pub), that I was prescribed a daily dose of 150mg of sertraline (which was increased gradually over a period of two weeks).
I was extremely lucky to find an antidepressant that worked for my body once I had found the correct dose – for many people on antidepressants, they have to go through a number of different options to find one that works for them. And as the sertraline started to work after the first couple of months at the higher dose, it started to help me to feel stronger mentally, and gave me the resilience to work through therapy and learn coping mechanisms to deal with my intrusive thoughts. I realised antidepressants are a bloody fantastic tool, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
And that is why now, at any suitable opportunity, I tell my friends I’m on antidepressants. I talk about my dosage, I tell them about my experience, and I try to be as honest as possible. Not only does talking about my experience help them to understand where I’m coming from when I complain about the occasional side effect or dip into my bag to take the tablets I forgot that morning, but it empowers me to be so honest about such an important part of my life.
On top of that, talking about antidepressants normalises the process of taking them and takes away that taboo which stops people from looking for help or feeling ashamed for doing so. It really should be as easy to talk about antidepressants as it is to talk about other life-saving medications such as insulin or blood pressure tablets, because that’s what they really are: life-saving.
Antidepressants may not be for everyone, and they’re definitely not the answer for the mental health crisis this country is currently facing. Medication took me some of the way on my journey to recovery, but access to therapy, support and information on the internet also helped me to come to terms with the mental health condition I may always live with. Access to free (or at least affordable), therapy needs to be the goal if we want to seriously address the problems people are currently facing.
Right now, however, I’m going to focus on my antidepressants. I’m going to champion them, talk about their strengths and weaknesses, get involved with debates about them and stand up for their role in recovery. They changed my life – and finally, I’m proud of that.