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Doc Ayomide: What Not To Say to a Person On Medication for Mental Health Illness

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There are a few things about mental illness that get me upset, and today I’m going to talk about one of the biggest. (Yes, this is a rant.)

But first let me tell a little story. (It’s fictional and I’m only using it to illustrate my point, but this is the kind of thing that often happens.)

Fiyin, a bright young lady, had had persistent mood problems for a few years. Then she was diagnosed with depressive disorder and started on medication for it. That was a few months ago. She had come home crying the day she heard and shared it with Temide, her flatmate and a good friend.

Temide hadn’t known anyone before with depression, so it was all kind of new to her, but she was ready to support her friend. The only thing that bothered her was the medication issue — and every single day, at that, always just after brushing her teeth. (She said her psychiatrist said a routine would make it easier to stick to). But Temide couldn’t imagine why anyone should have to take medicine for months just to feel happy. It didn’t seem right.

So one morning, she brought it up, just after Fiyin had taken the day’s dose. She stood in the doorway until her friend finished rinsing out her mouth.

Fiyin looked up. “Hey, what’s up?”

“I’m just worried, Fiyin,” she began. “How long are you going to take this your funny medicine? Why don’t you just try to pull yourself together?”

Fiyin froze. An uncomfortable silence hung in the air. Temide wanted to say something more, but she changed her mind and turned to leave, shaking her head…

***
Obviously Temide has good intentions here. Never mind that they “pave the way to hell.” First off, she’s very likely making a couple of assumptions.

The first (and a truly serious one), is that she probably doesn’t think Fiyin really has a health condition. In most instances I know of where people say stuff like this, they’re often seeing it as just emotional issues the person needs to get over. You know, they just need to encourage themselves and things will be fine. (If they need extra support, the next prescription is often to pray.)

The problem with that is, mental disorders are really medical problems. Medical as in sickness. As in the you-go-to-hospital-and-get-medicine kind of sickness. And while in some conditions (physical and mental) you can get away with not taking meds, with the more serious ones, you’d be taking a dangerous risk.

So, for example, someone with a headache from stress might decide to skip paracetamol and just rest and see what happens. If it’s a migraine, paracetamol won’t even do. If the headache is from a brain tumour, well — that’s surgery right there.

My point? It’s not about the symptom, it’s about what is causing it. Not every one who has a low mood is simply just sad and needing to “get over it.” If their low mood is from something like severe depression, or bipolar disorder, meds can be a huge help.

And when I hear of people saying others should “get themselves together,” or “just pray,” I wonder to myself: would these people get themselves together if they had a broken leg? Would they “just pray” about cancer or HIV? By the way, probably any doctor you know can tell you a few tragic tales of people who died “just praying.” (By “just pray,” I mean the kind with minimal to zero medical input.)
he second problem Temide’s statement contained implied judgement. And this judgement is based on what Temide believes about Fiyin’s condition and what it requires. The problem is that her beliefs are wrong.

You see, a lot of people with mental illness already struggle with having to take medication, especially for conditions that feel (even to them) like “emotional” problems. With obviously physical illnesses, most people get the importance of medicine. But with mental disorders, the idea of it being an illness feels somehow less real, even to the person who has it. And even when a person comes to terms with it, you can imagine how it feels when those you care about refuse to accept it as real, when they insist on seeing it as “emotional” or “spiritual.”

I’ll never forget the first time I had someone ask me, “Why do I have to take meds just to be happy?” It nearly broke my heart. Imagine someone like that being told to stop taking meds! I often wonder: would the advisor still be there if things fall apart?

I’ve known someone who died after stopping medication. People around had suggested it enough, that the person started to feel bad for continuing to take meds. The problem was, when the depression kicked in, it kicked in hard, and no one, including those people, was around to help. The result? Suicide – by hanging. True story.

Please people, it’s just not okay to say things like that to people just like us. All the good intentions in the world don’t reduce the insensitivity of those kinds of statements. Because they contain an assumption that we get it, when we actually don’t. Even for me as a psychiatrist, every new patient is a potential learning experience!

The truth is, taking medicine for a long time is hard for anyone, even doctors. Someone who has to take medicine like that needs support, not further questioning of what they are doing. And when we question them without taking the time to understand, it’s harder for them to ignore.

That is really the crux of the matter: the effect of our ideas on those for whom mental illness is a reality. The assumption that we get it, makes us confident to make pronouncements that leave others hurt and confused. And worse, those kinds of statements imply that they are on their own. Alone.

Because, believe me, when it comes to mental illness, we all still have a lot to learn.

P.S. What have you learned recently? Please share in the comments!

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Monkey Business Images

Dr Ayomide Adebayo is a medical doctor, mind health consultant and founder of Maximise Your LIFE, a community for people who want to live to the full. Grab your copy of his FREE resources here — plus instant access to his potentially life-changing email course! He writes at DocAyomide.com and tweets @DocAyomide. To ask a question, book a session — or just say hello — simply e-mail him ([email protected]).

19 Comments

  1. Beauty

    June 12, 2015 at 10:10 am

    True!!!. My sister was diagnosed last two years to be biopolar. I actually suspected she was before her diagnosis.. Thanks to american tv series ( i thought it was a foreign sickness…yea i know) that raised awareness through characters introduced( 90120, Homeland, e.t.c). I know how important it is for her to take her drugs. But you really cant blame others ( eni to ba lo mo). its important they are encouraged to ALWAYS take their drugs, trust me. But i will really encourage people to read more on mental illness, because you might help others.

