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Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson Argues Antidepressants Are Overprescribed

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Democratic presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson again expressed her position on antidepressants and other mental health medications, saying they’re overprescribed for things she believes are just “normal human despair” as opposed to mental illness.

Williamson was interviewed by BuzzFeed News’ AM to DM on a variety of topics on Friday, ranging from her thoughts on President Donald Trump to her opinions on health topics like mental health and psychiatric medications. She said in the interview:

The 20s can be very hard. They’re not a mental illness. Divorce can be very difficult, losing a loved one, someone that you know died, someone left in a relationship and you’re heartbroken — that’s very painful, but it’s not a mental illness. You had a professional failure, you lost your job, you went bankrupt. Those things are very difficult, but they’re not a mental illness.

This isn’t the first time Williamson, an author and political candidate sometimes criticized for comments others perceive as anti-medical, shared her controversial views about mental health. In 2018, according to BuzzFeed, she suggested antidepressants and Big Pharma played a role in celebrity suicides, which social media users criticized. She also responded to several people on Twitter that depression wasn’t stigmatized until it was medicalized and suggested doctors prescribe medications for sadness as opposed to depression.

In a 2018 interview with comedian Russell Brand, Williamson said she was diagnosed in the past with clinical depression, but she didn’t buy it. Because there is no official test to diagnose depression, Williamson suggested she believes it’s not a medical issue and shouldn’t be treated using medical techniques like medication.

“Even that’s such a scam,” Williamson said about the term. “All that means is somebody in a clinic said it. There is no blood test, right. But if you’ve been there you know it.”

Williamson clarified these comments in a new interview published in the New York Times on Saturday. “I regret saying that. That was an uncareful comment, because it’s not always a scam at all,” she said, adding:

That’s not to say that some people do not have serious — and by the way, I have certainly had experiences where I have said, ‘I think you should go see a psychiatrist.’ I can tell you the difference. One is, ‘I’m crying because my boyfriend left,’ and one is someone who can’t even look up. I understand the difference, and when someone is showing certain symptoms, I’m the first to say, ‘I think you should go see a psychiatrist.’

There are times doctors prescribe medications too quickly, when a different course of treatment may be more appropriate, without adequate training on mental health and without fully explaining to patients what they should expect or providing follow-up care. For mental health, a medication “fix” can also become a fast (but sometimes wrong or even harmful) alternative to addressing some of the larger issues that center largely on cost of care.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 60% of those in the U.S. with a mental health condition don’t get treatment in any given year. A poll conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found though a majority of those surveyed thought mental health treatment was important, 81% cited cost as a barrier. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that antidepressant use increased to 12.7% among people aged 12 or older in the U.S. as of 2014, compared to 7.7% in 1999.

Williamson doesn’t have a medical degree or professional license in mental health so her focus on antidepressants specifically may obscure a bigger message she’s trying to send about mental health care. She did tell BuzzFeed News medications are helpful for those who have clinical depression and other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. However, her argument is more about distinguishing between mental illness and “normal human despair.”

“The issue of personal human despair and how we treat it and how we deal with it is very much my lane. I’m very much a professional dealing with those things,” she said, adding:

I would say when doctors are coming in to talk about situational despair, that they’re getting in my lane. I’ve never weighed in on issues like bipolar, schizophrenia, anything like that. … Clearly there are medical conditions for which psychotherapeutic drugs have been and continue to be very helpful in people’s lives, and I think that’s true with clinical depression as well.

In an interview published on Saturday in the New York Times to clarify her stance on antidepressants and mental health issues, Williamson highlighted her comments were aimed at larger issues that can contribute to mental health but aren’t being addressed. “We are a depressed society,” she told the Times, adding:

There are things that are deeply wrong in this society, and it is making people depressed. The problem is that in too many cases, somebody goes to therapy and the therapist says, ‘What’s going on in your life that you’re so depressed?’ We need more of a conversation about why whole swaths of society are depressed. We have to talk about the role of economic injustice, chronic economic tension and anxiety.

Depression, like most mental health conditions, is likely the result of a complex overlap of factors that include your family and genetic history, biological factors in your brain and body, and environmental stressors from the personal, like a break-up or job loss, to the societal. For many people, mental health medications and antidepressants, in particular, are critical to their health, and it may seem like Williamson said otherwise. Keep in mind medication may be only one aspect of treating mental health along with things like therapy and peer support, and better access to care.

If you’re struggling with Williamson’s comments, or they felt invalidating, know you’re not alone. There’s nothing wrong with needing medication — or not needing medication or needing a combination of treatment for your mental health. Whatever your experience is with mental health treatment, know it’s valid.

