Recently an article was sent to me reporting on the fact that the amount of psychotropic medication being prescribed to young people has doubled in the last five years. While somewhat appalling, it does not totally surprise me. This subject is near and dear to my heart as I work with these children and families and often, by their request, counsel them on making decisions around using these drugs. Psychotropic medications are thought of as low risk in many medical communities. When a family finds something unmanageable, often doctors are quick to prescribe, even if the ‘unmanageability’ is clearly connected to a context and the person’s response is appropriate to the context. Actually, sometimes it seems that if people have a reason to be distraught, like a loss or a traumatic event, doctors are more apt to prescribe medicine. Isn’t this odd? Not really. The drugs are viewed as low risk to health, while trauma is viewed as high risk to health. Also, doctors are often wonderful humans who strive to be helpful. When they hear of the hard times of patients, they want to be helpful, prescribing meds is one way they can do this. Nobody likes to feel helpless, least of all those that commit their lives to helping people.
In navigating conversations around prescription drugs, I remain nonjudgmental, but never neutral. Pharmaceuticals like people to think of medicine as definitively necessary. Often touting: “If you have diabetes you need insulin. If you are depressed, you need SSRI’s.” This might dispel stigma, but it also sells drugs. I often question the whole “chemical imbalanced” story told often by medical professionals and drug commercials. Our brain chemical and hormones are in constant flux, changing moment by moment. It is ridiculous to say anyone is “imbalanced” as we are each of us in various states of chemical balance throughout the day. Yes, when we are sad our hypothalamus released “sad” peptides.
Medications can be extremely beneficial, and it may be a good decision to use them. They can help a person transform their life. And they can help literally save a life. But these people usually do more than just take the medicine. The medicine may give them the leg up so that they can do other work to heal whatever ails them emotionally. And sometimes, they might not have gotten there without it. This still doesn’t mean that they needed it. (This is another effective way to get rid of stigma! As many people feel horrible at the concept of “needing” medicine.) It means it was a great decision for them to chose as one of their tools. (More empowering.) A decision, once made, I encourage them to embrace and be grateful for. If you are going to take medicine, say “yes!” to taking it.
That said, I also agree they may be sometimes prescribed hastily. (Not always, some docs are extremely cautious.) It is the risks that are being pushed under the rug. ‘Low risk’ is a relative term, as some medications have much more dangerous side effects. However, many more risks exist: we might ignore the context of the problem which may deserve our attention (violence in school, etc), we don’t know the long term effects of young people using these medications; misuse (i.e., selling) of prescription drugs is rampant in today’s schools; drugs might harbor a person from processing events with other tools that might benefit them more; they can instigate a person’s self judgment; they aren’t natural and have to be processed by the liver; they cost money; and they go into our water ways in our toilet waste, to mention a few. These are all relative in the context of what a family is going through. They may seem important sometimes, and other times less important, depending on how much it is effecting their life to be sad, depressed, hear voices, panic and/or have flashbacks and what else they are doing to make it through.
Using psychotropic medications is a family or personal decision based on weighing the risks and benefits, rather by being convinced it is necessary as a quick fix. The choice being made this way gives less opportunity for stigma and self judgment to reared its ugly head. I appreciate when families and professionals see it this way. No stigma, no overuse. Nonjudgmental peace about it all and a willingness to participate in your own healing, instead of being a passive recipient of the trauma… or the drugs.