How to Criticize Psychotropic Drugs

The life of one of friends was saved by psychoactive medication. Another friend’s life was upended—almost destroyed—by them. And I recovered a full and happy life without any drugs, even though meds have aided many  on their road to recovery.

So, to all pro- or anti-pill people, I say this: what we need is nuance, not strawmen, in our discussion of psych meds.

To the anti-pill crowd: yes, there are horrifying practices going on in the pharmaceutical industry. Yes, some prescriptions drugs can be dangerous, and, yes, many are over-prescribed. But when used correctly, psychotropic drugs can improve the quality of life of those affected—and, in some cases, even save them.

While studies have shown that therapy tends to be as effective, if not more, than medication, many have also shown that a combination of both tends to produce the best outcomes. So, without doubt, there is a place for medication in mental healthcare—we therefore must address the problems surrounding psychiatric drugs without nixing its presence entirely.

If you are concerned about the over-prescribing of medication, push for better standards and regulation. Push for making information about psychotherapy—and psychotherapy itself—more available. Push for a ban on drug advertisements that make drugs seem like a miracle cure instead part of a larger treatment.

If you are concerned about the side-effects of medication or the danger that some medications pose, push for better medication. Push for funding to develop better drugs, for more safety tests, to more oversight from the FDA. Push for a way to help caregivers and doctors monitor patients’ reactions to their medications so that someone can intervene before the worst happens.

If you are concerned with the practices going on in the pharmaceutical industry—if you have used the words “Big Pharma” before—please realize that it’s less a conspiracy and more an atrocious side effect of our free market, “you-may-profit-from-illness” system. Mobilize political push-back. Push for better regulation and more transparency. Pressure politicians to close loopholes and increase oversight, and to make it so that the pharmaceutical industry can no longer get away with practices like downplaying side effects and exaggerating efficacy.

But here’s what you shouldn’t do: you shouldn’t berate those who have been prescribed psychoactive drugs. Most of these people do not want to pop a pill and be happy or who are looking for “a quick fix.” These are not the ones who are responsible for all the problems you are concerned about.

Instead, these are people who sought help for a condition that was severely impacting their quality of life.

These are people who have taken steps on the path to recovery.

And these are people who are much more likely to be victims the practices you condemn. By all means, spread awareness—but do so from a place of support and offered help, without the anger, scare-tactics, and haughtiness that usually comes with it.

To the pro-pills crowd: I side with you nearly all the time, for third main reasons. First of all, if you’re pro-pill you probably have had to use psychotropic drugs before. Second, pro-pill messages are normally encouraging and accepting, instead of inflammatory and spammy (just look at the #SickNotWeak tag on Twitter). Third, fighting my own disorders without medication wasn’t a choice, but an unfortunate reality facing the 2/3s of youth with mental disorders who receive no treatment. I can’t tell you what I would have done to be on medication or any sort of treatment. If I HAD to label myself as pro-pill or anti-pill, I’m definitely pro-pill.

But there are problems with the way medication is handled in the mental health care system. You might not have experienced it—your doctor might have prescribed you appropriate meds,  you might not have experienced any negative side effects, and you might have lived a better life because of it. This is exactly what I hope happened to you.

But in inpatient wards across the country (and psych wards in prison), medication is used alongside restraints to keep patients confined, sedated—and not as treatment.

Even in outpatient settings, my friend’s psychiatrist treated her anxiety with tranquilizers. Her only options, therefore, were living in a panic or sleeping all day, neither of which allowed her to function in life.

And it’s far too easy to walk into a psychiatrist’s office and get a script for Adderall, even though its ability to induce psychosis is so well known that it can be used to model (and study) schizophrenia. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you have people who, like nine-year-old me, don’t have access to treatment at all. Or people who are put on medication that did nothing to help, when insurance that pays for drugs won’t always pay for therapy.

So, if you’re pro-pill, definitely continue affirming those who have to take medication for a mental disorder. Mental health is attached to so much stigma that affirmations like these do a lot to help others.

But I encourage you to take a step further: push for the best of medication. Push for better drugs with less side effects, and for patients to be aware of the side effects that do exist. Tell others that it’s okay if their first treatment doesn’t work and that they are allowed to switch doctors and explore other options. Push against the unethical use of drugs and for everyone’s access to effective treatment.

Embrace our mental health care system while being willing to criticize it—and maybe our communities will come out the other side stronger, and healthier.

In the end, isn’t that what both sides of the aisle are fighting for anyway?



Photo credit: ThomasThomas via / CC BY-NC. Cropped.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. updownflight says:

    My journey on bipolar disorder medications has been far from smooth, but I am grateful that I finally found a mix that works. And over the last four years I’ve happily been weaned off some. I’m being weaned off yet another right now.

    My goal is not to go off of psychotropic medications, but find stability on the least number possible, with (as you mentioned) the least number of side effects. There was a time when I took seven psychotropic medications at the same time. In maybe three months I will hopefully only be on four. I’m sure four still sounds like a lot to many people, but hey, I’ve come a long way. My four will give me more stability and fewer side-effects than taking only one or two of certain other medications. Sure, I wish I could take just one or two that have no side effects and work great at keeping me stable, but yes, more research will need to be done. Not just scientific research, but trial research for my unique case. And yet now that I’m on a mix that’s bearable, trying something new seems risky/scary.

    There were times when I was heavily sedated in the hospital, dragged, and then locked in an isolation room for hours. Some people may think that would be horrendous, but I’m glad they did that to me. If they didn’t, it would have been an even uglier picture. I do hope, however, that if such “treatment” isn’t necessary that it wouldn’t be done. It’s important to ensure that treatment in mental health facilities is appropriate, just as it’s important that patients not be over medicated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wonderfully said. Thank you for sharing — it’s such a complex topic, and everyone has such a different (but equally important, equally telling) experience. And I am glad to hear of a positive experience with sedation, since most people I know aren’t happy with theirs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. updownflight says:

        Thank you, julieryanhuff, for posting about such an important topic. I know from being a long-time member and group leader for an online bipolar support group that medications (and not wanting to take them) is a very common topic.


  2. James says:

    Until things change within the mental health system, we must educate the public about the harms of their practices.


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