04/16/2014 12:31 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 11:23 EDT

Medicating Mental Illness Can Be as Necessary as Treating Cancer

Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous
Health, Medicine, Medication, Mixed collection of colourful pills capsules and tablets.

When my 14-year-old son was diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the big question in our family was: "To medicate or not to medicate?" Over the years the use of Ritalin has been so controversial that I shared my hesitation with my doctor in starting my boy on any medication.

I, like so many other parents, tried negating the positive effects of the medication by highlighting what I had "heard" from other parents: that Ritalin can lead to stronger drugs; that long term side effects of Ritalin are not known; that Ritalin is not even necessary since ADHD isn't even a real illness, it's simply a boy being a busy boy.

My physician very simply said, "If your son was diabetic and required insulin, would you not give it to him?" Of course I would. And so I did with Ritalin. Within a couple of weeks, my son announced that for the first time in his life, he felt hopeful. He is now using Concerta daily, and is thriving both socially and academically.

However, when I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, my jaw dropped the first time a family member criticized my use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Comments were made regarding the inefficacy of these drugs; criticisms on the potential side-effects were more rampant than my rapidly declining mental health. It seemed that suddenly, people who were determined to disprove that mental illness was a very real issue for people of all walks of life, were even more adamant in their claims that the drugs used to help alleviate the symptoms of MDD and GAD were nothing more than placebos.

Despite a 40 pound weight loss in very few weeks and my inability to formulate full sentences without needing to put a pillow over my head before said sentence was complete, my friends and family seemed convinced that handing me a book filled with positive insight would perk me right up, and have me excited about the prospect of personal hygiene again.

Some people would comment on the fact that I should be grateful that I didn't have cancer. In their view, my diagnoses were clearly not fatal, and as such, medication was unnecessary. It's a travesty that in this day and age of available knowledge; such views are still the ruling majority. Having to listen to someone who suggests that yoga and holistic practices will "cure" me of my funk only serves to cause further stress and a downward spiral in which feelings of loneliness and abandonment spark a deeper, darker mental state.

This is not to state that alternative therapies are useless. As a health care professional, I understand all too well the positive effects of exercise and positive thought on serotonin levels and increased endorphins, as well as the detriments and co-morbid diseases associated with higher levels of cortisol.

I agree that imagery, yoga, meditation, clean eating, smiling, laughing, along with many other mood enhancing activities can be extremely beneficial. However, that having been said, for someone who suffers from a mental illness such as MDD and GAD, before any of the above activities can be commenced, the victim needs to be able to muster some kind of desire to...well, to live. And that's when antidepressants and other antipsychotics, as well as therapy, are crucial in clearing the thick fog of pain and overwhelming defeat caused by mental illness.

And to tell someone with mental illness that treatment is not necessary in order to overcome the symptoms of the disease is about as sensitive as telling someone with a treatable cancer that surgery, chemo, and radiation won't be necessary; or deciding that a person with pneumonia won't benefit from antibiotics. Yes, both of those are valid analogies to the detrimental effects of mental illness gone untreated. It's time we all got educated.