Pill-Shaming

Janet Coburn
3 min readNov 12, 2023

When I first started taking Prozac, when it was just becoming ubiquitous, my mother said, “I hear it’s a ticking time bomb!”

“Oh, dear!” I thought. “Mom’s been listening to Phil Donahue again.” (She had been, but that’s not the point.)

Back in the day, Prozac was hailed as a miracle drug and condemned as a killer drug. On the one hand, it was said to be a “magic bullet” for depression. On the other, it was supposed to result in addiction and suicide.

It’s probably true that it was prescribed too often to too many people who may not really have needed it. And it may have led to suicides — not because Prozac prompted such an action, but either because it was improperly prescribed or because it activated people who were already passively suicidal and pushed them into action.

At any rate, Prozac was not an unmixed blessing.

For me, it was closer to a miracle drug. It was the first medication that had any significant effect on my depression. I noticed no side effects.

But Prozac is no longer the psychiatric drug of choice. Since that time, hundreds — maybe thousands — of psychotropic drugs have been introduced and widely prescribed. Many have proved just as controversial as Prozac. Indeed, the whole concept of psychiatric drugs is now controversial.

I belong to a lot of Facebook groups that encourage discussion on psychological matters and have a lot of Facebook friends with opinions on them, sometimes very strong ones. Some of the people with the strongest opinions are those who condemn certain classes of psychiatric drugs or that category of drugs altogether. They share horror stories of addiction, atrocious side effects, zombie-like behavior, and even death from the use of these drugs.

Benzos are the drugs that are most often condemned. And it’s true that they can be addictive if they’re misused. Whether that’s because a doctor overprescribes them or a patient takes more than prescribed I couldn’t say. But I maintain that benzos aren’t inherently harmful when prescribed appropriately and supervised professionally.

I have personal experience with benzos. They were the first psychiatric drug I ever took, meant to relieve a rather severe nervous tic that affected my neck and head during junior high school. I do remember walking off a short stepstool while shelving books in the library, but I was not injured and the misstep could be attributable to ordinary clumsiness, which was something I was known for (and still am). The benzos were discontinued when I got better. I also took benzos in college because of pain due to temporomandibular joint problems.

Now I have benzos that my psychiatrist prescribed “as needed” for anxiety and sleep disturbances. After all the years I’ve seen him and my history of compliance with prescribed medication, plus the very low doses, he had no hesitation prescribing, and I have no objection to taking them.

But some of the people I see online object to any psychiatric drugs whatsoever. Again, the most common complaints are addiction, side effects, and zombie-like behavior. Of course, I can’t — won’t — deny that they have suffered these effects. Psychotropics are known to affect different people differently. I’ve had side effects from many of the ones I’ve taken that were too unpleasant for me to continue taking the drugs. But after all the different meds I’ve tried during my journey to a combination of drugs that work for me, it would be a surprise if I objected to them altogether.

But I don’t. I’ve had cautious, responsible psychiatrists who’ve prescribed cautiously and monitored rigorously, listening to me when I reported side effects.

So, my personal experiences have been good. I know not everyone’s experiences have been, for a variety of reasons.

What I object to is the drumbeat of “all psychotropic medications are bad and ruin lives.” And the memes that show pictures of forests and puppies that say “These are antidepressants” and pictures of pills with the caption “These are shit.”

I hope those messages don’t steer people who need them away from psychotropic medications. And I hope that people who do need them find prescribers who are conscientious, cautious, and responsible in prescribing them. On balance, I think they’re a good thing.

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Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.