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Medication Nation: How stigma shapes our health

Tue, Nov 12, 2013

October 1 has passed, marketplaces are now open, and health care reform will be in full swing come 2014. But will access to health care coverage result in people utilizing their new mental health benefits?

I want to say yes, but in my experience as a licensed clinical social worker, the answer is no.

Access to health care coverage has certainly prevented some people from seeking mental health treatment, but for those with insurance, stigma and lack of information are more prominent obstacles.

Use of psychiatric medications is on the rise among Americans, but many people are unaware of this.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12 takes medication for mental health treatment, suggesting that many people we know—family members, friends, and colleagues—receive such prescriptions.

But they aren’t talking about it.

Stigma prevents many people from participating in important, life-changing, and in some cases, life-saving treatments. I hear stigmatized beliefs in my work with community mental health organizations, homeless services, and in private practice.

any of my clients are depressed and anxious, with symptoms that diminish their relationships, work productivity, and overall quality of life. Thankfully, they are willing to engage with me in talk therapy, but when I raise the question of medication, they resist, citing a familiar reason: They’re embarrassed.

They don’t want to believe that they are one of “those people” who needs medication to feel better. The negative messages our society perpetuates have labeled individuals as weak, sick, and crazy—simply because they’re prescribed medication for mental health symptoms.

Medication, however, has the capacity to change their lives for the better. Talk therapy can be highly beneficial, but often talking alone isn’t enough.

The human brain is a complex organ. If neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are not released in appropriate volumes, symptoms of depression and anxiety ensue. No amount of talking can change that.

When clients begin a prescription medication regimen, they often tell me that they should have started such treatment years ago, reporting improved sleep, mood, and self-esteem.

I have no personal stake in drug companies. My role is to give clients the best information available, offer them tools to make positive changes, and support them to make the choice that’s best for them.

That shouldn’t just be the role of a therapist, though. It’s everybody’s responsibility. It is our duty to talk about mental health constructively, not destructively.

Psychiatric medications are gifts of modern science. They’re imperfect, but their benefits are well-documented. I encourage people using medication to share their experiences with those closest to them.

This can help normalize mental illnesses and various treatment methods. Failure to do so will leave the conversation in the hands of uninformed media, pundits, and politicians, which will only perpetuate stigma.
After all, self-care and active participation in our own health isn’t shameful, it’s vital.

Kate Loewenstein is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who provides individual, couples, and family therapy with Nicole Meyer Klarich & Associates. She also serves full-time as the Behavioral Health Services Manager for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC). Prior to joining AFC, Kate held a clinical management position, where she provided group therapy to adults with chronic mental illness.

By Kate Loewenstein
StreetWise Contributor

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