The Lure of Psychiatric Meds

When it comes to coping with everyday stress, many people seem to have a love affair with medications. Listen to this comment from a distraught dad who called in to a radio talk show with a psychologist as a guest:

“We’re having a lot of problems with our 15-year-old daughter. She doesn’t listen to us, obey our rules, or follow her curfew. She hangs around with kids we feel are a bad influence. Her grades are worse and she gets in lots of trouble at school. The school counselor evaluated her and told us she was depressed and bipolar. The counselor also said we should take her to a psychiatrist for a prescription. So, we did. The psychiatrist recommended starting with an anti-depressant, and about three weeks ago she began her prescription. We make sure she takes her medicine every day. The problem is, we’re three weeks into the treatment and we haven’t seen any change in her behavior. My question is, how long do we have to wait before the drug kicks in and we have our daughter back?”

This man’s comments show how many people want a simple solution to a complex problem, and think taking a pill will produce some magical psychological result, just like taking an aspirin gets rid of a headache in a few minutes. Using psychiatric medications carries the danger of applying an easy “solution” (taking a pill) to complicated psychological problems (we suspect the daughter’s problems go beyond “depressed”). Taking a pill, of course, is a simple and convenient approach.

Medication may not be appropriate for many coping situations. For instance, is the 15-year-old really depressed, or is she a confused, frustrated, and unhappy adolescent? Is she going through typical teenage angst as she tries to navigate her way through the maze of emotions involved in the transition from childhood to adulthood – which often involves challenging parental authority?  In this case, if the daughter is not clinically depressed, the medication is unlikely to have the desired effect, and could be the beginning of a long series of trial-and-error multiple-drug treatments.

Let’s suppose you’re feeling down these days. Life’s not going well for you in the pandemic, and you’re told you’re depressed. If you’re considering medication like those you see advertised all the time on TV, consider some questions: Are you suffering from depression, or are your problems related to anger, grief, or anxiety that make you look depressed? Should you see a psychiatrist (prescription likely) or psychologist (analysis of your coping actions more likely)? Do you understand psychological assessment techniques and specialized treatments tailored for specific coping difficulties? Will you insist on a thorough and critical evaluation prior to developing a treatment plan?

Remember, being diagnosed without any objective psychological assessment is like going to the primary care physician and being prescribed medications without the support of any medical tests (x-rays, urinalysis, blood tests).  Even worse are the explanations you may be given to justify medications. These explanations are typically simplistic, and you should be wary.

What would happen if, prior to taking prescription psychiatric medicine, clients were routinely told something like this:

We’re not really sure what happens in the brain with depression, anxiety and other psychological problems. Psychotropic medication may help you with your symptoms, but that help does not mean that you are cured. We aren’t sure what medication you should take, if any, or how it will alter your brain’s biochemistry. You may suffer side effects with these medications and we are not sure whether they are safe to use in the long-term; it takes decades to adequately research this type of outcome. If you respond positively to your medication, we can’t even be sure the drug was responsible. It is possible your improvement was due to your expectations of what the medication would do. Taking the drug may have actually created a ‘placebo effect.’

We’re not saying that psychiatric medication is never appropriate. We’re just saying it pays to do your homework, don’t look for a quick fix, and never sell yourself short as an important player in the coping process. You can, and should be, an active participant in any coping plan.

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