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What are the benefits and side effects of medication?

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Many people living with mental illness use medication to help manage their symptoms. While it can help, medication can also cause side effects. 

Trial and error, hot flushes, dry mouth and weight gain are real hurdles people face. But, depending on the illness, benefits include reduced anxiety, clarity of thought, reduced hallucinations, stability and relief.

So how do people balance the pros and the cons?

To help understand we asked 12 SANE Peer Ambassadors for their positive and negative experiences when taking medication.

One med, then two, then three!

The best thing about my medication is the increased stability. With rapid cycling bipolar disorder, I didn't know if I was coming or going.

The worst thing about my meds is the weight gain. I went from 67kg to 110kg. My GP suggested lap band surgery. I now hover around 80kg. It's a weight I can accept. 

Also, the side effects of one medication required me to go on another medication, which then required me to go on another medication. So instead of taking one, I now need three!

Nicci

Medication should be part of a holistic plan

I now know – I've learnt the hard way by stopping my medication in the past – that taking medication in conjunction with looking after myself, getting a good night's sleep, avoiding certain stressful situations, exercising regularly, eating well and maintaining friendships as well as my hobbies and interests helps me to stay well and maintain my mental health.

Unfortunately, as good as medication is at helping me stay well, you have to remember to take it daily at certain times and pack it when you are going away. The side effects of some medication caused me physical health problems in the past, including drowsiness in the morning and problems with libido and sexual dysfunction.

Matthew

​I felt like a guinea pig

My medication alleviates my anxiety and this is a positive thing in my life.

In the past I was on so many medications it felt like I was a guinea pig. Being sedated in hospital can have terrible side-effects and isn't a positive experience.

There needs to be a balance of holistic therapy and medication. My worst experience is seeing psychiatrists who didn't even speak to me, they just prescribed drugs. It felt like they relied on medication as a solution to my illness.

– Samantha

If you forget… it's not fun

Medication takes the edge off my worst days and gives me just enough energy to work on whatever I need to do.

The worst thing is when you forget to take your meds and you get withdrawals. Those are not fun days.

Harrison

It brings stability

And I am grateful for this. I haven't had a psychotic episode for 16 years and this may be attributed to medication.

The worst things: the cost, the physical side effects - drinking lots of water and needing to go to the toilet constantly - the dependency and the physical withdrawal I have if I accidentally miss it. There's also potential for long term physical damage from some medications.

– Tania

A positive… with a negative

The best thing about my medication is it allows me to feel the highs and lows, but prevents me from spiralling into depression and anxiety. 

The worst thing - and it's really shallow - I put on weight and I haven't been able to shift it since. I know I need to be on them for a couple of years yet, so that's hard for me. 

– Lesley

It's a trade-off

The right medication can offer short-term relief or balance. Some medication has terrible side effects. It's a trade-off. The side effects or the crippling panic and ODC.

I knew my medication was causing certain side effects, like parasomnia (I'd crawl out of bed nightly), hot flushes, and other things. But my psychiatrist - who was otherwise good - attributed these to my anxiety. I don't think he wanted to concede that medication could do that. 

– Les

It gave me clarity to find alternatives

My medication emphasised my constant tiredness and irritability. It interfered with my libido. My appetite loss was dramatic, but I gained a significant amount of weight. My insomnia was better, but waking up in the mornings was a nightmare!

The best thing was that it kept me alive! It levelled out my brain chemicals just enough to allow me to have moments of rational thought. This enabled me to cope with my daily tasks. It also provided me with clarity of mind to research and find treatment alternatives. 

– Leonie

It's one answer, but not the only one

I don't believe that long term medication works for my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and research shows this.

Yet, I see medication as a tool to find stability. It helps someone with BPD to engage in therapy like dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).

I no longer take antipsychotics or benzodiazepines. This is because the medication I started taking after my stroke happens to double as a chemical stabiliser. But my medication feeds into my health anxiety and my memory issues. I'm constantly terrified I might accidentally overdose. Plus, I hate that I might never live a day without having to take it.

Mahlie

The early days were trial and error

One medication made me so hyper I talked non-stop for hours, not even pausing for breath. Another medication made it feel like I was wading through treacle - everything was such an effort. It took a while to get the balance right. 

A medication that originally didn't work, now works fine. Perhaps because I've learned extra ways to manage my illness. My initial resistance to being on medication long term has been outweighed by knowing what's at risk if I don't have that help.

– Charlotte

Reviewing medication can be a costly exercise

It works, but if I need to review my medication it's difficult, time consuming and costly.

An initial private appointment with a psychiatrist is $500, with follow up weekly appointments $198 a pop.

It's hard to make the right changes at the right time. I could be well for years and then experience depression and feel like I need to adjust my medication. 

I dream of being able to go to an affordable Day Centre for Mental Health where I can see a psychologist, physiologist, a psychiatrist, do a group session and have my blood tests all in the one day - plus have a nice lunch in their café! How hard can it be? It would be like Headspace for adults.

–Terese

Do you have your own story about medication and managing your symptoms of mental illness? Are you interested in discussing the issues that often come with medication? Join the discussion on our Facebook post.

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