Postpartum Depression & the Stigma of “Happy Pills”

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I heard someone use the term “happy pills”the other day, and it really stuck in my craw. I knew, of course, that they were referring to antidepressants.

What is a happy pill exactly? I have taken antidepressants, as you know, and I haven’t experienced any sudden need to traipse through a meadow singing songs. I may be on Cymbalta for my OCD, but last time I looked it didn’t lead me to float on air, breeze through life and handle everything with aplomb come what may.

When I hear “happy pills,” I can’t help but think of Amy Adams in the Disney movie “Enchanted” — watch the video above to see what I mean.  Is this how you feel when you’re on Prozac? Or Zoloft? Or Lexapro?

I didn’t think so.

I think some people throw around the phrase “happy pills”as a way to stigmatize one of the treatments for postpartum depression and other mental illness. It’s a not-so-covert method of making those of us experiencing a serious mental illness feel bad and question ourselves if we take medication for treatment. To make us feel like we are taking illicit drugs, and make us fear the judgment of the ones who don’t NEED happy pills in order to live their lives. You don’t have to look far to find headlines like this one from Ladies Home Journal: “Are We Hooked On Happy Pills?”

While pondering this, I came upon an article from Reason magazine by Maia Szalavitz entitled “In Defense of Happy Pills”. Here’s a bit of what she had to say:

“Unlike in any other area of medicine, treatments that reduce pain and suffering, rather than being welcomed as miraculous breakthroughs, often are denigrated as ‘quick fixes.’ They’re viewed as band-aids that cover up, but do not solve, the real problem –only marginally more acceptable than illicit drugs.”

While I don’t agree with all of Szalavitz’s conclusions in the article — for instance, I personally think talk therapy can help people gain the tools necessary to cope with underlying problems, which is something medication can’t do — I do agree with this one:

“Most important, the backlash against antidepressants may discourage people they would help from trying them by reinforcing the sense that there is something fundamentally suspect about turning to drugs for assistance in coping with life.”

I reject the position that taking psychiatric medication is always the wrong choice, or unnecessary, and that mothers with postpartum depression are only doing it so they can be happy rather than deal with the tough issues of parenting. Taking medication was, for me, part of my recovery from an unwanted and horrible illness that I didn’t cause and needed to get over as quickly as possible so that I could be a functioning mother for my new baby. The pills didn’t make me happy. They didn’t take away the need to deal with my problems. They didn’t diaper or clothe or feed my child. They simply allowed me to do those things without being crushed inside the massive, oxygenless black hole of postpartum OCD.

Happiness is a choice. Unfortunately, when I had postpartum OCD, the choice to be happy was taken away, hidden from me by my illness. Once I got better, partially because of medication but also because of therapy and support from friends and family, I got that choice back. But only the choice. At that point I then had to decide whether I wanted to be happy. Even though I’m fine now, I still have an opportunity every day to choose to be unhappy too. I can focus on the parts of my life that suck, or I can be grateful for the parts of my life that are pretty damn good.

I am happy by choice. Pills don’t have ANYTHING to do with that.

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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  1. I absolutely love this post! As one who has tried multiple meds, waiting for the right one, I have never expected that they would make me instantly "happy" or remove the stress that a new baby brings. Rather, I just hope to live a life without feeling like a cell phone on vibrate from anxiety and without the crushing weight of a heavy, Army-style, wet, felt blanket that depression can wrap around you and squeeze tightly and feel like it's taken everything from you. So, if a med can make me live my life without those horrible feelings – than that is what my son deserves. And, I will keep trying until I can find the right one that will help (along with therapy, excercise, accupuncture and support). Just like has been said before, nobody would question whether or not doctors are giving out too much insulin to patients in need. Thanks, Katherine, for this – it makes me feel much more validated in my choices and not so alone or stigmatized.

  2. Great post! I have always hated it when people say "being happy is a choice", because when I have been in the throws of depression, it is just not an option to "pull myself up by my bootstraps" and be happy. I really appreciate your explanation of how mental illness hid the choice from you. Thanks!

