Many safe and effective medications can be part of treatment plans for mood disorders. Five members of DBSA’s Young Adult Council share their experiences with medication, from starting a prescription to switching doses to misconceptions. We hope the variety of our experiences will demystify the process and empower you to play an active role in your treatment. This is not medical advice. Always consult your doctor before starting or stopping any medication.
When did you start taking medication?
Jamie: I started taking medication when I was around 22 or 23 years old. When my depression got progressively worse and I was involuntarily hospitalized for the first time, I finally decided to tell my doctors that I was feeling depressed and anxious.
Ying: I started taking medications when I was 19 years old, during my first major hospitalization like Jamie. However, instead of being depressed, I was manic and out of touch with reality. My family did not believe in psychiatric medications until they saw how much I needed them and agreed to let the doctors give them to me.
Emery: I started trying medication in October 2018, when I was 24, about a month after my first suicidal ideation. I started taking the correct medications in November 2018, with an additional option added February 2019. I also take vitamins that my psychiatrist suggests and all together I’ve had the same cocktail of medications and vitamins since 2019. It works incredibly well for me, and I am very lucky in that I now rarely experience symptoms.
How was the option of medication introduced to you?
Olivia: My pediatrician presented the option to me and my parents when I was in eighth grade. A friend told a counselor at our middle school about some of the issues I was facing; the counselor then told my parents, who scheduled an appointment with my pediatrician. I privately discussed my feelings with the doctor, and she brought my parents back in to discuss our options. My parents and I agreed to start medication, which my pediatrician prescribed for the next five years or so. My pediatrician also referred me to a licensed clinical social worker for counseling.
Jamie: When I finally disclosed that I was struggling with depression, several primary care doctors presented medication to me as a first option. I remember several doctors suggesting counseling and antidepressants for me, but I was not convinced of either. I felt somewhat pressured by one doctor to take medication when I was not comfortable with it.
Ying: My pediatrician suggested a few strong psychiatric medications when I was 13 years old, when they first suspected I had bipolar disorder. Again, at the time, my family believed I was fine, so my parents didn’t let me take them. When I had a manic episode at 19, I didn’t have an option anymore, and I was told I probably needed them for the rest of my life, which made me really sad.
Lauren: Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I went to my college counseling center while I was still experiencing my first hypomanic episode. I was scheduled with both a psychiatrist and a psychologist. I think it was presumed I would be receiving both medication management and therapy, based on what I was presenting with. I don’t remember having too many concerns about being introduced to the option of medication right away. I knew I just wanted help, however that may look like.
Emery: From concerned therapists. I never thought I was THAT bad until I started meeting with multiple therapists. Each one, even the ones who really didn’t like to suggest medication, were saying, you need to be on medication. They were telling me it was a matter of life and death. And for me, it was.
What were your impressions of medication as you considered taking it?
Olivia: I was initially concerned medication would change who I was. However, because I was a minor, I didn’t have the resources, experience, or legal status to have complete control of my treatment plan. Several years after I began taking medicine, I was giving a public presentation about the stigma surrounding mental health. During the presentation, I discussed the three-legged stool metaphor for treatment, which includes therapy, medication, and support. After the presentation, a nurse in the crowd came and spoke with me. She told me that when her patients are hesitant to take medication for mental health conditions, she says this: “If you have strep throat, you’re going to take the antibiotic. Why should your mental health be any different than your physical health?” The saying stuck with me, and I passed it along to hundreds of other people in later presentations.
Jamie: I was extremely hesitant to take antidepressants. I was afraid of side effects, such as feeling even more depressed, an increase in suicidal thoughts, nausea, vomiting, etc. I was scared that I would build a tolerance to medication and it wouldn’t work, I might get addicted to it, or if I wanted to switch medications, I might have terrible withdrawal symptoms. I was also resistant to taking antidepressants for personal reasons. When I saw several doctors in the past, I did not feel like any of them cared about me as a person, and that they were too quick to offer pills to me. In my mind, refusing medication was my way of retaliating against doctors. I didn’t want to spend my money and visit doctors who were not being considerate. I also did not like the idea of giving up so much of my control to pills. I felt like if I took pills, I would be letting depression rule over my life, like I would be surrendering to my depression and letting it defeat me. My thinking was, “If I can finally just meet the right people and have a great social life, I will be fine.” I also kept hearing the phrase “chemical imbalance,” and I was unfamiliar with it at the time, so I was skeptical of it.
