Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to email@example.com. As a woman who lives with debilitating anxiety, I've heard—and tried—it all. I've changed up my diet and added more exercise to my routine. I practice yoga, attempt meditation occasionally, receive acupuncture, use medically legal cannabis—the works. But, according to the myriad of memes put out by "experts" in the natural health world, I'm still doing it all wrong because I also take daily medication. If one more mental health meme tells me I'm not good enough or strong enough or feminist enough because I take pills, there is no amount of meditation that will save them from my fury.
Mental health memes are all over the place these days, and for good reason since conversation about mental illness is clawing its way out of a deep hole of stigma. Some of these memes are supportive and encouraging, and some of them are actually funny, which can be therapeutic all on its own. But then you have those other ones. The ones that stigmatize, shame, and otherwise bully and patronize those living with mental illness. Most of them are directed at women.
Holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan is pretty direct about her loathing of the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to treating mental health issues. Her devoted Facebook followers lap up her frequent criticism of psychiatric medications and her promotion of all "natural" methods instead. Her feed is awash in quotes and memes shaming folks for using medication. In fact, the tagline that accompanies ads for her book is "Explore life with enthusiasm, with energy, and without medication," as if those three things couldn't possibly work together.
Brogan's memes claim that meds "bind, bandage, and constrict" rather than helping. Is there a problem with over-prescribing of certain medications in this country? Certainly, and I'm not questioning that. What is being questioned, however, is the persistent idea that anyone who takes medication is bad, weak, and not living their best life. This assertion is also socioeconomically prejudiced—it excludes people who lack the time or money to take yoga, sustain organic and gluten-free diets and practice other health-centric regimens that only the privileged can afford to. For people who can't take time away from work for familial responsibility, medicine can be a catalyst to feeling better, quicker.
Brogan posits that "Saying no to pharmaceuticals is an act of feminism" which couldn't be further from the truth. Feminism actually fights for women to access affordable and quality healthcare, including mental healthcare. It also pushes for women to be diagnosed and treated equally. And feminism champions the idea of trusting women—yes, even when they need or want medication. To equate feminism with not taking medication is not only completely wrong, but dangerous.
And it seems that Brogan didn't always disagree. "As a prescriber who very much believed medication to be the only legitimate option for treatment of any and all chronic illnesses, a review of the medical literature (non-industry funded) supports a risk benefit analysis sharply skewed towards undisclosed and suppressed risks," she says when reached for comment. "As Maya Angelou says, 'when you know better, you do better' but in order to know better, we need to begin to engage true informed consent around the limitations of these medications, the unpredictable risks, and the very real possibility that lifestyle change could address the root cause of an illness and permanently reverse it."
What Brogan and those like her fail to recognize is that for many, medication makes it possible for some people to feel strong enough to make positive lifestyle changes. I was essentially home and bed bound, suffering too many physical symptoms of anxiety (between constant sweating and nausea, heart palpitations, leg tremors and rapid weight loss) until my SSRI medication kicked in. It was only then that I was able to be in a place where I could even make the decision to change my diet, or have enough energy and strength to even attempt a beginners' yoga class.
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Last year, Marianne Williamson—an author who's written widely about spiritual and mental health, and worked with Brogan in the past—made waves when she posted assertions to her over 750,000 followers decrying the push for better screening of postpartum women for mood disorders like postpartum depression. Williamson said that more widespread screening would only lead to more medicating, and that hormonal fluctuation is normal after pregnancy and can be regulated with better nutrition, prayer, and meditation.
People were livid in the comments section. I was, too. (At press time, Williamson had yet to reply to a request for comment.) I started the hashtag #MeditateOnThis, which quickly garnered a lot of support and stories, mostly from women who suffered immensely from PPD and other postpartum mood disorders. Many described how medication saved their lives and allowed them to actually flourish as mothers.
Women are expected to be everything all at once. Any sign of an inability to be successful in our careers, relationships, and parenthood suggests we're weak or unfit. This is especially true for moms.
Sarah Fader, mental health advocate and founder of the non-profit mental health awareness organization Stigma Fighters, elaborates: "There is a societal stigma that women can handle things when men cannot. We are strong in childbirth. We raise children and we are equipped with a variety of emotions that men are told they cannot have, such as sadness and fear," Fader says. Knowing these things, society expects that we do not need to 'medicate.' I would argue that there is a spectrum of emotions within all human beings regardless of gender. Think of it like the volume on the stereo that is turned up way too loud. That would be the analogy for mental illness. Sometimes you need medication to turn that volume down."
Ironically, when my debilitating anxiety and panic attacks hit for the first time, sidelining me from my life, I was the "strongest" I had ever been. I was working out almost daily and eating less processed foods. I went on daily walks outside. Yet, none of that prevented my brain chemistry from effectively turning on me. Thankfully I had a provider, family and friend support system, and—yes—medication, that got me through the worst of it. But not everyone can say the same.
These memes and posts from so-called natural experts undermine biology and science. Sure, nobody will overdose on yoga or meditation, so perhaps these methods are "safer" in that regard, but to completely dismiss medication that can mean the difference between life or death for some women is irresponsible.
Society already shames and stigmatizes those with mental illness. To go one step further by shaming and stigmatizing a possible solution is unconscionable. Yes, women are strong and brave, but that doesn't mean that we don't find ourselves in situations where medication is the right option, one that allows us to get to a place where we can rely on other mental health tools too.
Obviously the world would be better and easier if we could solve every health-related issue with a walk in the woods, child's pose, and butterfly kisses, but reality dictates otherwise. So please, stop posting these memes that you think promote health when all they do is hurt the you purport to love.
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