Mental Health Awareness Month: Life is better beyond your stigma

Illustration of a patient sitting with a medical professional, being given a bottle of pills that says "Not Weak".
Cameron Opartkiettikul/Staff

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“Would you tell someone with diabetes that they are cheating because of their insulin medication?”

This is what my doctor asked me after I expressed my reluctance to start an antidepressant medication. To me, taking antidepressants felt like cheating. It felt like taking the easy way out.

I wanted to make myself happy through my own willpower — an endeavor that began in the midst of high school and followed me to college. I thought that if I worked harder, became fitter and dominated in my classes and extracurricular activities, I would someday reach an elusive “happiness.”

By the second semester of my freshman year, I was burnt out. The never-ending race toward a healthy mental state seemed to grow longer every day, stretching further and further until I no longer even knew what I was chasing. Things that previously filled me with passion — fitness, writing, environmentalism — seemed completely uninteresting to me. The world felt flat and gray without them.

It was actually The Daily Californian that made me realize I needed to get help.

At a weekly staff meeting, my editor told me that my article was the most popular sports piece that week. I should have felt happy and proud of myself, but instead, I had no feelings about it whatsoever. I realized I was not happy when I was supposed to be happy, nor was I sad when I was supposed to be sad. Everything had just sort of flatlined.

When I finally went to see a doctor, she explained to me that a chemical imbalance in the brain is no different than an imbalance within any other organ, and my worldview completely shifted. I started on an antidepressant, and although it was difficult at first to adjust to the medication, after six weeks, I was feeling objectively better. 

It really was that simple. There was no dramatic moment, no earth-shattering epiphany. There was never a moment when I crossed a finish line and reached a point where I was finally happy. I simply started taking a pill designed to increase the serotonin levels in my brain, and it worked just as it was supposed to.

This is not some sort of revolutionary tale of my hard-earned triumph over depression and anxiety. This is a story of me removing my own stigma surrounding antidepressants and allowing myself to feel better. This might be one of the most average stories you’ve read in a while; more than 12% of the population currently takes antidepressants, and this number is on the rise. 

I started taking antidepressants at the beginning of March, in the final few days when COVID-19 still felt like an abstract threat. Two weeks into my treatment, UC Berkeley moved classes online and we began to adjust to the “new normal.” If I hadn’t sought treatment, I don’t know how my mental health could have deteriorated further amid the pandemic.

By mid-April, I fell back in love with the sport of running. In May, I studied extremely hard for finals and produced work that I was proud of. In June, I took a summer class and made a clearheaded decision about what major I would pursue. In July, I backpacked 250 miles from Mount Whitney to Yosemite, and in August, I vowed that I would make the best of online classes and appreciate every opportunity to learn.

Taking antidepressants does not mean that you have failed in producing your own sense of happiness or purpose. In my view, it means that you were relentless in your self-love, even when that meant doing something that scared you. If you recognize yourself in my story, you likely will not be able to work hard enough on your own to overcome your depression. You can, however, overcome the stigma that you might have against seeking help.

Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].