Ying: I hated them. With a passion. I no longer do because my doctor and I figured out the medications that are right for me. However, in the beginning, when the medications were not customized for me, I experienced so many unwanted and unmanageable side effects. But I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I was afraid that if I didn’t take them, I would have another manic episode that would ruin my life.
Lauren: I was mostly curious about them. I regarded them as similar to other medications that I have needed to take for physical ailments, so I was open to trying them. I had very little idea about what to expect from psychotropic medications though, and I felt that I was not as discerning with the recommendations given to me by the first couple of psychiatrists that I saw. I didn’t know what questions to ask to better understand what options were available to me. While I was willing to take medication right away, I did become wary of them after experiencing significant side effects with the first one I tried. It took time for me to build trust in the safety and effectiveness of medications back up again.
Emery: I was freaked out. My family was incredibly against it. My mother had heard so many stories about people turning into vegetables or losing who they were. She literally told me the saying, “psychiatry kills,” and was very against me trying meds. Thankfully, in my experience, none of those things are even close to true, and medication was crucial for me. I remember, at that time, the only other thing I read about meds were these two guys, who were asked if they had any regrets. One guy said, “Yeah, I wish I would have started taking it earlier, I wouldn’t have suffered nearly as much.” And that’s me. That’s how I feel. And at the time, that idea that my only regret would be not taking it earlier really stuck with me.
When did you first notice a difference in your symptoms once you started taking medication?
Jamie: I first noticed a difference in my symptoms after about a week after starting medication. I felt much better.
Emery: It took months. I would feel a slight relief, but now I think it was more of a placebo effect. I was so desperate to have it work that I kept hoping I would feel something. I think it was working, and it was doing what it was supposed to, but for me, the longer I was on it, the more relief I felt. I think about a year out from when I started taking it was when I felt the most results. It was a continual leaking of relief. But I will also add, I am incredibly sensitive to medication and for me, I just needed very low doses. The higher doses, which is what most people do when medication helps, were simply not feasible for me. I would have more side effects, and I found that upping it made things worse. I would wind up more suicidal than ever. However, this is especially unique to me and I’ve never heard of anyone, before or since, who has had this problem. What I did notice though, when the meds started helping, was that even on bad days, my lowest lows were never what they had been. The meds worked to make the lows less and less until I barely noticed them at all, and they came infrequently. My biggest piece of advice I wish I could tell my past self is, have patience. I always assumed meds would work instantly, but for me, they didn’t. But the payoff was worth the wait.
Ying: When I was finally on the right medication, things started looking up after about a month. It kept getting better for about six months, then I was very stable.
How long did it take for you and your doctor to find the right dose for you? Have you ever had to switch medications?
Olivia: My pediatrician was the first doctor to prescribe me antidepressants. She was my prescriber for roughly five years. Pediatricians and general practitioners have a lot of general medical knowledge, rather than specific knowledge in one area. Going to my pediatrician was a good place to start for treatment, but I wish I had been referred to a psychiatrist sooner. Psychiatrists have specialized knowledge and are aware of antidepressant tachyphylaxis. In simple terms, antidepressant tachyphylaxis means that in some cases a specific medication and dosage that was once effective for someone will no longer be effective. I don’t believe my pediatrician was aware she needed to monitor me for antidepressant tachyphylaxis. After I experienced a mental health crisis in college, I began to see a psychiatrist instead. We’ve adjusted my dosage and medications several times in the past four years. We’ve found the right mix for me in the past, but it’s an evolving thing for me. We are always in the process of evaluating my medication and making any necessary changes.
Jamie: At first, it did not take long for me and my doctor to find the right dose. The first antidepressant I ever took worked quickly for me, and I was on it for a while. Over time, though, I felt like it was not working anymore, so I switched to another antidepressant. That also worked well for about half a year, but again, I felt like it was not helping me feel better anymore. Since then, I have had to switch between several medications over time. I am currently back on the very first antidepressant I started with.
