Medication is Not Addiction: A response to a misinformed column

I spent way too much time on Sunday on Twitter, joining a chorus of voices who were yelling at David Lazarus, a columnist or the Los Angeles times. Lazarus wrote a column in which he discusses his own experience at trying to withdraw from anti-depressants. The title of the column? “Hi, I’m David. I’m a drug addict.”

Yep. Only went downhill from there.

Ironically, Lazarus discussed important issues like the over prescribing of medication, failure to adequately warn patients about side effects and discontinuation syndrome. These are real, important issues. They merit serious, thoughtful consideration. Instead, Lazarus decided to call millions of Americans (like me) drug addicts. He esoterically wondered “Who am I, really?” about taking anti-depressants. It’s a tragic, misguided view, one which reinforces stigma and will prevent people from getting help they need. And the language used by Lazarus is just appalling. If I’m a drug addict, so is everyone else who uses medication to survive for any other condition.

Really, this is just an ugly article.

I wrote a response which the Los Angeles Times did not accept, citing their policy to not run op-eds in response to other op-eds. Fair enough. My response, then, is below.

Don’t believe crap like what Lazarus decided to spew. Medication can be a vitally important part of any therapeutic regimen. It has saved thousands of lives.

Let’s say you are a diabetic and require insulin to live. One day, a friend tells you to quit insulin. Stunned, you ask why. Your friend responds: “Well, you can’t live without insulin. That makes you a drug addict.”

That’s absurd, right? Taking a prescribed medication in recommended doses doesn’t make you a drug addict. That makes you a responsible adult.

But the above scenario would never really happen, right? No one would ever claim that taking medication to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s would make you a drug addict.

But, apparently, such an understanding does not apply to the millions of Americans who take medication to manage mental illnesses. To Americans like me.

For eighteen years, I’ve been diagnosed with a major depressive and generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve been suicidal. The medication which I take, in conjunction with therapy and lifestyle changes, has saved my life.

About five years ago, I made the decision, as a Pennsylvania State Representative, to start discussing my battles with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I did so in response to the stigma which surrounds mental illness. Depression isn’t a weakness. It can’t be willed away. Taking medication doesn’t say anything about one’s character any more than having heart disease indicates a moral failure.

That’s why I was so disheartened to read Mr. Lazarus’ column: It took serious issues like over-prescribing  and discontinuation syndrome – issues which deserve thoughtful, reflective discussion – and conflated them with drug addiction. To be sure, medication is not a panacea. It often takes months, if not years, to find appropriate medication and dosage. Prescribers sometimes fail to appropriately monitor their patients. Side effects are real and dangerous. All of these issues demand thoughtful consideration and conversation.

However, such problems exist in virtually all areas of medicine, and no one would reasonably or seriously suggest that we should stop prescribing scientifically proven medication to people in need. Yet, that is exactly what some suggest when it comes to mental health.

Mr. Lazarus refers to himself as a “drug addict” for taking anti-depressants. Yet, he also discusses being a diabetic who takes medication for chronic Type 1 diabetes. Strangely, he declines to refer to himself as a “drug addict” for requiring insulin to manage his blood sugar levels. I wonder why.

We should never, ever be so foolish as to conflate appropriate use of anti-depressants with drug addiction. To do so makes people who take anti-depressants to live sound like sound like a caricature of a drug addict, desperate for their next hit of smack…or, as I like to call it, the pills which help me not want to kill myself every morning.

Contrary to what some believe, anti-depressants are not happy pills which whisk you away on a cotton-candy cloud, carrying you to Lollipop Island to float with gumdrops all day long. What they do is help you control symptoms, improve your mood and make other forms of change – like psychological therapy and lifestyle changes – easier to obtain.

Taking medication for mental illness doesn’t change who you are. It allows you to be who you are.

Far too many Americans have ignored their own minds and medical advice, choosing to try and “tough out” spells of depression, to “man up” or ignore these painful and rehabilitating symptoms. Too many Americans have powerful fears that taking anti-depressants makes you weak. This stigma must be crushed and rebutted in the same way intelligent society has pushed back on those who attack vaccines.

Anti-vaxxers and those who deny the positive impact of anti-depressants are flip sides of the same coin: They seek to use pseudoscience and stigma. Science has given us incredible tools which can be used to our great physical and emotional benefit. To ignore those tools, or to somehow wrap their use in shame, serves only to pull us into a darkness which we should have left behind decades ago.

The nearly 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from mental illness – including me – deserve to have our challenges discussed with respect and a comprehensive understanding of mental health treatment options. This discussion is simply incomplete without discussing the importance, effectiveness and risks of medication. No one who takes an anti-depressant is a drug addict, any more than a person who takes Prilosec for heartburn is addicted to not having their chest feel like is on fire.

The facts are stark. Depression rates are skyrocketing, rising sharpest among today’s youth, who have seen nearly 50% increases in rates of depression. 47,000 Americans – and 2,000 in my home state of Pennsylvania – died by suicide last year, an increase of 34% since 1999.

We need serious, sober conversations about mental illness and how to treat it. There are many concerns with anti-depressants. These are valid, serious concerns which must be addressed. But these conversations must occur using words and arguments which shatter stigma and support science. To do otherwise does an incredible disservice to those of us who suffer.

 

3 thoughts on “Medication is Not Addiction: A response to a misinformed column

  1. What a wonderful article you wrote today with an explicit explanation of the need for people with mental disease to take medication. Part of the problem along with the stigma is the cost of the medication and especially for those who have an insurance company or plan not recognizing the outcome. We have a problem in America first asking the patient to address it when the public can’t and then finding a way to pay for the drugs needed. I know too many people that won’t or can’t be treated because of this deficiency.

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  2. Well said to all of that. Depression ruins lives. In my own case SSRIs fo little for me but I believe there is great hope in psychedelics. So there…. The fellow can call me a druggie if he wishes but after 63 years of depression I really do not care what anybody says.

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  3. The last thing I need is someone out there spewing that my daily Prozac makes me an addict. It keeps me alive and willing to confront life. I, too, see great promise in the newly emerging research into psychedelics. I hope our society can be more open minded in future about antidepressants and possible roles for psychedelics in treating depression and anxiety. We lost so much precious time when Tim O’Leary blighted psychedelics as simple recreation for folks who wanted to tune out. Imagine what the world could have been like if the original research had been allowed to proceed.

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