  3. I use the term 'happy pills' to describe my anti-depressants. I've been on Wellbutrin, Effexor, Zoloft and now Ciprolex. I say it tongue-in-cheek though, because the doctors and pyschiatrists (oh so many) that have prescribed these various medicines seem to think that they'll do just that – make me happy. They don't change my circumstances: my present, my past and my view of the future (dim to say the least).
    But they do take the edge off of the sadness and help me not to get stuck in the negative thinking. No, they don't make me happy. I'm not sure I know what will make me happy. But at least I can joke about what the doctors think are a magic cure.

  4. i hate that phrasing, too. if anything, antidepressants make me less happy–they stabilize my moods so much that i'm often unable to have a sincerely happy reaction to anything. i have to work to feel any intense emotion, whereas when i'm depressed the emotions are all too much.
    i call a spade like a spade–my medication is medication. i need to take it, or i will hurt myself or someone else. that's all there is to it. and you're right, being happy is a choice–trying to get better from a mental illness isn't, at least not for me–i want to be around for my kids.

  5. Bravo, Katherine.
    When medication is an important choice for the women I work with, I often encourage them to see it this way:
    Just like taking an advil for a headache or thyroid medication for thyroiditis, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication simply work with the brain to help a mom be MORE HERSELF. They do not change someone's character but rather help the brain work the way it is meant to work. When you have a headache, you simply can't be present with those around you because of the distraction of the pain. It is the same with depression/anxiety. For many moms, medication is an extremely important piece of the process that helps her to be more HER.

  6. And let me add…they ain't so happy when you start to go off them. I've now been off Klonopin for a week, and have had to through withdrawal symptoms that were terrifying enough that I went to the ER because I thought I might be having a stroke. I'm grateful the medication was there because it got me through a really rough time, but it's not all flowers and kittens down that path.

  7. Christina says:

    I'm on Lexapro for my PPOCD and remeron( which I'm going off of slowly as it makes me FAT) but I love them. No, they don't make you deliriously happy but I'm a more sane person thanks to them. This from a former anti-medication hippie. I still love my farmer's markets and what not but I'm not willing to suffer to prove a point.

  8. I used the term, myself, when I was on antidepressants but not because they made me happy but, rather, because I preferred the euphamism to the actual word "antidepressants" in the same way I refer to my son's "pee pee." Odd example, I know, but I'm one of those people who often prefers not to use the medically, or anatomically, correct word. I certainly had no intent to offend.
    That said, I would never refer to someone else's use of antidepressants as happy pills. It's one thing to make word substitutions in regards to one's own situtation and quite different to apply them to another who may not feel the same way. On that note, I agree that those who throw the term around haphazardly, with complete disregard, need to be put in their place.

  9. I can't say that I like the term 'happy pills' but I can tell you from my own experiences with cylexa and Zoloft that they did 'elevate' my mood so that I didn't wonder through the motions empty. I do agree with you that being happy is very much a choice – yes, there is a disease and treatment should be sought, but I also think there are people out there who hear the term 'happy' pills and think this will solve their problems when life is tough. Life is work, being happy is never easy (at least not for me) and I am constantly working to find the silver lining to whatever opportunity life brings my way. I don't prefer to take pills, despite the fact that the stigma behind it is much less than it was years ago when I was diagnosed…but still, it is a choice…be it pills, therapy, finding the bright side, or a little of all – it will require work.

  10. It took me a long, long time to finally accept that taking Lexapro makes me able to cope. And to this day I feel sometimes like what I do as a mom, as a person, doesn't really "count" because I have to do it on an antidepressant. But then I consider that I don't overuse alcohol, smoke cigarettes, watch endless streams of tv, play computer games to excess, overwork, overeat, or any of the other things people do to help them "cope" with things in life they can't handle well.
    In many ways, seeking psychotropic treatment and getting therapy are perhaps the most responsible forms of coping with not being able to cope.

  11. interested says:

    I too don't like the expression "happy pills." But for me, it's not just the expression but the perception of antidepressants as that. I find I always have to bite me tongue when I hear someone say so casually, "He/she's got a bad attitude, he/she should pop some meds/pills."
    I have been through much hardship in my adult life, but can honestly say that my battle with a mental illness (which came on only after giving birth) has been the most difficult challenge I have yet had to face. And the fact that these pills have helped me through that tells me that they are much more than simple "happy pills" that fix a bad attitude.

