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Overcoming stigmas against mental health medication takes time for those with mental illness, their supporters

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Lauren Lyness

History and political science freshman Lauren Lyness talks about mental health awareness and her experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder in the David L. Boren Student Lounge Jan. 18. There are many stereotypes surrounding taking medication for mental illnesses.

“Lauren had to take her crazy pill and go home.”

History and political science freshman Lauren Lyness remembers clearly the moment that ended her friendship with a former best friend.

It was her sophomore year of high school. She was in treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder — and a part of that treatment was medication.

“I had to go home from school because I was having a panic attack. I told her what happened because she sat with me at lunch and she had seen me earlier that day,” Lyness said. “I thought I could trust her. She ended up telling my whole table.”

In addition to the betrayal of Lyness’s trust, that incident is indicative of greater societal attitudes toward medications used to treat mental illness.

“People think because it’s our brain and we can think, then we should be able to pull ourselves out of mental disorders, and that’s often not the case,” said Ed Hill, a psychiatrist at OU’s University Counseling Center.

This idea is common not only among friends and family members of those with mental illnesses, but among those who deal with mental illness, as well. Lyness witnessed her younger brother go through the same process of diagnosis and treatment before she did, so it was easier for her.

However, for Cheryl Frazier, philosophy doctorate student and graduate teaching assistant, the idea of taking medication for depression and anxiety was initially an admission of weakness.

“I felt like I couldn’t do this basic human thing — I couldn’t make myself happy — and there was something really wrong with that,” Frazier said. “I was really resistant to taking medication because I thought this was a problem I should be able to fix. I wanted to be normal, rather than have to take any kind of medication.”

Now, Frazier said medication has been better for her than therapy alone. For Lyness, starting medication has been one of the best decisions she has made in her life.

Frazier and Lyness are both open with their friends and family about their struggles and have found that community to be supportive, even if it takes time for people to understand what they are going through.

“Once they know that this is a legitimate medical thing that needs to be treated in the same way that you would treat a broken arm or the flu, I think people are more understanding about why you would need medication,” Frazier said.

Understanding a friend with mental illness is not always immediate. For many, it is a process. Frazier recalls feeling hesitant to tell her friends about her medication because of things they had said in the past.

A few of her friends had expressed a belief that depression could be cured by “choosing to be happy” and that by taking medication, Frazier was “taking the easy way out” rather than putting in hard work to solve her problems.

“That’s not true at all, I’m just trying to maximize my chances of being happy,” Frazier said. “Medication happens to be a route that works for me in addition to everything else I’m doing.”

Before starting therapy and medication, Frazier had been battling her mental illness for a decade without treatment, she said. The choice to be happy was one she had been trying incredibly hard to make, but she could not succeed on her own.

“I didn’t want to tell my friends because I was embarrassed,” Frazier said. “I felt like there was something wrong with me rather than just having a health condition.”

Lyness said she has also noticed the idea that treatment of a mental illness is like flipping a switch rather than a long and difficult process.

“Whenever you see somebody with depression on a TV show, something happens in their life and they’re magically cured. It’s not the actual process of having to go through therapy, working at it, in addition to medication,” Lyness said. “Medication is not just a quick fix, it’s a process in addition to other things you have to do to get better.”

Lyness also said that people do not always understand what it is she takes medication for.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is shrouded in stereotypes that do not accurately represent what she and her brothers deal with on a daily basis, and those stereotypes play into some of the stigma surrounding her treatment.

“When people find out that I take medication for OCD they think, ‘What? You take medication for organizing your pencils?’ But that’s not what it is,” Lyness said. “The stigmas that surround the mental illnesses themselves affect the medication part of it. A lot of people don’t recognize it as an actual illness so they don’t realize why you have to take medication for it.”

However, Lyness and Frazier said they have both noticed a willingness to learn and understand in their friends. For them, learning to accept a friend with mental illness is as much a process as treatment itself — far from instantaneous.

Hill said he is hopeful that mental illnesses and their treatments will continue to carry less of a societal stigma. He recalls being hesitant to even tell people he was a psychiatrist 25 years ago. Now, Hill said his profession is not an issue at all. He said he has noticed a similar increase in acceptance for people with mental illnesses.

“I don’t know that it’s quite as positive as what I’ve described in myself, but I’m hopeful that people with mental illness will continue to see less stigma,” Hill said. 

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