Lauren: It took me about one and a half years to find the right medications for myself. Granted, I had changed psychiatrists a couple times within the first year of me experiencing my symptoms before I met the one who ultimately helped me trust medications again. Then it took about another half year for her to determine the ones that would treat not only my depression but also avoid triggering another hypomanic episode. Before, I had tried one mood stabilizer and two antidepressants, all of which did not have an effect on my mood symptoms. Then I tried a different antidepressant and an antipsychotic medication together, which have managed my symptoms to this day.
Emery: It took four months, once I had the right doctor, and they would add in vitamins later. It was the longest four months of my life, because every day was a struggle. If you count the first month with a different doctor, it would be five months. That first month was awful. You have to find a psychiatrist who is right for you. For me, this particular doctor misdiagnosed me, and the meds she put me on made me feel actively drugged, like a part of my brain was missing. Another made me feel like I was fast-forwarded all the time. Meds can have some unusual effects and can take some time to work, but if a med makes you feel worse or not like yourself for more than a week or two, I would recommend talking to your psychiatrist. In my experience, a med that’s right for you will make you feel like yourself, only better. And it won’t impair your daily life.
Ying: That’s a tricky question, because sometimes you don’t know that you are on the wrong meds. I was on the wrong meds for years, and when I finally realized I had the power to change that, it took about six months.
Have you experienced any side effects or any other challenges while taking medication?
Jamie: I have experienced side effects with several types of medications. Some made me paranoid and nervous. One type of antidepressant made me extremely tired, made my muscles feel heavy, made my pupils dilate, and my vision was slightly blurry. Other atypical antidepressants I have tried have also caused a variety of side effects, from shakiness to loss of appetite to nausea. Side effects have been the biggest challenge with taking medication. Although my fear of side effects had initially prevented me from taking medication, the side effects are not as horrible as I thought they would be. I have been able to get through and manage them.
Lauren: I experienced significant side effects with the first mood stabilizer that I tried. It left me in incredible pain that landed me in the emergency room and resulted in a considerable rash on my face and body. When I reported this to the psychiatrist, she doubted my experience and suggested instead that I may have had the flu. Needless to say, it was very frustrating and invalidating. That scared me off from medications for a while until I was well educated by my third psychiatrist on the different medications that were available to me. It also felt like a collaborative discussion that involved me in the decision-making process, which helped immensely with feeling more assured about what I was taking.
What was also challenging with medication was understanding how insurance plays into the costs of it. When I was first prescribed it while in college, I didn’t want my parents to know that I was getting this kind of medication and didn’t want to explain what I was taking it for. I tried to pay for it on my own at the local pharmacy without submitting my insurance information, not realizing the hundreds of dollars that it was going to cost me. Being very naive to how health insurance works, I didn’t know that there was a BIN (bank identification number) associated with my insurance that the pharmacy needed in order to process the claim for the prescription. I decided to still charge it to my credit card, thinking I would figure it out later, which ended up locking the card. This then forced me to ask my parents to help but not without first experiencing a lot of embarrassment, especially after being shamed by the pharmacy tech for crying out of frustration over my situation. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have continuous insurance coverage that has allowed me to drive down the costs of medication, but it is still a significant expense.
Emery: Yes, even on the correct meds I’ve experienced side effects. I mentioned the side effects for an incorrect med above, but even on the med that helps me the most, I actually get horrible breakouts! It is a small price to pay for my life and my sanity in my book, but I now have to work with a dermatologist to keep my face from being completely broken out all the time! And because I was too sick to care, I have a lot of acne scarring that won’t go away. But if I could tell my past self one thing, it would be to go to the dermatologist on day one! It is something that can absolutely be treated if you get it early, and not everyone experiences this side effect. I will also note that some medications can make you suicidal or more suicidal. I’ve had this happen myself when my doses were too high. If this happens, talk to your doctor immediately. Finally, I get very anxious when I change medication. This isn’t a side effect, but it’s something to be aware of as well.
How do you make sure you take your medication every day?
Jamie: To make sure I take my medication every day, I set a reminder on my phone to take it at a certain time.
Lauren: While I don’t have many medications to keep track of, I sometimes have forgotten whether I took the ones I needed to in the morning, or I have fallen asleep before taking the ones I need at night. Using an alarm as a reminder has helped a bit, but I also started using a pillbox that I fill each week to help me keep track visually. When I know I’m going on a trip that may disrupt my usual schedule, I make it a point to account for any time shifts while traveling and take my medications accordingly. Like with flossing, it’s a habit I’ve had to build up and intentionally include as part of my routine.
