Why are antidepressants still taboo in millennial mental health?

While everyone’s happy to chat about self-care and mindfulness, no-one wants to talk about medication

I have experienced depression since the age of 18. Each episode has been more draining than the last. When I spiralled into another episode in my final term of uni, aged 22, it was the worst I’d ever been. This time there was no semblance of even remotely holding my life together: I stopped attending lectures, slept most of the day and ate once a day. It all boiled over on house night out. I began bawling on the way back, crying about about how depressed I was and how nobody seemed to care. My housemate suggested that perhaps it was time I tried medication, and I had to agree.

According to NHS Digital, the volume of antidepressants prescribed has doubled in the last decade, with 70.9 million prescribed in 2018 opposed to 36 million in 2008. And looking at 2020, we can only suppose these figures have risen due to the toll the current pandemic is having on people’s mental health.

So, given their rising popularity, why is it that antidepressants are still generally seen as taboo? Mental health is already a huge talking point of my generation, even spawning its own buzzwords such as ‘self-care’ and ‘mindfulness’. Thanks to the media and mental health influencers, we are all aware that eating well, exercising and sleep hygiene are the pillars of stable mental health.

Mental health is already a huge talking point of my generation, even spawning its own buzzwords such as ‘self-care’ and ‘mindfulness’.

But what happens when you lack the energy to carry out basic self-care tasks? I remember days when brushing my teeth and washing my face felt like an unnecessary effort. Cooking a basic meal was a mountain of a task. How can you possibly exercise when simply getting out of bed is an ordeal in itself? This often isn’t addressed. People claim that there’s no shame in medication, but deep down they don’t want to be labelled as the ‘crazy’ one who can’t cope without the help of a little white pill.

But what happens when you lack the energy to carry out basic self-care tasks? I remember days when brushing my teeth and washing my face felt like an unnecessary effort. Cooking a basic meal was a mountain of a task. How can you possibly exercise when simply getting out of bed is an ordeal in itself?

“I think there is still a stigma,” says my friend Liz, when I ask her opinion. “In my case it was mostly internalised. I had preconceptions about antidepressants – their effects, the kind of people that took them. I took some time to overcome these and even consider antidepressants as an option for myself. Personally, I think this stems from the fact that millennials are the bridging generation when it comes to mental health awareness. Whilst we have witnessed the rise of mental health dialogue we are still surrounded and raised by those for whom the rhetoric around mental health was vastly different or notably absent. Our parents, bosses, university lecturers and even doctors are typically from the ‘keep quiet and plough on’ generation.”

There is also a misconception that antidepressants are addictive and that by taking them you’re drawn in for life. When discussing my decision to start taking them, a friend told me how brave I was and in the same breath asked me how long I planned on taking them for. It’s obvious that people view antidepressants as a quick fix, an ‘easy way out’, when in truth they are often a desperate last resort. The same friend then congratulated me a couple of months ago for coming off them after a year, ‘because some people get hooked on them’.

When discussing my decision to start taking them, a friend told me how brave I was and in the same breath asked me how long I planned on taking them for.

“One particular experience that has stayed with me is the reaction from one of my managers at work,” Liz tells me. “I had just started taking my antidepressants and the initial side-effects had me bed ridden. I rang to explain that I was unable to come in and when asked why I explained that I had started some new medication and it was making me feel very sick, dizzy and zapped of energy. She asked what the medication was and upon hearing it was antidepressants she exclaimed ‘Really!? You’re on antidepressants? And they’re making you feel sick? *disbelieving laughter*.’ She did later guide me through a panic attack and gifted me some orange oil to keep in my pocket at work to breathe in when I felt anxiety setting in… but her reaction on the phone that day has never left me. My greatest fear throughout much of my low mental health was that I wasn’t ill, I was just making a fuss. When I got over that, the fear became that other people would think I was just making a fuss, so her disbelief on the phone that day really left its mark.”

“My greatest fear throughout much of my low mental health was that I wasn’t ill, I was just making a fuss. When I got over that, the fear became that other people would think I was just making a fuss.”

Another thing that didn’t help me was scouring the Internet for help. All I saw were horror stories and people keen to get off them as soon as they got on them. This was another factor that put me off for quite some time. I’m not denying that people may have had bad experiences whilst taking antidepressants, but why wasn’t I hearing more success stories? Oh yeah, because all the people successfully taking them didn’t want people to know because of stigma. It’s a vicious cycle.

Despite all this bad press, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with antidepressants. The only bit of the experience that was unpleasant was the physical side effects of weaning myself off them, but this is only to be expected after taking any sort of medication for a long period of time. It turned out none of the scary stuff people said about those innocuous little pills was true.

Despite all this bad press, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with antidepressants.

Having said all of this, there have also been incredibly kind and non-judgemental people -from close friends who’ve been my rock to strangers who’ve rewarded my openness about my mental health with stories and experiences of their own. I realise that none of the above stigma comes from a place of malice, but a place of miseducation that leads to ignorance. It doesn’t help that companies have jumped on the notion of ‘self-care’ and commercialised it to the point where we think solving mental health issues involve a bubble bath and a bar of chocolate, although treating yourself kindly is a major part of mental health too. To challenge this ignorance we need to start debunking tired old tropes about antidepressants and other forms of medication for mental illnesses. Millennials may be more comfortable talking about mental health than our parents, but we need to go one step further and work to destigmatise legitimate forms of treatment. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to treating depression.

Do you think antidepressants still have a stigma? Let us know in the comments.

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