To Medicate Or Not: 6 Real People Share Their Experience With Psychiatric Drugs

Photo by Luca Di Lotti

According to the CDC, one out of every five Americans struggles with mental illness. But in reality, that number is likely much higher. Here at mindbodygreen, we know that a mental health struggle—whether it be anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, or a diagnosis like bipolar disorder—can teach us more about life, health, and ourselves than we ever thought possible. So in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re sharing personal stories and lessons from those who have been there. Together, we’ll continue to add to the honest and open conversation about mental health.

If you're a wellness-minded person struggling with your mental health, it can feel like you're stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, you favor a natural approach to healing over pharmaceutical and over-the-counter options. You might even be scared of these options, knowing that some of them can have side effects you want to stay away from. But on the other hand, you may not feel like you're in the head space to call upon alternative practices, which can require time, money, attention, and effort. You might be going through a trauma, grief, or a period of extreme hardship that you wish you could handle but can't. What then?

If you find yourself at this juncture, it's important you speak to a caregiver you trust, whether they be of the Western, Easters, or any other healing persuasion. And while only you can determine the treatment that is right for you, knowing that others have navigated the division before can be of comfort. We asked seven real people what it was like to make this decision and what they know now that they wish they'd known then. What we found is that they gained a LOT of wisdom—and they want to share it with you. Here's what they had to say:

1. If you decide medication is right for you, you don't have to defend yourself to anyone.

"What I wish people realized about medication is that it’s not something you are tethered to taking for the rest of your life. It’s not supposed to make every past or future unfortunate event disappear, and it won’t. Medication is prescribed to help me, and anyone else, return to a prolonged, normal state of mind and being. When my life hit rock bottom, in the years following my dad’s death by cancer, my medication made me feel like myself again. I regained my energy and inner strength and reclaimed my life. I succeeded academically and professionally, overcame new obstacles, and fell in love. There are times when I still feel down, but I know these times are a part of my life—something that I want to overcome and am able to on my own.

"Someday soon I’ll start to gradually decrease my medication until I’m no longer taking it, because a time will come when it has served its purpose. I’ve already started considering it. Until then, I am living a happy and fulfilled life. If your depression, anxiety, or mental health has taken over your life in a way that strips you of who you are, I strongly recommend both trying the natural route and getting evaluated for a prescription medication.

"As for the social stigma surrounding mental health and medication—why are we still talking about this? It’s no one’s business what anyone is doing for their own well-being, and we do not have to justify or defend ourselves to anyone. Take care of yourself first. That’s more important than what anyone has to say about it." —Riley, 24

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2. I never, ever plan to go on a psychopharmaceutical again.

"My journey navigating the mental health world began about six months after graduating from undergrad. I finally made the decision to address some underlying issues stemming from unresolved trauma that had been plaguing my college career and ultimately my daily functioning. I made the choice to attend weekly cognitive behavioral therapy to process the trauma; however, as the therapy continued, it became more and more difficult for me to tolerate many of the memories and emotions that I had so long suppressed. It was at that time that it was suggested I consider psychopharmacology as a way to manage these symptoms. It started with low dosage sleep medication and an 'as-needed' anti-anxiety agent yet quickly accelerated to a daily antidepressant.

"Not too long after, as the medication I was prescribed had side effects, the psychiatrist began adding additional medication to the regimen to address the side effects presented by the initial medication protocol—including adding a stimulant for fatigue, increased doses of anti-anxiety and antidepressants with an additional 'augmented antidepressant' to 'really address my depression.' After three years of constant medication changes, tapers, med washes, and new trials, I couldn’t help but feel like I was drowning and no longer in control of my own life. It was at this point I decided to taper off of all my medications, start from baseline and rebuild. It hasn't been easy, but I've never looked back. That was one year and five months ago. I haven’t been on a psycho-pharmaceutical since and truly never plan to again." —Charlotte, 27

