I’m going to kick this post off with a quick disclaimer: I am not a medical professional in any sense of the word. The following is based solely on my own experiences with medications and various different mental health practitioners over the years, so please bear this in mind. We’re stepping into a tricky subject matter here, and I certainly don’t claim some sort of authority I don’t actually possess.
With that out the way, let’s kick this hornet’s nest friends.
‘Medication’ and ‘therapy/counselling’ (depending on where you are in the world) are tricky subjects amongst people who talk about mental health online. For some, medication is the solution that really turned their life around; for others, it’s something that took a bad situation and sent it spiralling down into something worse. The same is true for counselling: some will tell you it’s fantastic, and others will tell you that it’s the work of Satan himself.
The net result is that there’s a lot of mixed messages out there regarding these forms of support. It can leave someone sitting on the fence feeling even more anxious as to whether they’re about to make a terrible mistake in choosing one (or both) of these options. I’d like to attempt an explanation as to where this contention comes from, as well as give a bit of insight into my own experiences with both. Hopefully a less partisan and more nuanced approach here will help some of you out there who are still uncertain as to your options.
MEDICATION AND THERAPY: A MARMITE DEBATE
Marmite’s apparently not something you’ll see too much of outside of these here British Isles that I’m writing from, so let me quickly explain the analogy. It’s a food spread that divides people in such a polarising way that it’s actually entered common parlance as a term for such an issue. There’s little to no middle ground when it comes to marmite: you either really like it, or you really don’t.
Just as it is with weird British food spreads, so it is with medication and therapy/counselling.
There’s such a range of medications and anti-depressants out there that it’s inevitable for people to have different experiences. For some, medication will have been the thing that helped them get a better handle on things and cope with their illness better: it’s only natural that they’d want the same thing for other people going through a similar illness to them. But the same holds true for the opposite side. Those who’ve suffered the often deliberating side-effects that going on certain medications can bring about will, bizarrely enough, not have had the best of experiences and might not want see others having to go through them as well.
Counselling is much the same. A good counsellor or support specialist can help people people come to terms with what they are experiencing and work through it. If it’s worked for them, it’s only natural that they’d want to tell others. But a counsellor that someone hasn’t gelled with or that really wasn’t good at their job can cause all sorts of issues for people who’ve gone to them seeking help: they too want to warn people of this so that they don’t have to experience such hardships.
What I’m trying to say is that both sides on these debates are coming into the argument with the best of intentions. It’s just that the range of polarising experiences that people have had makes the issue seem unsolvable.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH MEDICATION AND THERAPY
Since I first started actually trying to do something about the way my head works, I’ve run the gauntlet when it comes to available medications and counselling opportunities.
Medication has been a real mixed bag, truth be told. The dosage that I’m on just now seems to be working pretty well after several months (here’s hoping that continues), but I’ve only reached this stage after going through several different kinds that ranged from ineffective to outright harmful. I don’t want to name any names for fear of putting people off certain types of anti-depressants and SSRIs (just because it didn’t do it for me doesn’t mean it won’t for you), but it’s safe to say that it’s not being the most steady of experiences. Violent mood swings, intensified suicidal thoughts, all of those fun things that you see listed as possible side-effects that make you go “oh fuck, I hope that doesn’t happen to me”? Been there, friend, so I can understand entirely why some people don’t want to encourage others to follow.
It’s taken trial and error as well as perseverance to get to the stage I’m at now, yet I’m acutely aware that this progress could very easily be lost. A few days of forgetting to take my pills has in the past led to me deciding to completely cut myself off from the medication (something any doctor will tell you is a fucking terrible idea) and start self-medicating, leading to me completely losing my goddamn mind for a while. I’m in the fortunate position of having family and an awesome fiance to help get my dumb ass back on track during these times, so I can’t even imagine what a struggle it must be for someone who doesn’t have this level of support going through such an experience.
Nonetheless, I can’t deny that the current SSRI I’m taking has been of great benefit in levelling out my mood and keeping me relatively sane. It’s taken a lot of work to get here, but I think I can say I’ve found a good balance in terms of medication.
Therapy/counselling, meanwhile, hasn’t done it for me at all. It’s certainly not for lack of trying, given that I’ve seen everyone from NHS psychiatrists to private counsellors, but something about the process that works for other people has never clicked for me. The urge to say what I think the other person wants to hear, to be liked, is something I’ve not managed to work past even in the context of counselling, and this is effectively a death knell to any progress being made. What’s frustrating is that I know it does work for some people: I’ve seen first-hand the benefits counselling and therapy has provided for friends and loved ones. It’s just that I don’t appear to be one of those people. As my fiance quite rightly points out, though, this just means “you haven’t found the right damn counsellor yet”: much like with medication, it’s about seeking out the right one.
NO EASY ANSWERS
What I’m hopefully conveying by sharing these observations is a core truth about seeking help for mental illness and depression: there are no magic bullets. There’s no quick solution, no over-the-counter dosage that will immediately correct what’s wrong with you. When dealing with something as complicated as the human brain and it’s chemical makeup, you cannot expect a simple solution. If you’re wanting to seek help for it (and I applaud you for doing so), bear in mind that it’s going to take both time and energy. That’s not me trying to put you off seeking help. Far from it. But I do want to create a realistic image of what to expect, rather than setting people up for a fall. A popular metaphor that health professionals use is to think of mental illness as a broken limb: it’s not something that can be fixed overnight, but instead takes time and the proper treatment.
To finish on a slightly more positive note, my answer to the question of “should you try medication and/or therapy” is this.
You have absolutely nothing to lose in giving either a shot, and everything to gain.
The worst that can happen is that a particular medication or counsellor doesn’t work for you, but there’s nothing to stop you from changing to another form of medication or moving to a different counsellor. You might need to stick it out and keep on trying even when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere: that’s certainly been my experience. But breakthroughs do come in time. You could discover the right type of SSRI that really works for you. You might find the therapist or counsellor that you click with and who can help you get a handle on your problems.
It’s also vital to remember that pills and therapy aren’t your only options. There are plenty of people out there who use exercise and healthy eating to channel negative emotions and balance their mental health. Hell, there’s apparently people who forgo the medical/psychological route entirely and are able to work through their difficulties using sheer will alone. I can’t honestly recommend the latter, but it serves as an example for the fact that there are other routes that you could take.
Do your research. Consider your options. There’s a wealth of material online, and if you know people who are on medication/receiving counselling you can always talk to them about it. The only thing that won’t get you anywhere is sitting and fretting as to whether or not medication and therapy will work for you.
You won’t know until you try.