Antidepressants saved my life during lockdown – the stigma needs to end
Bethany Dawson had hesitations about taking antidepressants. The stigma around the medication made her nervous. But she now credits the tablets for saving her life during lockdown.
The 21-year-old university student tells me she had been "struggling quite a bit anyway" prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But when lockdown hit, her world was turned upside down. At the time, she was on a placement year at the civil service. But when the country effectively came to a standstill to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Bethany's normal routine of going to see her friends was completely disrupted. She soon found herself beginning to struggle without her support system – and sadly, things quickly got worse.
Bethany's grandmother – whom she describes as her "best friend" – was moved from hospital to a care home after suffering several brain aneurysms. Eight days after lockdown went into effect, her grandmother passed away, in what she suspects was a Covid-related death. This, coupled with the isolation she faced as a result of the government's coronavirus restrictions, severely impacted Bethany's mental health.
"I just stopped functioning," she tells me. "I wasn't really showering or eating – not because I didn't want to, but because I couldn't be bothered. I would only force myself out of bed when I had a work meeting. Essentially, I didn't want to die, but I didn't care about living. I was stuck in this grey space where I was doing the bare minimum to keep myself alive, which is really dark, and I guess it is, sadly."
It was in the midst of a work meeting in May – when she had failed to eat once again – that Bethany realised that she needed help. She spoke to her doctor, was diagnosed with depression, and was immediately put on anti-depressants. "I have been on them since," she says, "they have essentially changed my life."
Prior to the coronavirus crisis and its subsequent lockdowns, Bethany was resistant to taking medication. "I've avoided it so many times in the past. I've told people [that I'm on it now] and they're like 'oh my god, I'm so sorry', but without being dramatic, it saved me.
"Medication means I can feed myself, and keep my space tidy. It means I can function as a normal human being, and on top of that, I then have the drive to exercise and do hobbies that make me feel better."
The path to finding the correct dosage wasn't straightforward. However, by June, Bethany had made remarkable progress.
"Two weeks into taking my meds, I remember that my room was tidy. When I was really ill, you couldn't see the floor because I was constantly so exhausted from the weight of the depression. One day my mum was actually like 'wow, your room's been clean for three days!'
"Finally, I was able to take showers every day, and yeah, I was functioning. But I still didn't feel motivation or enjoyment, or anything more than 'just fine'. I upped the dosage in July, and I started to feel like me again."
"Everyone says that when you take antidepressants you feel like this zombie and have no feelings or emotions, but that is what I was like without my medication. I was this non-existent human being, and I like to think of myself as this sunny person," she raises her tone, "like the girl in Mean Girls who has a lot of feelings. That's me, I care a lot and I really enjoy life, and I just didn't when I was very unwell."
Now, seven months on, and Bethany has no plans to go off her antidepressants: "I have a job as a reporter, writing about things I care about, I've achieved some of my work goals, and university is going well."
Dr Adrian James – the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists – has said that the COVID-19 crisis poses the greatest threat to mental health since WW2. Additionally, he stressed that the impact will be felt for years to come. According to the Centre for Mental Health, some 10 million people in the UK alone will need new or additional mental health support due to the fallout of the pandemic.
For Bethany, she's glad she sought help from her doctor and is urging others who may be suffering to do the same. "It can't get any worse can it?" she says with a chuckle. "I feel like I can do it this time around.
"I'm not pretending that I'm on cloud nine, or that I've got this golden shield around me. But now I feel strong enough to seek help if I need it, or keep going until we reach that light at the end of the tunnel."