11 Things I Wish I Was Told Before Taking Psych Meds
Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.
Here’s what I wish I knew before taking psych meds:
1. What they are and why I’ve been prescribed them. It’s surprising and pretty scary the number of doctors who will flippantly say, “Do you want to try X?” or “I’m putting you on Y,” without telling you what it is or does. In the hospital I’ve been written up for medications without being told I have been, as an outpatient I’ve had doctors think out loud about various drugs that might help without telling me anything about them, and on more than one occasion I’ve gone home, googled my new prescription and have been left puzzled as to why I was put on an antipsychotic or beta blocker for anxiety because no one told me that off-labelling was a thing…
2. Off-labelling is a thing! Basically, drugs do more than they say on the tin, and can be beneficial for other illnesses, as well as the ones they were designed to treat. Quetiapine (an antipsychotic) can be used as a mood stabilizer, Olanzapine (an antipsychotic) can be helpful for anorexia, lithium (a mood stabiliser) can be used in treatment resistant depression, Amitriptyline (an antidepressant) can help with pain, and Propranolol (a beta blocker) can actually help ease symptoms of anxiety. Who knew? So don’t be alarmed or put off by strange names or descriptions on your pill packet — and ask your psychiatrist if you’re not sure why you’ve been prescribed a specific medication.
3. Side effects. Before I was put on lithium, side effects of various mood stabilizers were explained by one psychiatrist, but that was the first time in six years of being on psychiatric drugs that side effects were ever mentioned. I get that sometimes being aware of side effects beforehand can put people off taking certain medications, but I do think it’s unfair for doctors not to be upfront about what the short and possible long-term effects of these drugs are, especially given that they can be serious. Weight gain, tremors, drowsiness, lactating boobs, locked jaws, hair loss, liver problems, sweating, muscle stiffness or spasms, thyroid problems — the list is endless and I wish I’d been well-informed before agreeing to be prescribed certain drugs.
4. Sometimes the side effects can trigger other symptoms: Psych meds that cause psych symptoms — it happens. I’ve known someone who’s had hallucinations while on Zopiclone, and certain antidepressants are known for triggering mania or mixed moods. I once went seven months between being started on an antidepressant that caused me to become mixed/manic and seeing a psychiatrist who identified this and took me off it. I had no idea at the time what I was experiencing could be explained by the medication I was taking, and had I known, I could have asked for a review sooner.
5. Sometimes the side effects aren’t worth it. Leading on from the last points, sometimes the side effects just aren’t worth it — and that’s OK. It’s all about weighing up the pros and cons, and sometimes certain side effects might actually be causing you more psychological damage, or you might have new physical symptoms that outweigh any positive effects of the drug. It’s OK to raise your concerns with your doctor — I’ve done it and have been swapped over to something else with more manageable side effects.
6. They aren’t a magic cure. At 16, I waited for Fluoxetine to transform me, wake me up from a deep, dark depression and rejuvenate me. Obviously, the “cure” never happened. Medications are often a crutch more than a cure, helping lift or balance your mood just enough to allow you to engage with other treatments or be able to function and better cope with everyday life. They are by no means a quick fix, the effect is often subtle and it’s sometimes only when you stop taking the drugs that you notice they were working at all. At 16, no one told me that medication wouldn’t fix me, or that I wouldn’t notice they were helping, and I wish they had done, so I could’ve been more realistic with my expectations.
7. One size doesn’t fit all. The same way the same item of clothing won’t fit or look the same from person to person, psych drugs work differently for different people. What works for one person might not for someone else, and while some people might experience bad side effects from a certain drug, not everyone will. So just because something works for someone else, and doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean there aren’t other things you can try…which leads me on to the next point.
8. It can take time to find the right combination/find one that works for you. I’ve been on 17 different medications for mental illness, dozens of different types of medications, dosages, combinations and it’s only after six years and lots and lots of tweaking that I’m finally close to discovering the combination that works for me. So persevere, psychiatry isn’t an exact science and it might take playing around with different doses and types or a combination of medications before you find what works best for you.
9. I might be on them for years, or life. No one told me at 16 I would spend the next six and a half years on medication. It was only when I was started on lithium that someone sat down and told me I might be on medication for the rest of my life. Recovery from any mental illness is often a long and bumpy road, and it’s not as simple as popping a pill and stopping them once you start feeling a bit better. For many people, medication is a necessary part of recovery — and that’s something you might have to come to terms with.
10. It’s OK to take psychotropic medication. I felt, and feel, such a huge stigma around taking medication, and I shouldn’t. The same way someone might take painkillers for arthritis or insulin for diabetes, me taking meds for should be no big deal. Don’t feel ashamed for taking medication for your mental health — if you’ve been prescribed it, it could be because you need it.
11. I have a right to be involved in decisions relating to my treatment. It’s OK to voice your concerns or questions about a certain medication, and in the same way, it’s OK to voice if you find a medication helpful. I was taken off Buspirone after one doctor felt it “wasn’t necessary,” and a few months of struggling later, I said, “Actually, I found it helpful and I’m struggling without it,” and was restarted on medication for anxiety. Don’t be afraid to stand up to your doctor if you feel you’re being pressured into decisions over your medication that you don’t feel comfortable with — it’s your body, your illness and your treatment — you are allowed to have an opinion.
This piece originally appeared on Neuro-non-transmitters.
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