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Are Meds in the Eye of the Beholder?

When I first started writing about psychiatric meds, I thought there was a simple dichotomy between the drugs people took for psychiatric conditions, and the drugs they took for physical problems.

I’ve since learned there’s considerably more blurring of the lines. Drugs developed as antidepressants are used to treat conditions involving chronic pain, for example, and drugs developed as anti-seizure medications are used to treat anxiety.

I’m curious to know, then: How does this affect people’s views of psychiatric meds? Is a drug more or less acceptable when employed for a mental condition than for a bodily one?

A reader who commented on one of my previous posts argued that I shouldn’t take meds for anxiety and depression because I suffer from migraines, the true source of my problems, she assumed. Unlike mood disorders, she seemed to consider migraines a physical, and therefore legitimate, medical condition.

But as my recent experience with meds for my migraines shows, this is a false dichotomy. As I mentioned in my previous post, migraines have induced me to take multiple drugs that are prescribed for psychiatric indications, including the mood stabilizers Depakote and Topamax, and the antidepressant Pamelor.

I viewed all these drugs as comparatively heavy-duty compared to my regimen of psychiatric meds and was only induced to take them because I couldn’t find anything else for the migraines.

As it turned out, I had alarming, adverse reactions to all three of these medications. The most recent happened last night, when I had what seemed like an allergic reaction to Pamelor. My face turned red, and my face, hands and throat swelled up. I had trouble swallowing and felt short of breath.

To me, these adverse reactions get at a contradiction that the critics of psychiatric meds tend not to acknowledge. Why is it somehow reasonable and acceptable to take psychiatric medications for a physical condition like migraines, but unacceptable, even dangerous, to take those same medications for psychological issues like depression and anxiety?

I’d guess that the answer has something to do with the meanings we assign to medications. I’ve argued in the past that medications adopt symbolic associations for people taking them, even for quite young kids. But even people who don’t themselves take medications judge and assess the drugs. Their judgments, I think, often depend on the context in which the drugs are given.

Therefore, to some people, a medication taken for a “physical” or “neurological” – and, by implication, “real” – condition like migraine is somehow less pernicious than one taken for a “psychological” condition. Mental health advocates have tried hard to advance the idea that psychiatric disorders are brain diseases, “just like diabetes,” but the perceived split persists.

For my part, I’ve never been so resentful of medications as I have been of the migraine drugs mentioned above. Regardless of what I was taking them for, they a) didn’t work and b) caused alarming side effects.

Perhaps the medication skeptics would say there really is a meaningful difference – that drugs for migraine are inherently justified, even if they don’t work well, whereas drugs for anxiety and depression are inherently unjustified. Still, I’d like to hear your responses: Does your attitude toward a particular medication depend on whether it’s taken for a psychiatric or non-psychiatric condition?

Photo credit: Alvimann

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Are Meds in the Eye of the Beholder?

Kaitlin Bell Barnett

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APA Reference
Bell Barnett, K. (2012). Are Meds in the Eye of the Beholder?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Jan 2012
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