I am about two-thirds of the way through writing a column on Adderall, the newest addition to my list of daily drugs, when I reread the suicide note posted on Facebook by my friend Luchang Wang ’17. It says that she couldn’t wait for new medication to kick in while remaining in school. It sounds desperate. I wonder if my voice sounded desperate through the phone when I implored Yale Health to let me see a psychiatrist to increase my dosage. When they said I had an appointment in three days. When I pushed my mother to call my psychiatrist in Florida that night because three days was too long.
I spend a lot of time talking about my emotional health, but I’m still hesitant to bring up my history with psychiatric medication. Words like ‘antidepressant’ and ‘benzodiazepine’ tend to evoke a visceral reaction, an unsettling in your gut that makes you want to change the topic or converse in hushed tones. We’ve sanitized terms like ‘therapy’ and ‘mental health care’, but suggestions of pharmacology — aside from jokes predicated on popular stereotypes about Prozac and Xanax — remain part of the crude, unpretty reality of mental illness.
Perhaps it’s that a prescription, in popular culture, forms a demarcation between the romantic archetype of depression-neuroticism and the stereotype of an asylum inpatient. When I bring up my expanding list of medications, I’m invoking an entire popular history of mental illness. I’m drawing on our collective memories of Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted and Norman Bates from Psycho. As a result, our conversations about psychiatric meds are sterile and distanced. We can wax philosophical about our antidepressant generation or speculate on over-prescription of certain pills, but only so long as we’re guarded by distance and disapproving tones.
It’s obvious that a decent portion of Yale students is on some regimen of psychoactive drugs, so our ironic unease with psychiatric medication might be comical if it weren’t so incredibly dangerous. Luchang’s point about her medication is a resounding, unambiguous reminder that our school lacks a sufficient understanding of the impact of psychiatric drugs on the lives of its students.
When I learn a friend is starting a new psychiatric treatment, a good part of me is thrilled. The other part, though, is wary and apologetic. Starting medication for the first time is hard; switching medications, which usually means that the previous drugs have failed, is often harder. These medications have side effects that differ from the drugs we take for other illnesses. They demand patience from people who don’t have the luxuries of time or emotional wellness.
Take me for example. My high dose of Lexapro has made my life unspeakably better. But it also impacts my sensation of emotions, makes me drowsy at earlier hours than my friends, makes reaching orgasm more difficult and makes my nightmares frequent and painfully realistic. Adding a stimulant to the mix when I was diagnosed with ADHD this November meant flirting with insomnia, headaches and relapses into anxiety. I can’t forget a dose of either med without experiencing symptoms of withdrawal or discomfort. It’s possible I’ll take these medications for the rest of my life.
None of this should suggest that seeking psychiatric help isn’t necessary. The benefits of my successful treatment far outweigh the challenges of medication. In fact, I might describe psychiatric pharmacology as the closest thing to magic I’ve ever known. My life and the lives of people I love have been improved or saved by the right meds, something close to miraculous in the religion of science.
Rather, I’m insisting that the full burden of medication must be understood so that we can eliminate further hardships on students seeking psychiatric treatment. A few kind professors offered me extensions when starting Adderall meant I couldn’t sleep or eat on a regular schedule, when my depression wasn’t under control, when breakthrough anxiety got the better of my ability to attend section. To others, I’ve lied and suggested alternate forms of physical illness. Our world remains more sympathetic to the stomach flu than to an attention deficit, more familiar with a bad cold than an anxious mind’s dark, irrational thoughts.
But when finding the right medication and dosage takes weeks or months or years — like in Luchang’s case — the institutional framework for accommodation must be stronger. Expecting that a mentally ill student fight for her own support is equivalent to expecting that a physically disabled student attend class in Klein Biology Tower without an elevator, only easier to disregard. If we expect to see change from our school and society, we must make our struggle impossible to ignore. I will write about my mental illness and treatment until every Facebook friend and Twitter follower and classmate can recite the milligrams of Lexapro I swallow in the morning, if that’s what it takes. Because I deserve more than this halfhearted, sanitized discourse about mental illness. Luchang deserved more.
Caroline Posner is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.