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Can You Treat Mental Illness Without Medication?

Mental illnesses are real illnesses, not failures to cope or ploys for attention. All too often, though, people with mental health issues forgo treatment for months or years, all because they feel ashamed of their condition. One in four young people, and almost half of the Australian population, experience a mental health condition at some point.

The clients who patronize Three Seas are obviously brave souls who want help. But they also struggle with the same mental health stigma the general population faces. Oftentimes they’re hesitant to take medication, because they worry it will alter their personality, remove control over their lives, or otherwise decrease their overall quality of life. Medication works, and research consistently proves that therapy combined with medication is the most effective treatment for mental illness. It is sometimes possible to treat mental illness without medication, but it’s rarely the best option.

Why People Avoid Medication

Medication may save lives, but it’s not always easy to find the right drug or dosage. Most people who try mental health medications have to try a couple of different drugs before they arrive at one that works. This can be a demoralizing process, but is made less so when patients treat the process as an experiment.

The issues don’t end there, though. Many mental health medication carry side effects. Side effects tend to appear early, and often disappear by the time the medication has begun to take effect. For many patients, simply being willing to tolerate side effects for a few weeks may be all it takes to find the right drug. But if the side effects are truly intolerable, you don’t deserve to suffer.

Medication: Short-Term vs. Permanent

Many of our patients don’t want to take medication because they worry they’ll have to do so for the rest of their lives. In some cases, this is true, especially if you have a condition like schizophrenia, or a lifelong history of mental illness. More frequently, though, medication is a stop-gap measure. It offers help as you work through your issues in therapy, and works to help re-align your brain chemistry. With enough time and effort, you may be able to reduce your dosage, or even stop taking medication altogether. Of course, you should never do so without first talking to your doctor.

Brain Chemistry, Behaviour, and Lifestyle

Discussions about medication often focus on brain chemistry, treating it as an immutable characteristic. But everything you do affects your brain, which is why therapy and lifestyle changes can be so effective at mitigating brain chemistry issues. A person whose brain doesn’t produce enough dopamine, for instance, can “teach” her brain to do so by exercising more, re-framing negative thoughts, and adopting other healthy lifestyle strategies. Over time, this can help you wean yourself off of medication.

How Therapy Helps

If you’re not yet ready to try medication, you can still pursue treatment. Therapy is effective at treating virtually every mental illness. It may not be enough on its own, but you won’t know until you try. Some of the ways therapy helps include:

  • Helping you identify and break unhealthy patterns.
  • Making healthy lifestyle recommendations.
  • Helping you more effectively relate to loved ones, while aiding you to discuss your condition with them.
  • Offering gentle feedback on your feelings, as well as an unbiased perspective on your actions.
  • Offering tips on coping with daily stress.

Making the Decision

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether to take medication. No one can force you to take a drug you don’t want, and you have a right to set the course of treatment. But consider trying medication, since it can offer faster relief than therapy, in addition to strengthening therapy’s beneficial effects. If you’re on the fence, give counselling a try to see if it helps. You may find yourself interested in trying medication once you see the incredible progress therapy alone has offered. You’re in the driver’s seat, and at Three Seas, we honour all perspectives on treatment.