Wondering if medication might soothe your anxiety or lift your depression? Worried Rx will do more harm than good? Here’s the truth.
Mental health meds are no different from prescriptions used to treat disorders like high blood pressure or diabetes. But myths persist about these medications. We’re taking a look at some of these myths.
Just like a doctor would use a cast, sling, anti-inflammatory drugs, and physical rehab after a broken bone, a host of tools are also used to help people with mental health disorders.
So, whether they’re helping you manage depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or something else, a healthcare professional will leverage several different tools and methods to assist in treating your mental health condition.
Medications may be one of those tools. These can be taken in the short term or for the long haul.
While they’re not a cure-all, meds may help you stabilize your mood if you have a bipolar disorder episode or even bring relief to more serious mental health symptoms like hallucinations or delusions.
Taking a mental health medication is incredibly common. A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that
But for the good that meds may do, many myths and misconceptions about mental health medications remain.
Myths about medications taking away your creativity
Some people with bipolar disorder may experience high levels of creativity when they have a manic episode.
“When I prescribe [bipolar people] with mood stabilizers, some have contended that they do not feel as creative and are unable to produce the same kind of work,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a Newport Beach, California, psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry.
This can be frustrating. But most medications that help target mood can actually bolster creativity, processing speed, and memory — which all improve when you’re feeling emotionally restored.
Sometimes that extra level of creativity may come from some of the symptoms being treated, explains Dr. Nicole Washington, chief medical officer at Elocin Psychiatric Services, which provides in-person and telehealth mental services in eight states.
For example, a person experiencing a manic episode may seem creative because they’re coming up with a lot of ideas, brainstorming, or have racing thoughts.
And while that creativity may seem like a great thing to experience, other parts of manic episodes have lasting interpersonal, sexual, social, employment or legal consequences. These might include impulsivity or excessive spending of money you don’t have.
“You really have to consider the episode as a whole and what are the negative things that we’re also trying to treat,” says Washington.
One 2011 paper concluded that patients who take a mental health medication might enhance their creativity by seeking richer, more supportive environments. There, creativity can thrive.
Myths about medications making you feel like a zombie
“People always tell me they know someone who took a mental health medication and is like a zombie,” reflects Washington. Of course, they don’t necessarily know which diagnosis the person had or what meds they take, she says.
“But no, you should not feel like a zombie,” she emphasizes.
Sometimes, if you’ve spent a lot of time dealing with schizophrenia, psychosis, or mania, it may be hard for you to remember what a more level mood feels like.
Patients tell Washington they feel slow or blunted after an episode of mania when they start medication. But consider that a manic mood is a 20 on a 1–20 scale while a more depressed mood is a 1, she illustrates.
So, if you take medication and drop from an 18 to a 10, it can be difficult to judge whether that’s really muted or just more level than you have been.
Washington stresses how simply asking for feedback can clarify whether or not the way you perceive your actions is what’s reflected in reality.
She encourages patients to ask trusted friends, family, or loved ones if they seem like they’re experiencing slow movement, thoughts, or action. Washington says that most of the time their loved ones tell them no.
She also tries to incorporate reality checks by asking:
- about their work
- if they’re keeping up with tasks
- if their supervisor or co-workers think they’re performing well
- other questions that can suss out whether they’re actually acting zombie-like in reality
Myths about meds changing your personality
Folks worry about being different on medication. But Washington says medication shouldn’t fundamentally change who you are.
“It should not change you as a person; it should just improve those symptoms that you’re having [which] we’re trying to address,” she emphasizes.
Prescription medications should and do alleviate things like:
- irritability or a lack of concentration, with depression
- restlessness, with anxiety
- racing thoughts, with bipolar disorder
However, meds won’t change who you are at the core.
Magavi adds, “If individuals are feeling apathetic or numb, I decrease the dose of the medication or change the medication.”
It’s all about finding what works best for you.
Myths about becoming hooked on Rx
Washington addresses the common concern that people don’t want to be “hooked” on their mental health management meds.
She likes to remind her patients that mental health conditions — depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder — are like health disorders for the brain.
“I have never heard someone say ʽI don’t want you to treat my asthma, my blood pressure, my renal failure, or my diabetes because I don’t want to get hooked on the medication,’” she says.
Washington works to encourage patients to think of these medications in the same way as their physical health medications.
Yes, some psychiatric medications can create dependence. Certain meds for anxiety or insomnia can be habit-forming, and people can develop a tolerance, meaning that over time you have to increase the dose.
When it comes to talking about condition management, it’s important to us here at Psych Central to distinguish “dependence” from “addiction.”
Misusing the word “addiction” can trivialize the healthful management of mental disorders, plus people’s long-term experience with them.
Addictive can’t be used as a substitute for dependence, as a person can be dependent on a prescription for long-term management of condition symptoms but not addicted.
“There are also some medications we use in psychiatry that aren’t addictive in that physiological sense of having withdrawal or tolerance, but you will have what’s called a discontinuation syndrome from them,” Washington says.
That’s why stopping antidepressants cold turkey is never recommended because you can develop flu-like symptoms — achiness or weakness.
You always should work with your prescribing healthcare professional to taper off those medications.
But, Washington adds, “I want you to function properly and perform as highly as you can, and if that means you’re taking psychiatric medication to do so, it’s no different than taking blood pressure medicine every day to prevent heart attack or stroke.”
Myth that the lower the dose, the better it’ll be for you
When Washington talks about prescribing medication, she says her patients often insist they want the smallest dose possible.
Most medications are already initially prescribed at the lowest dose to prevent significant side effects.
“But there are certain drugs that we know we need to increase the dose to give you the results you want,” she says.
People get really hung up on the number. “I only want 20 mg or 50 mg.” But it’s a misnomer to worry about the milligrams of the medication since all meds aren’t created equal. For some medications a high dose will be 20 mg, others it will be 800 mg.
You cannot purely look at the number and assume it’s a low or high dose.
“Trust the person you’re working with to manage your mental illness, ask questions about the dose ranges, but don’t get hung up on a number,” says Washington. “What is more important to you, feeling better or the number on the dose you’re taking?”
Myth that if you start medication, you’ll have to be on it forever
Being on a mental health medication forever is not necessarily true, depending on what you’re being treated for.
For conditions like schizophrenia, Washington says, you should remain in treatment long term.
But for conditions like bipolar disorder, physicians have different theories on how to deal with this, based on a person’s history as well as their symptoms and frequency.
Modifying doses and frequency along the way is helpful and typical as you age and experience different symptoms in varying durations, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
And for disorders like anxiety and depression, when someone is better after 6 months or a year, it’s not uncommon for a trial off of medications, under the supervision of a physician.
If an episode returns, Washington says, the person and a healthcare professional should have a conversation about whether to resume meds and continue therapy (she always recommends therapy as an adjunct treatment). A decision is made based on the individual person’s history.
While some of these myths and misconceptions can be readily addressed, it’s important to remember that whenever a medication has an unfavorable side effect or causes someone to feel “off” in any way, you should always discuss these effects with your healthcare team.
In some cases, medication may need to be changed, the dose may need to be altered, or medication may need to be added or even removed.
In other cases, it might be more about perception: You haven’t lost creativity just because your thoughts aren’t racing, or you’re not really blunted, you just might have a more level mood.
Your health professionals can work with you to discover the right answers for you.
“If you feel there is any type of symptom you find is difficult to manage, definitely go back to the person who prescribed it,” says Washington.