Emery: I use an app called Round, that chimes every day at 6. It’s basically a habit now, especially since I take my meds with food, but it’s good for the times I’m busy, just in case.
Ying: I take my meds right before bed, so I might have an easier time remembering it than my friends. I don’t need an app for a reminder, but I take that opportunity to do a quick mood journal using the eMood app.
What do you do in addition to taking medication to treat your mental health condition?
Olivia: Personally, I’m a strong believer in the value of using all of the resources and approaches available for improving my mental health. In addition to medication, I attend counseling and receive support from my peers through DBSA. I also recognize the link between my mental and physical health, so I try my best to maintain a regular sleep schedule, practice healthy and balanced eating habits, and keep exercise (or even simple movement, like going for walks) a part of my routine.
Jamie: In addition to taking medication, some things I do to treat my mental health conditions include: journaling, filling out therapy worksheets online, attending a support group, working, listening to music, listening to sermons, reading the Bible, praying, trying to exercise, eating healthy, taking vitamins, getting enough sleep, and engaging in meaningful causes.
Lauren: While my schedule often feels like it doesn’t allow for much else, I continue to make time for therapy as additional support. I consider it essential for me to not only manage ongoing daily stressors but also improve my relationships with others and better understand myself beyond having bipolar disorder. In addition, I believe in the mind-body connection, so I enjoy getting massages to decompress and bring awareness to how I’m feeling. More importantly for bipolar disorder, I also maintain a regular sleep schedule to avoid triggering a mood episode. Finally, I rely on my support network of my partner, friends, and family to help me stay grounded and remind myself that I am not alone.
Emery: I have a therapist I see twice a week, I go to a DBSA Support Group once a week, I have a network of support that I use frequently, I’ve learned and use a ton of coping skills, and I’ve made an effort to really make my life into something that makes me excited when I wake up each morning.
Ying: A lot of things! Mental health is so much about self-care and community care. A healthy daily routine and a regular social life are important to me. So is fulfilling work, stress management, cardio exercise, meditation, grooming, nutrition, and more. It sounds like a lot, but I have found when I do more, it has a compounding positive effect.
Do any friends or family members know you take medication? What’s been their response?
Olivia: My immediate family members, partner, and most of my close friends know I take medication. I am fairly open about sharing my experiences with mental health in an effort to reduce stigma. I also bring up medication during presentations I give to university and community groups. Although I don’t go into the specifics of my treatment, I do provide more information if someone asks.
I once told a coworker I was leaving a few minutes early and asked if he needed anything. He casually asked why I was leaving. If I hadn’t been comfortable sharing, I could have told him it wasn’t his business. But it was a coworker I had a good relationship with, so I told him I was picking up some medicine. He asked, “Are you sick?” and I responded, “Not really.” He asked why I was getting medicine then. I told him I was picking up my antidepressants. He paused and thought about it for a few seconds, then started asking genuine questions. I didn’t feel like he was prying; it just seemed like he finally had someone he felt comfortable asking his questions to. He said he had friends living with depression, but he never really understood it. He was curious what it felt like and what he could do to help them. Casually mentioning my medication to a trusted work friend ended up being a great way to open the door to needed conversations about mental health. I do feel that it’s important to note that I was sharing with a trusted coworker who was my equal, and I felt safe with him having that knowledge about me. Unfortunately, not all coworkers or workplaces are accepting of mental health conditions.
Jamie: My mom and some people from my support group know that I take medication, and they are very understanding and supportive about it. Since they are struggling with mental illness and taking medication too, they have helpful perspectives to offer.
Emery: Anyone I’ve ever eaten a meal with knows at this point. I try to break the stigma. I usually prep people in advance, but I think in general people are always a little taken aback. I like to explain what each one is and what it does if someone seems curious, and I try to break the medication myths that a lot of people believe. Once I’ve done that, people are typically very nice about it, though I don’t think they are necessarily comfortable. With my family, they are just used to it, so it is very boring to them.
Ying: Some know, some don’t. I’m still struggling with telling my friends. Thankfully, there are enough people in my life who know about this, so I don’t feel like I’m hiding it from the people I’m closest to.
