Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Prescribed medication & side effects

Mental health problems are often treated with medication. Different medications address different symptoms: antipsychotics for psychosis, antidepressants for depression, mood stabilisers for changes in mood and benzodiazepines for anxiety. Other classes of drugs, such as anti-epileptics, can also be used to treat bipolar depression, and yet others used for nerve root pain have been found to be useful in Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Doctors should review medication at least annually, but preferably more frequently.

Mixed feelings about taking medication
Many people had mixed feelings about medication, even though many recognised they needed it and found it helped them live more "normal" lives. Reasons for being unsure included the feeling that if they took medication it would be like admitting that they were unwell. Feeling sad about taking medication long-term and the physical and psychological side effects also caused concern. Many said, however, that medication had really helped and took it because it helped to relieve their symptoms. Some said it helped to keep their mood 'even', 'in the middle' or 'not happy, not sad', and others said medication had helped prevent breakdowns or self-harm. Getting medication from their doctor reassured some people that their symptoms were being taken seriously.

Some thought mental illness was caused by a chemical imbalance and believed that medication restored this balance, but not everyone agreed (this view is not supported by scientific evidence). Medication also helped people to sleep - particularly important for those who worked - and to feel calmer or generally feel better. A few people said medication helped them recover, though most expected to continue taking medication long-term to manage their condition rather than expecting to be symptom free (see 'Recovery'). One woman who found medication helpful wondered whether it was just a placebo effect. Overall, people judged that their medication was right for them when it controlled their symptoms and they could get on with their lives.

Some people found that medication didn't help their symptoms (or didn't help enough). 

Some people with psychosis said that medication only reduced but did not stop, their voices or intrusive thoughts. One man, however, said his latest medication (aripiprazole) completely rid him of psychotic symptoms. A few people felt worse when they started taking medication and others mentioned that medication took time to work - although some felt the effects immediately. One man thought he should have had something else to help his depression in the four week period he waited for his medication to work. He said he felt like taking alcohol or drugs to help him cope, and on one occasion attempted suicide because the medication wasn't working. For others, the effect of medication was temporary, or on and off. 

Side effects
Most people we talked to experienced side effects and these caused concern  (find out more about antidepressant side effects). Common side effects of various kinds of medication included drowsiness, poor concentration and memory, feeling flat or emotionless, and weight gain. Many people also experienced physical side effects such as dribbling, dry mouth, headache, dizziness or the shakes. People also described losing control of their legs: one man described shuffling around and having to walk on his hands and knees. He thought he had been given a bigger dose of the medication because he's Black, but says he wanted to get better so he listened to the doctors. 

Other people described more unusual side effects. 

Side effects can be serious: people experiencing drowsiness described being in danger when operating machinery at work, falling asleep on a bus late at night, being late for work and not being able to care for children. Other side effects caused people a great deal of distress. 

Consequently, some had tried many different kinds of medication and had only recently found one that helped. Others found ways to manage the side effects caused by the medication, such as napping to deal with drowsiness or taking medication at bedtime. One university student took his medication late at night after studying so he could concentrate and remember what he had learnt. A few people took an anticholinergic to relieve the shakes. Many people felt it was worth continuing their medication despite the side effects: one man thought they were “a small price to pay.” 

People also worried about the risks to the heart, brain, and liver and of becoming addicted. A few people worried about forgetting to take their medication or taking too much, and some were helped by their carer.

Control over taking medication

A few people said they did not understand what their medication was or how it worked, and some said there was not enough information or evidence about alternative medication that might suit them better. When medication was not working, people sometimes went to their doctor to change their medication or the dose - but doctors didn't always agree with them. One woman felt confused and concerned about the changes to her medication because her doctor gave her no opportunity to discuss them. Another woman had tried numerous medications, and compared one doctor (who was unsympathetic about her side effects) with another who said she could take more of her antipsychotic if she felt like she needed it. While some people trusted their doctor to make decisions for them about medication, others preferred being given more control over what they took and when.

For some medication alone was not enough; they felt it should be combined with other treatments such as talking therapies. One man said he was helped by both medication and prayer (see 'The role of faith, religion & spirituality'). Some thought doctors were only interested in prescribing medication and felt they received little other support with their mental health problems, or with medication side effects. One man thought doctors treat people “like a machine”. One woman, however, had been refused medication despite seeing her doctor several times until she saw another doctor in an emergency.

Some people had been taking medication for many years (over 30 in some cases). One woman had been taking an antidepressant for a few weeks. A few had been told to expect to be on medication for the rest of their lives, which caused them a great deal of concern. One woman could envisage taking medication for a long time, but hoped to eventually stop taking it. One man felt he was taking too many tablets and wanted to stop taking his antidepressant, but thought he would always need a sleeping tablet so that he could continue to work.

For more experiences of taking anti-depressant medication see Healthtalk websites on ‘Depression’ and ‘Experiences of anti-depressants

Last reviewed June 2015.

Last updated June 2015.

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