‘Hooked on happy pills’? How the media demonises mental health medication

Language is very telling of attitudes - would it be the same talking about medication for
high blood pressure?

Share
Related Topics

Working in a busy press office for a major mental health
charity Rethink Mental Illness,
I often get calls from journalists asking if I can put them in touch with
someone to interview about their experiences of mental illness.

Nothing unusual about that. What I have noticed about these conversations however, is the familiar phrases that so often tend to pop up. Do we have anyone who has been ‘parked’ on medication for over 10 years? A mum who is ‘hooked’ on Prozac? Take a look at almost any media coverage about antidepressants or antipsychotics and you’ll often find this kind of language creeping in.

Every time new figures come out showing increases in prescriptions for these types of drugs, we get a flurry of calls from the media asking if we’re ‘concerned’ about the ‘shocking rise’ in the ‘antidepressant epidemic’.

What I find worrying, is the automatic assumption that a rise in prescriptions, or someone taking medication for a number of years, is necessarily A Bad Thing.

Medication for mental illness can save lives and give people the stability they need to survive. That may be for a few months, it may be years. While no one wants to be on any kind of medication unnecessarily, for some people, it’s the best option.

The language used in the media around this is very telling. There is a clear dividing line between those who simply ‘take’ medication, such as people with diabetes, and those who are ‘hooked’ on it - people with mental health problems.

Antidepressants in particular are often written about in the context of someone trying desperately to ‘give them up’ as if they’re some kind of bad habit.

The subtext to all this is that to take mental health medication is unnecessary, a sign of weakness and failure. I can’t help wondering if this stems from the deep seated suspicion, which is rarely voiced, but still surprisingly pervasive, that the vast majority of people with mental health problems aren’t really ill, they’re just a bit sad or being a bit difficult. If as a society, we can’t truly accept that people with depression are ill, then how can we accept that it’s ok for them to take medication for it?

These deep-seated beliefs are not only stigmatising, they have a very real impact on people living with mental illness every day. It’s bad enough to be diagnosed with a mental illness and accept that you may need to take medication, but to be made to feel guilty for doing so, is especially hard.

When speaking to members of my charity, I often detect a sense of guilt when people talk about medication, as if it is an admission of weakness. I’ve seen it in my personal life too. One of my best friends was prescribed antidepressants for a severe mental illness last year. She found it incredibly helpful, but as soon as she stabilized, her immediate concern was to get off it as soon as possible. While of course it’s a good idea to try and come off any kind of medication if it’s not necessary, talking to her about it, it was clear that the main driving force wasn’t her health, but the sense of shame and inadequacy she felt for needing it.

Would she feel this way if she was taking medication for high blood pressure? I very much doubt it.

Rethink Mental Illness, is neither ‘for’ or ‘against’ medication, what we’re interested in is people having a choice over their own treatment and finding what works for them. The real problem is that in the vast majority of cases, this isn’t happening. Far too often, due to squeezed NHS budgets, people are only offered drugs when they could benefit from talking therapies either instead of, or alongside it.

My charity is the first to point out what a scandal it is that antipsychotic medications haven’t vastly improved since the 1950s. We have long campaigned for improvements in drugs which come with a range of horrific side-effects and double your chances of dying from heart disease. Despite all this, for many people, taking this medication is still their preferred option, which says a lot about how devastating psychosis can be.

Many people manage their mental heath problems very successfully without any medication; others may need to take it for the rest of their lives, there is no right or wrong. What is wrong however, is that anyone should be made to feel inadequate for falling into the latter group.

The media plays such a powerful role in shaping our understanding of mental illness, it’s vital journalists start thinking twice before lazily throwing around words like ‘hooked’ when they write about this sensitive subject. I look forward to the day I can open a newspaper and see decisions over medication presented as a straightforward health issue, rather than a moral struggle to resist the ‘happy pills’.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?