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Dear Tabloids: Our Antidepressants Are Not ‘Happy Pills’

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Matt Sloan, The Mighty’s contributing editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I continue to be surprised by the depths to which U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail will go to scaremonger. Today, antidepressants and mental health medication are once again in their firing line, and they’ve brought a cornucopia of twisted words and opinions along for the show.

Take a minute to consider this headline: “A Nation Hooked on Happy Pills.”

Let that one sink in.

As someone living with depression, anxiety and a personality disorder, it’s difficult to know where to begin picking apart the tabloid’s atrocious coverage. For starters, the study they’ve chosen to cover as their front page story does not appear to have been released today, as the tabloid suggests, but back in 2013 as covered by The Guardian. The study, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), suggests antidepressant use is on the rise in so-called rich countries, prompting some concern they are being overprescribed.

And that’s a fair topic to talk about. People in England were prescribed a record number of antidepressants in 2016. In the U.S, about 10 percent of American adults take antidepressants. But instead of discussing these trends in a thoughtful way (for example, in other coverage, one medical professional suggests this trend could also be an indicator of more accurate identification and diagnosis of mental health conditions, and reduced stigma associated with mental health), the Daily Mail frames the issue in a sensationalized and stigmatizing way.

In the piece, the Daily Mail’s medical correspondent Ben Spencer uses damaging language, and says that patients are “demanding a quick fix to avoid feeling down” — emphasis mine. Although they did provide a quote from the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists saying antidepressants are not happy pills, that does not outweigh the overwhelming harm this kind article will do — or make up for such a sensationalized headline.

It bears to notice here that the tabloid references all prescription drugs, not only antidepressants. They couple the number of prescription drugs with previous fears we may be over-prescribing antibiotics, leading to widespread resistance. In a single flourish of his pen, Ben Spencer plants the seed that those who are prescribed antidepressants don’t need them at all — but are simply looking for an easy fix. As someone who’s been prescribed medication, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Speaking personally, I have been taking medication for my mental health for a few years now. For a long time, I bought into the kind of thinking this tabloid perpetuates — that medication would change my personality, that it was dangerous. I feared it would “turn me into a zombie,” as said by the Daily Mail’s columnist Dr. Max Pemberton on that very same double page spread. So, I struggled in silence. I told nobody about my thoughts. I slipped deeper into depression when, in reality, I could have been helped a lot sooner by the very thing we are taught to fear.

Worse still is how, despite knowing many loved ones who require psychiatric medication in order to remain stable, a part of me still believed in the idea that antidepressants were a kind of “happy pill.” I would take them, and I would feel better. All would be great. Gone would be the days when I struggled to do the things I love, when I would be stuck in the house eating the same meal every day instead of going to the shop, braving the crowds, learning to cook. I believed the misconception.

This isn’t the reality of antidepressants, or other psychiatric medication, at all. In actual fact, I’m now taking my third antidepressant in just a few years. I’ve struggled with side effects and bad days, and it’s not at all been a “quick fix.” Antidepressants sometimes take months to work, and they aren’t the miracle drug the misconception believes them to be. I don’t know what I’d do without them, but they certainly aren’t the be-all and end-all. Studies suggest both psychiatric medications and therapy should be taken together, not one or the other.

With this reporting — by labeling psychiatric medication as “happy pills” — the Daily Mail are not only in breach of guidelines set by the National Union of Journalists for responsible reporting on mental health, but also risk affecting the opinions of millions currently struggling, unseen, from depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. The Daily Mail is one of the most widely read newspapers in the U.K. Millions will see this headline and might take it at face value, without ever reading between the lines. The danger, therefore, is not in a nation “becoming hooked on antidepressants,” but in a nation of people who may need antidepressants to find some stability in their struggle, but are still being shamed by irresponsible reporting such as this.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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Originally published: December 30, 2017
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