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Me, myself and anxiety 

Embracing the stigma around antidepressants.

click to enlarge Steven Hall has lived in Halifax for five years and is currently working on his PhD in pharmacology at Dalhousie University.
  • Steven Hall has lived in Halifax for five years and is currently working on his PhD in pharmacology at Dalhousie University.

In the past few years, awareness and support of mental health issues have improved dramatically. This has helped many who suffer from a mood disorder feel more comfortable seeking help—be it from friends, family, a therapist or a doctor. However, despite how far we’ve come in recent years, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness, especially with respect to the use of prescribed antidepressant medication for its treatment.

According to a 2013 article published in Maclean’s magazine, 11.4 percent of Canadians suffer from depression, 8.7 percent from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and 2.6 percent from bipolar disorder. Based on this information, it is not surprising that in 2013, approximately nine percent of Canadians were taking some sort of antidepressant medication to help alleviate their symptoms. Some say that these drugs are overprescribed—that people with these disorders simply need to get outside more, exercise, eat healthier or have more sex. I have heard and read anti-antidepressant opinions from many people, and noted that many of these opinions are from people who have either never dealt with a mental illness themselves, or are the lucky among us with an illness they can control with exercise, diet or therapy.

But we’re not all that lucky.

From the outside I look like a pretty normal, put-together guy. I’m a graduate student at Dalhousie University, have a wonderful spouse, great friends and a healthy family life. On the inside, I suffer from severe and often debilitating anxiety, with a side of depression. I’ve been feeling particularly terrible since this summer and after years of denial, telling myself it was just a phase or that I could get better by exercising more and eating better, I finally started looking for help. I started by seeing a very supportive therapist through Dalhousie. This has been beneficial in helping me identify fears and past traumas and learning cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to challenge negative thinking. While helpful, I was still struggling.

This fall, after trying for so long to cope with my issues “pharmaceutical free,” I finally hit a point where I couldn’t fight anymore.

Unfortunately, antidepressants are not one-size-fits-all and it can take a frustratingly long time before finding the medication that is best for you. My first prescription medication trial was with a tricyclic antidepressant called amitriptyline. It’s an older drug, but quite effective for many people. It wasn’t for me. Next I tried an atypical antidepressant, mirtazapine. It is an appetite stimulant and prevents nausea, and as someone whose stress manifests itself as chronic upset stomach, I was hopeful it would do the trick.

While it helped a little, I never noticed any major changes. Most recently, I was put on escitalopram, a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that is typically well-tolerated and often used for generalized anxiety disorder, among other conditions. While still too early to confidently say this drug is for me, I have been feeling better and remain optimistic that I will continue to see improvement.

The point I’m trying to make is that life can be difficult, and sometimes we need a little help to cope with our daily lives. If you find yourself struggling to get through each day, please talk with your doctor or another health care professional to see what options are available for you.

Remember that there is no shame in trying medication. Our mental wellbeing is just as important as our physical health, and you would never deny a physically ill patient a medication that could help them feel better.

Never give up, there is always hope. As one of my favourite musicians, Frank Turner, sings it, “We could get better, because we’re not dead yet.”

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