Rae RitchieIn her new regular blog for Mental Health Today, Rae Ritchie discusses thoughts of wanting to stop taking medication – and how this shouldn’t always be treated as a bad thing.

Last weekend I went on a retreat. One of our first activities was to gather around in a circle and share what had bought us there. I talked about my desire to rediscover a sense of self beyond mental health labels. Then I felt a wave of happiness and comfort as I leant back on the cushions. I’d already relaxed. I breathed out a long low sigh of contentment.

Almost immediately another thought followed: I should stop taking my medication? If I’m feeling this good, then I obviously don’t need pharmaceuticals! I have the same idea whenever I feel elation or even just a period of stability in mood. As yet, I haven’t acted on this impulse but it grows stronger as my struggles ease and become less frequent. Is it inevitable that there will be a time when I do decide to bin the lot?

I sense the reaction of many of you reading this. You’re thinking ‘No! Don’t do it!’ I know because this is exactly what family and friends have said when I’ve mentioned this happy moment urge to them. They tell me not to do it and make me promise not to take what they see as drastic action. I think they perceive it as flawed logic on my part. As far as they’re concerned, one of the main reasons I’m doing better is because of the medication, therefore refusing to take it isn’t a sign of health but further confirmation that I’m ill.  

I understand their thought process. I’ve had the same reaction in similar situations. Even in the mental health unit I remember saying ‘But why?’ when one of my new friends announced she’d quit taking her prescription for bipolar over the previous weekend. I told her it seemed an unwise decision although my actual thought was that it was sheer madness.

For those of us dealing with mental health prognoses, we probably do only feel as well as we do thanks to the medication and thus stopping taking it (especially going cold turkey) will have deleterious effects. That said, I think we need stop pathologising the urge we get to quit the pills when we’re feeling good.  

As professionals and as friends and family we need to stop assuming that the person in question doesn’t comprehend the situation. On the contrary, some of us do fully grasp the likely cause and effect alongside the probable implications – and in these situations wanting to ditch the tablets is less about delusion and more an indication of recovery. The wish to reduce or even abandon medication can be a sign of improved or even good mental health. 

We are simply applying the reasoning that we’ve encountered all our lives when it comes to medical products. From our earliest days, we learn that we use potions and pills to help us feel better when we’re ill, but then once we are better we cease taking them. This is widely regarded as a sensible approach and doing otherwise leads to harm. We take as few antibiotics as possible so that we don’t develop resistance. Our prescription only gives us a minimal amount of opiate pain relief so we don’t develop a dependency. 

In these instances, and many others, it is healthy to not take drugs for an extended period. Likewise, as a society we see not wanting to take medication for longer than necessary as normal behaviour.  Viewed through this framework, being wary of over-reliance on substances, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, is a healthy urge – thus why are we surprised when those of us on medication for mental health issues want to bin them when we’re feeling well again? I don’t take paracetamol when I stop feeling period pain; why would I want to continue with Citralopram when I stop feeling depressed?

Of course, there are medications that some people are required to take every day of their lives if they wish to remain well. However much he resents it, my dad takes Warfarin at night to keep his heart condition under control. Type I diabetics need insulin for their blood sugar levels to remain steady. Yet these examples are, thankfully, rarer than instances where people take a substance pro re nata. Furthermore, no-one would question a diabetic’s wish to not have to inject themselves even if they know that is not a possibility.    

It is an understandable desire to want to live without medication. For some people with mental health issues, as with physical health problems, this may not be feasible – but there’s no need to criticise their desire for it to be otherwise. Surely professionals and practitioners can acknowledge this as a healthy urge without encouraging the service user to actually act upon it? In some cases, could this moment present an opportunity to undertake a meds review with a view to perhaps reducing some substances slightly?  

It is important that those of us with such impulses are able to talk about them without fear of being patronised as not comprehending the situation or being told off like a naughty child. I don’t believe I’m alone in wanting to experience the world without sensing that my perception and response are continually shaped by the little white tablets I chug down morning and night. Being able to encounter myself and others without the medicated fog remains my goal. I want to be able to sit in that retreat circle next year and, like everyone else present, cry if I wish rather than my mood stabilisers keeping me at arms’ length from my own feelings.  

About the author

Rae Ritchie worked as a historian for a decade before leaving academia to become a freelance writer and coach. Whether in the past or the present, she is fascinated in how people make sense of themselves and their lives. This professional interest has undoubtedly been encouraged by her own wrangling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. These struggles are ongoing but writing about her experiences – and the not necessarily related topics of gender, fashion, beauty, women’s magazines and mindful living – is saving her soul.