  12. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Yes, I agree. Whatever the treatment method, it's going to require work on your part to get better and stay better.

  13. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I hate to hear you say that you sometimes feel like what you do doesn't count. I understand what you mean, but it's just not true.

  14. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    If only PMADs were just bad attitudes … they'd be so much easier to get over wouldn't they? In fact, we wouldn't have them, period, because no one would choose to have these illnesses in the same way one chooses to have a bad attitude. Ever.

  15. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Klonopin is not an antidepressant. It's an anti-anxiety medication, in a class of meds called benzodiazepines. It's my understanding that you can develop dependency on benzodiazepines, which means that yes, they can be harder to go off of, particularly if you stop cold turkey. I hope your doctor has been helping you manage the process of tapering off of them so that you might perhaps be less affected by the symptoms you describe. I hate to hear you had to go to the ER. That's awful!

  16. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    And around for me, too. And us. And everyone. We want you here!

  17. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    You're not alone. I know this is hard. I wish there was one perfect treatment that we could all do and get better and that would be that. Just don't give up, and keep taking care of yourself as your comment shows you are already doing!

  18. ok fine, you too. thanks. :)

  19. Sorry, yes, I should have been more specific. I'm currently on Lexapro and was also on Klonopin as well. Very low dosage to begin with, and I followed it to the letter. My dr. suggested that I start tapering it off by cutting the pills in half for a week and then cut it off completely. I did exactly that. About one week after reducing the meds, I had a horrible experience where I developed a severe headache in the right side of my head. The headache traveled to my right eye, and then my ears began to ring like I was going to faint. I suddenly started to feel a burning sensation in my chest, and then began to get the chills. My face was white and my blood pressure dropped to 112/60. I was honestly scared I was dying. After a CAT scan and an EKG, the ER determined I had "a headache of unknown origin." It wasn't until after I talked to my mother (a pysch nurse) that I began to associate it with the Klonopin – my mother said that hot and cold flashes were very common for people going through withdrawal on pain medication. Mind you, I was on a REALLY low dose to begin with and took the medication EXACTLY how I was told – absolutely no abusing what going on. It really made me realize that these drugs are serious business.

  20. cdore@postpartumheal says:

    One of the best discussions I've ever read here.
    Bravo Katherine! Thank you for contributing to my happiness.

  21. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    As a joke I can completely understand it. It's the people who use the term to denigrate others that I can't stand.

  22. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    See you at the farmer's market Christina!

  23. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Thanks Cathy!

  24. I waited 2 years before I got any help. Shortly after seeing a therapist I was then put on meds. I hate to say it but I'm still on meds and more meds because 7 years later I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I also take Cymbalta, that helps the Fibro and Welbutteron for additional help for the depression. Does either cause me to be over joyed, um no. It helps me cope. If I don't take the Cymbalta I have extreme pains in my legs. There are other health issues involved but I'm surviving. Now my daughter, at 13, is on Celexa because she has anxiety so bad she can't go to school. I'm in the process of having her signed up for an independent study through the local school district. Does it ever end? NO! Are the pills happy pills? No! The pills help us survive. Thanks for this blogpost.
    Katharine

  25. I'm someone who refused to take just about any medication in general. My mother would give me Robitussin and stuff, but even for a headache I preferred to sleep it off rather than taking medication. That being said, when I developed PPA/OCD, it was so debilitating that eventually I had a breakdown and was suicidal. Before this, I'd spoken to a friend who has had OCD for years. She said I might have to go on medication for awhile. I immediately told her that if the medication helped me be a mom to my new little baby, that I'd do it. I'm now on a regimen of Zoloft and Anafranil. I used to jokingly call them my "happy pills", but my father-in-law has always called them his "personality pills." I don't know if I'll ever be able to get off my meds (anxiety, panic attacks, and PPD are on both sides of my family), but I read a book called Sleepless Days, and at the end she said she considered her daily dose of Zoloft a supplement to help, but she also went through a lot of talk therapy. I say do your research, but the medication won't get rid of the illness, but the voices will be much weaker so you can handle them better.