I work in an outpatient mental health clinic treating depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. I find that one issue comes up repeatedly and that is the debate on whether or not to use medications. It is an interesting phenomenon because in all other areas of medicine patients assume they will be prescribed a medication. Most people when they go to their doctor and are sick expect a shot, steroid, or antibiotic. Yet I have people who walk through my door everyday who are legitimately suffering and refuse to get treatment for their symptoms.

I’m often frustrated because in our culture mental health medications have been vilified. My patients come in and one of the first things they do is explain to me that they aren’t crazy. People are terrified of being judged and labelled as having a mental health problem. As a culture we seem to be ok with diagnoses like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. However, when we talk about mental health problems our language seems to switch. We say that a person is an alcoholic or that person is bipolar as though that disease defines the sum total of that individual. I’ve never heard someone say that an individual is diabetes.

There is a lot of fear and misinformation surrounding mental health problems. I think there is a firm belief that if you can go without medication that you will have better outcomes. Many people worry about side effects which I believe is a valid concern. However, I think that very often in our risk assessment, we fail to consider the harm of not treating a mental illness. Did you know that 60% of individuals who commit suicide have a mood disorder (like bipolar, depression, etc. Source)?

I think many people fail to realize the consequences of untreated mental illness, especially in children.  Did you know that 1 in 4 teenage girls self-harm? One in 10 boys also participate in self-harming behavior (Source).

Untreated mental illness can lead to poor academic performance, self-harming behaviors, self medicating with illegal substances and other maladaptive coping mechanisms. I think the assumption that our children will be better off without medications is based on fear rather than truth. Most parents would not hesitate to get medication for their children if they were diagnosed with asthma or diabetes. However, if your child receives a diagnosis of anxiety or ADHD, parents often opt to utilize counseling and non-pharmacological treatment options. I’m not opposed to counseling, but I’ve seen so many people have their lives radically improved by utilizing medications that I think it’s foolish to not at least consider the possibility.

Medications are a tool that can be very useful especially in acute situations. They are not a cure all. However, I want my clients and patients to make educated decisions about their treatment options. It’s important to weigh not only the risks of treatment but also the risks of not treating a disorder.

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