This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the brilliant Canadian Holistic Nutrition Conference and was absolutely thrilled that their topic was about nutritional interventions to improve mental health this year. I heard a plethora of new information from knowledgeable speakers about specific nutrients that have the power to improve cognition and mood (and what to avoid!). Rest assured I'll be bringing you plenty of blog posts in the future to discuss this important topic.
There was something that irked me about this conference. And I bring this up not to be a Negative Nancy, but because I think is an important issue to discuss as a means of preventing stigma in our culture.
As the speakers highlighted the importance of nutrition in improving mental health, it was abundantly clear that they frowned upon the use of medication for mental health issues. The goal, they said, should always be to figure out how to get off of medication.
I have a problem with this. As someone who has worked with hundreds of individuals, couples, and families, I have seen firsthand the power of medication for some people. In fact, I'd argue that it's actually a necessary step of the treatment process in some cases. There have been times when I've seen people start a medication at the beginning of the month and by the end of it I've already seen a significant, noticeable change in their demeanour. When this occurs, it can be a lot easier to conduct therapy. You see, if you're working with someone who's struggling with severe clinical depression, for example, the very nature of their brain's physiology can make it impossible to even discuss solutions or options that are available to them. Due to a lack of serotonin in their brain (or whatever it may be), they're actually unable to entertain certain ideas in therapy. To me, medication for mental health issues can be just as important as using insulin for diabetics. Notice how we don't just tell diabetics to "talk about how they want their diabetes to go away." We recognize that insulin may be needed to address their symptoms. And yet, let's just talk about what we can do to reduce your depressive symptoms because it must be all in your head, right?
Here's one such conversation that transpired at the conference that enraged me: a mother came up to the microphone to discuss the hardships she had been having with her daughter who suffered from severe ADHD. She expressed that her daughter's ADHD manifested itself as anger, irritability, and frustration that would sometimes lead her to throw things across the room, punch holes in the wall, etc. After trying everything, the daughter was put on Ritalin. Suddenly, her symptoms significantly decreased, her mood stabilized, and her mother was able to introduce other interventions as a result now that her daughter was more receptive to them. But after hearing speaker after speaker talk about the harms of medication, here she was asking how to wean her daughter off her ADHD medication. Why oh why.
When we look at medication in this negative light, we are contributing to stigma. We're implying that those who take medication for mental health issues are somehow "weak" or "not doing enough," and this only further adds to the feelings of shame that many people with mental health issues endure. Additionally, we ignore the fact that mental health issues can stem from chemical imbalances in the brain.
We mustn't also forget that research shows that the most effective way to tackle mental health issues is to utilize psychotherapy and medication. Medication alone is not as effective, nor is psychotherapy alone.
At the same time, I do recognize that medications tend to be over-prescribed in North America. There's a prescription drug abuse epidemic. Many people (and doctors) see medication as a quick fix and avoid addressing any underlying causes. But it's important that we make space for multiple realities here, where doctors can over-prescribe medications and people can use them safely for legitimate mental health concerns.
The Bottom Line
If I'm being fully transparent, I see medication as a last resort because yes, I do think it's over-prescribed in this country. Whenever possible, I discuss nutritional interventions and different strategies they can use to change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. But sometimes that's simply not enough. And when it's not, I ask that they talk to their doctor about going on medication. After all, my overall goal is for people to simply feel better, and if medication is part of that treatment plan, then that's just fine with me.