All the university health care system wants you to know is that you are not alone in your battle. Whether dealing with the flu or major depressive disorder, there are free resources everywhere at most universities, as long as you are willing to pick up the phone and ask for help. I knew that these resources were there. I had piles of pamphlets about the University Counseling Center and the psychiatry office stuck somewhere in the bottom of my desk drawer right next to my freshman orientation booklets. I had even passed the phone number to the University Counseling Center along to friends dealing with anxiety issues. I considered myself an advocate for taking control of your life and using what’s available to achieve well-being.
Yet, during my sophomore year, when I found myself sneaking out of my modern philosophy class to cry in the bathroom for no reason whatsoever, I resisted doing what I knew I should do: Fill out the psychiatry center application. Admitting that something was wrong and I needed help was acknowledging that the problem was there in a very real, heavy-and-cold-in-my-chest way. I only managed to make an appointment by telling myself that the psychiatrist would tell me there was nothing actually wrong.
On the day of the appointment, I took the elevator to the fifth floor of the health center where there was a tiny waiting room with a bell that jingled when I opened the door. I was nervous, but I was looking forward to relief from sudden onset sadness. I was called into the doctor’s office and after glancing over my form and asking a few questions, the psychiatrist flopped a booklet in front of me full of prescription names and lots of scientific words I didn’t understand. She asked me to choose between two depression medications. “What’s the difference?” I asked. “Well, this one is a stimulant and the other is an SSRI,” she responded.
Not knowing what would be best (Wasn’t she supposed to pick the medication out?), I hesitantly picked the stimulant , Wellbutrin, and she sent the prescription off to the local CVS. After a brief warning to not drink too much alcohol on this medication, the appointment was over. We didn’t speak about the origin of the depression symptoms. We didn’t discuss my life. She didn’t even mention more holistic methods of treatment. The whole experience was anticlimactic, and I walked out feeling like I hadn’t solved my problem much at all.
As soon as I got home, I did research on the little round white pills I’d picked up from the pharmacy. It turns out, her warning about alcohol was understated—the Wellbutrin would affect the way I processed alcohol and get me drunker much faster. I was relieved that by chance I’d picked the stimulant to try out first. It turns out SSRIs are pretty serious drugs that can sometimes have permanent effects on mood. While for many users, potential side-effects of drugs are outweighed by the way they can help people, I would have at least liked to have known more about what I was putting into my body. I wish I’d been encouraged to try out milder treatments first.
I continued to do my own research and asked lots of questions at the psychiatry office, even when the doctor seemed annoyed. I asked friends who I knew had received treatment for psychiatric disorders questions about their own experiences. We all agreed that the information provided by mental health care workers was limited and getting the information we needed to empower our own choices was frustrating.
Ultimately, I’m glad I took the medication and I believe it helped me get back on my feet. Most of the solutions to my mental health problems, however, come from outside of the doctor’s office. I exercised. I meditated. I cut out toxic people in my life. And these actions, combined, came together to make me feel better.
It’s not the doctor’s fault that the mental health care system is segmented and that Western medicine tends to be pill-focused. I learned that the patient’s role in the doctor’s office is not to passively do what I am told and hope that it will work. The patient’s role is to be an active advocate for her own health, and to utilize her doctor as one of many resources on the road to recovery.
For someone with chronic depression like myself, that road is more like a life-long battle to stay mentally centered in a positive place. I am sure as I grow and change, and the medical field responds to new research, my relationship with my doctor may change. But for now, I will continue to be my own best mental health treatment.