Have you ever experienced stigma for taking medication, and how did you respond?
Jamie: I have experienced some stigma for taking medication. Although, for the most part, people have been accepting of it. A former coworker told me that I have everything I need and asked why I was still depressed. One of my ex-boyfriends thought that I just needed to try harder to fight my mental illnesses. I was frustrated and a little angry at their responses, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I truly believe that they did not say those things to hurt me, and they were genuinely unknowledgeable about the subject. Still, it was very disheartening to hear.
Emery: No, but I’ve felt like I would in certain situations, like at a restaurant. I’ve avoided taking my meds until I am away from the table, because I feel self conscious, like I will freak someone out. People still don’t really understand mental health and they make assumptions that sometimes I just don’t have the energy to deal with.
Ying: Back in college, I’d hide in the bathroom if I needed to take them during the day. If I couldn’t hide, I’d tell people I was taking vitamins. This is a painful memory.
What is a common misconception of taking medication that you have experienced or observed?
Jamie: One misconception I had about taking medication was that it might be addictive. Ever since I began taking medication, I have not experienced this. However, when I switch medications, I have found that I need to switch carefully or I might have some withdrawal effects. I was never “addicted” to anything. Another misconception I had was that medication would rule over my life. Even though I rely heavily on medication now, I have found that it has helped me greatly. It has saved me from days of complete despondency and anxiety. I no longer view medication as an affirmation of weakness or powerlessness. I view medication for what it is: medicine.
Lauren: While I was mostly open to medication from the beginning, one misconception that I held was that medication would change who I am for the worse, that it would make me into a fundamentally different person. This was in part fueled by hypomania, which made life feel all the more vibrant, so I worried that medications would dull my senses, and that I would even become despondent. As such, I didn’t want to lose the electrifying experience that helped me feel more engaging and interesting to others, but I was also hurting people with the intensity of the rage I felt while hypomanic. I have come to know now that I don’t need to fall back on my mood symptoms to actualize that self I want to be, and that I can still fully live the life that I want. I don’t feel inhibited or limited by medications, but instead I feel in control and liberated.
Emery: I think the biggest one is that it will change your personality. Or that if you were strong, you wouldn’t need meds. And I don’t agree at all. A good med should help you feel like the version of yourself that can face the world. It won’t be perfect, you’ll still have dips (at least I do) but your ups and downs will be lessened and you can get on with the business of actually living your life, instead of struggling. As far as it being a willpower thing, it’s not. Depression (and bipolar) mess with your brain and make it so hard. You cannot WILL your way out of a depression (or a mania). Trust me, I’ve tried, it doesn’t work. Meds help and have the ability to change your life. Or at least, they changed mine.
Ying: My biggest fear and misconception at the beginning is the same as Emery’s, that it would change who you are. Untrue. I didn’t have to feel flattened or altered. If I did, I needed to have a conversation with my doctor. After I started taking medication, I think the biggest misconception is that the medication will do the majority of the work for you—again, untrue. I’ve learned staying stable long-term means making healthier choices on a daily basis.
What is some advice you wish someone had told you before starting medication?
Jamie: Before starting medication, I wish someone would have told me that the side effects would be manageable. I was so frightened of side effects that it prevented me from getting treatment. If someone had told me that even my worst side effects would be temporary and short-lived and that I could take other medicines to manage them, I would have sought treatment quicker. I also wish someone would have encouraged me to keep seeking a better doctor. The attitudes of the past doctors I saw discouraged me from taking medication. I wish someone would have given me hope that I would eventually find a more compassionate doctor who would work better to address my concerns.
Emery: Don’t wait until you are drowning to get help. When it becomes too much, seek out help, and allow yourself to be open to the possibility that meds are something that could help. It’s easier to stop a problem before it hits its height. You will struggle less, and won’t get swept away. Address the problem when there starts to be a problem, not after years of struggling.
Ying: You have more power and control over this process than you think. You can advocate for yourself and tell your doctor that a certain medication is or is not working out. And please, don’t give up when something is not working out at first. After many years of personal experience and many conversations with friends, I’ve realized that it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t get it right the first time, or even the first month. Give yourself a little more time. You will get there!
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