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Featured Image Credit: Emma Clarke/Ivana Poku/Kim Scott
Recent figures released ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week from the ONS found that one in five UK adults experienced symptoms of depression during the pandemic; this number rises to 40 per cent when looking at women aged between 16 and 29.
It's little surprise, then, that more people are turning to antidepressants - with prescriptions increasing by nearly 19 per cent during this fraught period.
But while we've repeatedly been told it's "okay not to be okay" and to "reach out", many are still reluctant to talk openly about taking medication for their mental health.
Retired psychiatrist Linda Gask is aware of the stigma. Despite working with people with mental health problems as her career, she found herself reluctant to start taking them herself.
"At the time, I felt like a bit of a failure for going on them, like I should have been able to manage," she tells Tyla.
"So many people are so [against] antidepressants at the moment. But it doesn't alter the fact for a lot of people, they are life-saving."
Tyla spoke to three women who take antidepressants about their experiences with the medication, and about the stigma they still carry...
"I don't know if I would still be here without antidepressants"
Emma Clarke, 29, first found herself turning to antidepressants five years ago, after her dad passed away. Having struggled previously with depressive episodes, she sought medical intervention as her life "crumbled".
"I was so put off by the stigma around antidepressants that I never wanted to seek help " she says. "You hear of people taking them and just feeling numb."
While Emma, who is based in London, did notice an improvement, she felt reluctant to tell people she was taking antidepressants - even keeping it a secret from her then-boyfriend.
"After my dad died, I felt so isolated and cut off from everyone," she says. "I felt everyone around me was continuing with their lives, and I was stuck."
The shame she felt by taking antidepressants saw Emma come off them cold turkey, feeling it was impacting her social life.
"I just didn't know anyone else taking them," she adds. "I was so embarrassed by the fact I was on meds.
"When you're young and going out a lot, and you have to explain why you're not drinks because of meds, it's awkward."
However, when the pandemic hit, Emma felt as if she should move back to medication.
"It was difficult to begin with," she says. "But there's been such an improvement in my mood.
"The last few years marked a real shift in people being more open about their mental health. I'm more vocal about my experiences.
"Antidepressants help me, which is amazing. I don't think I'd be here without them."
"I'm terrified to ever stop taking antidepressants"
Ivana Poku knew things weren't right when she found herself struggling to get out of bed in the morning. The 33-year-old had given birth to healthy twin boys, but she found herself unable to engage with motherhood.
"When you hit rock bottom, there's a point where you can't hide it anymore," she says. "I remember looking at my babies and wanting to harm them. I thought they would be better off without me. I couldn't control my thoughts."
Much like Emma, Ivana was reluctant to take medication: "I thought antidepressants were addictive," she explains.
Ivana says antidepressants - while certainly not a quick-fix - helped her function.
"I wasn't crying anymore, which was a huge change," she says. "They didn't 'cure' me but they provided me with the means to go about the day."
However, despite four years passing since Ivana welcomed her boys, she still doesn't feel ready to come off mood elevating medication. While she is not physically addicted to her antidepressants, there's definitely a psychological fear of reverting back to that dark place she was in.
"I'm terrified to come off them," she admits. "I had such a bad experience with my depression, it was just so intense.
"I did try to come off the medication before. It didn't go very well at all. It's just left me terrified."
Psychiatrist Linda agrees that there's not a lot of provision for those who want to move off antidepressants, with going cold turkey often the very worse way for your body.
"Not a lot of people are properly supervised," Linda says. "Additional support is often required, such as in depth talking-therapies and counselling. This isn't always on offer on the NHS, and not everyone can afford to pay for them."
While Ivana acknowledges there is an improvement in how people perceive mental illness, she still feels a heavy stigma attached to having to take antidepressants - particularly in her role as a motherhood coach for her company, Mum's Journey.
"My first thoughts around telling people I'm on antidepressants is, 'people will think I'm crazy,'" she says.
"You're seeing a psychiatrist? You're on antidepressants? You're crazy. It's a horrible stigma, very deep rooted in us."
"I don't know how my clients would perceive it if they knew. I can imagine them saying: oh she's still on antidepressants? She can't help me."
"Valium left me numb"
Kimberley Scott, 30, was put on antidepressants 10 years ago after struggling at university.
"Someone accused me of stealing their coursework, which I didn't do," she says. "The tutors believed them, and the stress of it all sent me on a downwards spiral."
After a lightning quick appointment with an "old-fashioned" GP, Kim, who now runs her own fitness and wellness company in Liverpool, was prescribed Valium - also known as diazepam.
"It made me feel really off," she said. "My arms were completely numb. I couldn't focus. So I forced myself off them."
Kim added that she felt hugely judged when she told her friends.
"They were like 'this is the reason you're on Valium?'" she says. "It made me feel so guilty for needing help.
"I felt comfortable enough to reach out, but then I got judged for doing so.
"I was so embarrassed that I didn't even tell my parents about it. My friends were so unreceptive that I just couldn't do it."
However, Kim found herself needing support in more recent years when she suffered in a toxic work environment, and had a completely different experience when she spoke to her new doctor.
"She gave me almost like a full therapy session and lots of advice, alongside new medication," Kim says. "She put me on the waiting list for counselling to talk through my issues, and that really helped."
Now, Kim is waiting to start easing herself off her medication as she feels she no longer needs mood elevators.
"Therapy is what helped me," she says. "But antidepressants were the bridge I used to get me where I need to be."
Linda agrees. "Antidepressants used alongside therapy is the best way to go," she says.
"For people concerned about the stigma around antidepressants, but need help, just remember: taking medication is nothing to be ashamed of. At all."
If you have been affected by the content of this article, reach out to Mind on 0300 123 3393, or email them at [email protected]. You are not alone.