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There Is No Such Thing as a ‘Happy Pill’

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My hopes of unbiased reporting without a bigoted agenda are never high when reading an article on the Mail Online but I was even more annoyed than usual when reading their article on the subject of mental health published 29 December 2017.

It is hard to say what irritated me the most – the use of the inaccurate and patronising term ‘happy pills’, the implication that medicine based treatment for mental health is a ‘quick fix’ or the confusion between a negative reaction to a life event and medical diagnosis of a mental illness.

In a society where we are seeing increased levels of hate crime against people with both mental and physical disabilities, it is irresponsible to vilify people who reach out to the medical profession for help as this will only lead to further marginalisation of these groups. In quoting Professor Pariante from Kings College London “We all have losses and there’s an element that brings progress and personal development, but we have to accept that feeling like crying for a few weeks is perfectly normal,” the Mail appears to be telling people experiencing the symptoms of depression to just get on with it. The news site implies that those taking medication (anti-depressants in particular) are using pills because they cannot cope with life, not because they have a diagnosed medical condition. This attitude is neither compassionate, nor constructive.

This is not the first time the Mail have slighted users of mental health medication. In this piece the author refers to Britain as a ‘nation of pill poppers’ and follows that up with the claim that the country is a ‘nation of zombies’. In this article the Mail makes the claim that ‘GPs over-prescribe happy pills’ and suggests that doctors are prescribing medication for life related stress rather than genuine illness.

I queried whether there would be any reason for a person not suffering depression to take the most commonly prescribed medication (SSRIs) and consulted a qualified pharmacist for the answer. SSRIs do not cause a high or a temporary state of euphoria, they correct a chemical imbalance in the brain. So a person suffering from depression will gradually start to feel better over a period of time but a person who is not suffering from depression will not get ‘happier’ as a result of taking this medication. It is therefore ludicrous to refer to antidepressants as ‘happy pills’ or to insinuate that the pills are being abused by mentally healthy individuals seeking a quick boost to their mood.

It is certainly true that mental health issues, depression in particular, are rising in the UK but in being so quick to blame doctors for over prescribing and patients for not being tough enough to cope, the Mail fails to objectively consider why this is.

We live in a world where the environment of our day to day lives is not suited to our mental health. We force ourselves to awaken in the dark when our bodies have evolved to sleep, we work long hours under electric lights, we are too frightened of the consequences to phone in sick at work so we push ourselves even when ill. The long hours we work make many of us sedentary and lacking in exercise yet we are too tired to exercise in our leisure hours. The Birmingham Mail recently reported that 57% of women are too tired even to take a daily shower. 

We goggle all day at computer screens and use mobile phones for increasingly long periods of time. We eat processed foods rich in fats, salts and sugars which negatively impact our bodies and in turn our minds. Most of us run on a cycle of caffeine and alcohol for the energy shift in our days. We are living a life as removed from the natural cycle of our ancestors as it is possible to get and it is virtually impossible in the modern world to break this cycle and lead a more natural life in tune with our own bodies.

In addition to the environment we also experience a number of social factors that can lead to an increase in poor mental health. Our economy is in a mess, leading to increased poverty and financial strain. Evolving technology means greater uncertainty in the workplace which leads to insecurity and stress.  Social media presents an unrealistic picture of other people’s lives which can result in low self esteem and despair for many.

Most of us are permanently tired, leading long busy lives with little rest in a world that isn’t geared up to be a healthy environment for the human mind. We cannot hold individuals accountable for these lives we all lead – it is society that has forced these changes and, until we address these underlying problems, mental health issues are not going to go away.

I am singularly unsurprised that more and more people are suffering from depression. My only surprise is that, given the lives we are all leading, more people are not suffering.

More people are seeking help for depression because there is help to seek. The last thirty years have seen an increase in medication for mental health with fewer side effects and with provable results. If medication can assist people in continuing to function then it is not just irresponsible to condemn those who take it, it is cruel to do so. When the Mail and their far right media brethren vilify those who take antidepressants there is a very real risk that people will stop taking them and there is a very real risk that doctors will bow to ill-educated media furore and stop prescribing them.

We need constructive discussion on how to combat the increase in mental health problems and the platform for this discussion is not the sensationalist pages of tabloid newspapers.

Roanna is one of the founder members of Resisting Hate. She is the author of the majority of our articles, and also publishes a blog on Huffington Post UK

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