And if you felt like Williamson’s comments on antidepressants were stigmatizing, we asked The Mighty community who do take mental health medications to weigh in on why they can be important as one way they manage their mental health.

Here’s what they told us:

  1. “Medication allows me to lead a beautiful, fulfilling life without the monster, that is anxiety, trying to control me. With medication, I am able to live without the worry of a panic attack that leaves me paralyzed and helpless. I am able to cope and use the strategies I’ve learned over time because I’m not drowning in anxious thoughts that control my mind.” — Reyna H.
  2. “With anxiety and depression, I find my mind clouded with negative and anxious thoughts. Medication helps clear the fog away so I can think clearly and approach these thoughts logically. It’s easy for me to get consumed by them and become paralyzed. The pills don’t do the job for me but they’re one of many tools I have to improve my mental health.” — Evonne P.
  3. “My medication helps me care for myself so I can care for my son! Without my medication, I couldn’t bring myself to even get out of bed before and during my pregnancy.” — Tori B.
  4. “When I needed meds for depression they helped me with my problems. I still had the problems in my life but I could deal with them and make better choices. Eventually, I divorced the abusive husband and no longer worked for an abusive supervisor.” — Mary W.
  5. “My medications allow me to function normally. Without them, I’d be ruminating, bedridden, and unable to cope with even the smallest life inconveniences. I am forever grateful for my medications.” — Emily C.
  6. “My meds help me function well enough so that I can do all the other things that keep me healthy like work, nutrition, and exercise. Without the meds, those things feel almost impossible.” — Andrea W.
  7. “My medications help keep anxiety, depression, and OCD at a manageable level. Without them, it is difficult to lead a productive life because of constant OCD behaviors, anxiety keeping my mind on one thing, or depression keeping me in bed.” — Kimberly G.
  8. “I take medication for my anxiety and depression. It helps me be able to breathe, before it was like I’m drowning in my own feelings and hopelessness, medication is like a flotation device, I’m still in rocky water but it keeps my head above the water.” — Summer S.
  9. “It makes my lows less low and long and my highs less impulsive and erratic. It helps clear away the heavy slime of mental illness to a slight sheen so I can get into therapy and actually benefit. It helped me to be a better friend again with proper boundaries and self-care. It gave me my personality back and my life back.” — Aimee C.
  10. “It keeps me stable, and able to care for my family the way they need me to. I don’t feel the urge to self harm as much, and my suicidal thoughts have been much less. I am living my life instead of sleeping or walking through it in a fog of cluttered brain activity mess. It also helps me sleep enough instead of being awake for four days straight. It has absolutely saved me….along with therapy.” — Kelly S.
  11. “I’ve been taking meds for about a year now for my mental health. It’s helped a lot more than I thought they would. Working with my doctor to get the right meds and the right dosage has made an impact on my life. I’m nowhere near as anxious and my depression has improved enough that I can actually function without struggling through it.” — Jennifer B.
  12. “It helps me stabilize my emotions and deal with my anxiety. It gives me energy to do everyday things, that I couldn’t do. It’s important for me to be on it because of the grief I’m going through and being able to survive this terrible experience.” — Tiffany M.
  13. “My depression meds keep stable enough to use the techniques my therapist taught me to deal with my depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Without them, I don’t know where I would be.” — Kyra B.
  14. “It makes it so I can be a mother again to my children. A proper mother. And not an empty shell just drifting through life.” — Chelsea M.
  15. “My medication helps to stabilize my brain chemistry, and helps to give me a chance to learn coping skills when life is getting tougher so I can lessen my meds hopefully.” — Rebecca S.
  16. “It helps me to be able to hold down a job as I’m not hysterical at the slightest thing. It helps me to sleep and most importantly because it helps my moods to not be so extreme I can recognise when I’m either going to hit a high or a low and be able to cope with it better.” — Naomi S.
  17. “For me, medication works as a cushion from too high and too low, a fence to keep hallucinations away, and a security blanket to help with paranoia. Reduces impulsivity for self-harm and spending. It helps me keep a rational mind so I can use coping skills to get through the day and be a good mom.” — Mackenzie C.
  18. “It helps me get out of bed in the morning. It helps me sleep. It helps me achieve at least one thing a day without getting distracted by every little thing. In short, without medicating I would be in my bed all day, staring at the ceiling, not eating, not sleeping, barely able to get myself to the bathroom. It’s saved my life.” — Val P.

Why are mental health meds important?

Article updated July 27. 

Header image via Marianne Williamson’s Facebook page

Originally published: July 26, 2019
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