  2. Dubai mum

    June 12, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Thank you. Very much for this…

  3. IYKE

    June 12, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Hey doc. How do you identify depression as a medical problem from it as a social problem.I find myself unhappy most times and it affects every facet of my life.

    • Bunny Boo

      June 12, 2015 at 10:40 am

      Nwanne, ngwa come and be my friend and say good bye to depression forever. E-Hugs to u dear.

    • bruno FIERCE

      June 12, 2015 at 11:06 am

      this is what the doctor was talking about in the article. smh

    • honey

      June 12, 2015 at 11:23 am

      This your reply is ignorant. You are exactly the type the doc is talking about. This is not a joking matter and you should carry your unseriousness elsewhere. Smallboy.

    • Doc Ayomide

      June 12, 2015 at 10:24 pm

      Hello Iyke. You can get more info on my blog, where I’ve written a number of articles on depression, how to identify it and what to do to help yourself and others.. DocAyomide.com/tags/depression. Or just search in Google with the keywords: “DocAyomide.com depression”

      All the best.

  4. B

    June 12, 2015 at 10:37 am

    Well written Doc. I’m happy you took time to write something on this. While I may not directly relate to the subject, I get the principle of this article. It’s simply being sensitive to other people’s feelings and struggle or weaknesses, and not using our own strength to judge them. It’s easy to say “if I were you, this is what I’d do” or “get yourself together” or ” you are just being emotional’…. the truth is everyone has different threshold to pain and different capacity to withstand pressure.
    Our resort should be to accept this as a fact of life. We are not all strong. Our strengths vary same as our weaknesses differ. So if we see someone going through something we don’t understand, let’s choose empathy over judgement, and give them our support in whatever way we can.

  5. Geez

    June 12, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    I totally understand Fiyin….so what do you do when the suggestions to stop meds become too much?

    • Doc Ayomide

      June 12, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      It really depends, and without knowing your specific situation, I can only give very general answers. You can try to take time to explain to those who do it how their suggestions are actually more harmful than helpful. You can also try to help them see how the suggestions are really often rooted in misconceptions about how real mental illness is. And if they don’t matter that much in your life, you can simply stay away from them instead of trying too hard.

  6. Olajumoke

    June 12, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    Honestly, I never knew what it felt like to be bipolar until my treasured sister became a victim,my world almost collapsed everything was put on hold .I thank God for His faithfulness, and truly unflinching support should be given to victims of mental illness. Did I mention that Doc Ayomide was one of the many beautiful souls that took care of my sister then at LASUTH? God bless u and I will let u know when am ready to start a foundation cos the experience really changed me. Did I mention that my sister is doing perfectly well to the glory of God!!!! Thank you once more Doc e-hugs

  7. isaid!!

    June 12, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks Dr. Ayomide,for this peace. My younger sister suffers from this illness and i cant thank God almighty for his mercies in creating the people who have conducted research into this so that we have drugs to help them through. I have my sister all bubbly and very happy again. we(her family) are her support group and know how we suffered at the hands of many “spiritual people” until we were directed to a psychologist who through counseling traced the cause of her severe depression and mental disorder and prescribed the necessary drugs.
    To all those facing this challenge in their lives, please, please in addition to prayer seek help at the right place.

    • Doc Ayomide

      June 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm

      You’re welcome Isaid. Good to hear about your sister’s good outcome, and especially about your support of her. And thank you for reiterating the importance of medical help. I should point out that it’s probably a psychiatrist you saw: psychologists aren’t authorised to prescribe drugs in Nigeria (they can in some countries, but even there it’s limited).

  8. isaid!!

    June 12, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Sorry, i meant to type “”cant thank God almighty enough for his mercies””

  9. Babatunde

    June 12, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Tact is usually the most important thing in dealing with patients with an euro psychiatric issues.
    When I worked in the psychiatric hospital as pharmacist and had to describe the medications to the patients, I had to employ that a lot. O would tell them ” this drug is used to calm down the brain”, others would say: “this drug is an antipsychotic dug”. Both are correct, but only one is right.

  10. Adwoa

    June 15, 2015 at 11:14 am

    Pls Doc, help with this, how best can family and friends help a mentally ill person get better? A fellow church member was diagnosed with high fever in 2005. Now when she gets a crisis she’s extremely rude and disrespectful so ppl rather tell her off instead of being sympathetic.
    Yesterday she started acting up at church again. Very disrespectful to church leaders and a host of other unruly behaviour she put up. I was very angry i felt like slapping her in fact i spoke harshly to her. Then when i got home after church it dawned on me that she probably was going through a crisis. I called her big sister and reported what happened at church to her, that was when she confirmed what i had suspected. I felt bad for not sympathizing with her instead of giving her the dress down i did. Her sister said the crisis was triggered by an exam she wrote. She even missed some papers because she couldn’t make her way to the exam hall she was jus roaming about on campus. And the sad part is she refuses to take her meds, so sometimes her family has to secretly mix it with her food.
    Now this lady is studying to become a nurse, am afraid, what if she snaps one day and administers the wrong injection or something.
    Please help Doc. Ill pass your response to her sister as well so she shares it with the family.

    • Doc Ayomide

      June 15, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      Email me, Adwoa, at [email protected]. However, to answer your second question: there’s nothing stopping her from being a nurse (or whatever else she wants to be) is she is able to rise above her illness.

  11. tosin

    June 15, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    What are the cure of depression?

  12. Dave Thompson

    August 17, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    Having a mental illness is a medical disorder just as you point out. These people need help in order to get through the problems they are facing. Sometimes taking their meds is the only thing that can help the get through these mental problems, and it is not for us to say that is bad or not in my opinion.

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