3. I denied medication to myself for years, and it created a lot of suffering.

"While I'm not a huge fan of prescription pills in general, I do take Klonopin occasionally. I denied it to myself for years, toughing out panic attacks, trying meditation, L-theanine, magnesium, and every other natural solution under the sun, because I was so black-or-white about not wanting to use drugs. A functional doctor eventually told me that I was doing more harm to my body by having it be in a constant state of stress than by using Klonopin very, very sparingly. Now I take it a few times a year and feel much more balanced." —Bella, 31

4. Drugs targeted only a small portion of the problem that was my mental health.

"The simple answer is that I look at medications primarily as Band-Aids. Some of us need them to suppress symptoms so that we can actually get to a place where we can do the practices and treatments, as part of a daily routine for our mental health, that helps us heal. There are definitely some disorders, more of an organic nature in the mental health spectrum, that necessitate medication. That being said, it's my belief that for many, stress and trauma build in our system, making changes in our inflammation levels and the way our nerve cell/other cells, organs, muscles, fascia, and even glands function. When you use drugs alone, which only target a specific part of the brain, you’re forgetting that the stress and trauma exist in the whole body. For me, it was nutrition, practices, supplements, and a focused daily routine that really worked—not a magic pill." —Eric, founder of We're All a Little "Crazy"

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5. I've taken over a dozen medications, and it's hard to say if any of them helped.

"Since I was an adolescent, I've probably taken over a dozen different medications aimed at helping me through my depression and anxiety. While I don't deny the existence of a chemical imbalance in the mind of someone dealing with this, my honest opinion is that depression is more behavioral than biochemical. Did any of these medications help me endure my disorder? It's tough to say. When you're depressed and anxious on a regular basis, if someone hands you a pill and says, 'This will make you feel better,' you're going to (at least want to) believe them. Speaking as a nonmember of the scientific community with no literature to back my thoughts, I believe that any improvements in my mood because of these medications can be mostly attributed to sheer placebo." —Micheal, 27

6. Medication helps, but I don't look at it as the only solution.

"Senior spring of college, I had the rug pulled out from under me in a number of ways all at the same time: I was retiring as a former D1 athlete and having an identity crisis of not being an athlete; I had a major relationship breakup and friends turn their backs on me; and no job lined up post-graduation (it was spring 2009 and the Great Recession was well underway)—not to mention submitting thesis research papers and graduation. It all came down in a crashing wave of generalized anxiety and moderate depression that was affecting my sleep. I was lucky to be at a small liberal arts school that put mental health first and provided counseling, treatment, and therapy to all students on campus. As a self-aware adult and psychology major, I did seek help pretty early on and met with a psychiatrist who recommended weekly counseling and medication (Wellbutrin and Klonopin). I felt like I’d failed in a way by seeking help and needing medication, but I also felt triumphant in realizing I needed help and taking that step. I eventually found yoga and meditation and a regular sleep schedule as part of a healthy lifestyle, positive relationships in friends and partners, family support, and eventually a dog (the best positive life force to have in a home!).

"I eventually stopped taking medication after about 1.5 years as I had new tools and resources and was feeling good. Yoga and movement and meditation are all really, really beneficial for me, but I’ve recently started taking medication for anxiety again as stressors at work, life, and personal were snowballing to feel overwhelming. I’m also in the market for a new therapist and psychiatrist because in my book—building a team is always a good idea for problem-solving. I think medication is an incredibly personal journey, and there’s no right answer for everyone. For me, I know that I have the tools to manage my generalized anxiety, but there are times when I need a bit of a reset with an assist from some medication. For me, medication can help me pump the breaks on the overwhelmingness that can come with anxiety, but it’s not the only solution for me." —Amelia, 30

Could it be right for you to avoid pharmaceutical drugs and trudge through, holding tight to meditation, therapy, and other techniques? Could it be right for you to simply head to the pharmacy to fill a prescription? Both decisions require the same amount of strength and courage.

Want more mental health content? This is the one supplement integrative psychiatrists always recommend to their patients.

And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.

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