Dr. Austin Mardon, a former NASA Antarctic researcher, has been taking medications for the treatment of his schizophrenia for the past 25 years. Mardon is an advocate for people with mental illnesses and a firm believer in the use of mental illness medication.
Over the past few decades, advances in neuroscience, psychology, and genetics have greatly increased our knowledge about the nature of mental disorders. Cures for many disorders are still beyond our grasp, but our improved understanding means that doctors can do their best to ensure that people with mental illnesses can still live as long and comfortable a life as possible.
One of the primary methods through which this is achieved is through the prescription of oral medication. These various medications can help manage the symptoms of many major mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and dementia.
Unfortunately, even with the increased availability and safety of these medications, many people are choosing to stop taking their doctor-prescribed medications. This is a worrying trend, as these drugs can help provide people with mental illnesses a greater degree of control and freedom in their lives and improve an individual’s overall happiness.
If left untreated, mental illness can be a serious and potentially life-threatening disorder. “If I wasn’t taking the meds, I wouldn’t have my wife, and I wouldn’t be living in my own house,” says Mardon. “I wouldn’t be living my own life.”
Why do people stop taking their medications in the first place? One of the more common reasons is that many of these medications come with unpleasant side effects, such as drowsiness, dry mouth, mild tremors, restlessness, nausea, and blurred vision. In addition, certain medications may cause weight gain and heightened risk of diabetes or high cholesterol.
While many of these side effects can continue for as long as a person keeps taking the medication and must be tolerated, other side effects eventually decrease in severity or disappear altogether. “People often don’t realize this,” Mardon says, “since it can take weeks or even months for the side effects to disappear. And by that point they may have already stopped taking the meds.”
Some side effects can also be dealt with by using prescribed medications, which is why it is so important to discuss your medication and its side effects with your doctor. Weight gain, for example, may be managed with proper exercise and a diet plan. Mardon himself has lost over 100 pounds over the past two-and-a-half years.
People also stop because they may be unable or unwilling to regularly take their prescribed pills. The symptoms of their illness may prevent them from remembering to, or the idea of taking pills every day could be distressing.
They may even attempt to hide this fact from their doctor. In these cases, depot injections may be used as an alternative to oral medications. Depot injections are performed by injecting the medication into a large muscle to create a localized mass of the drug for a gradual release into the body over a longer period of time.
The benefit of this method is that patients only have to get one injection every few weeks or so. It also allows doctors to directly monitor the patient’s intake of the medicine. For the last 12 years, Mardon has been taking the antipsychotic medication Risperidone, both orally and through regular depot injections.
Adherence to medication also saves taxpayer dollars by reducing the chance of relapses and therefore, expensive hospital readmissions. The average cost of a standard hospital stay in Alberta from 2015-2016 was approximately $8,000.
Regularly medicating oneself for a mental illness is not a pleasant experience. Nobody enjoys having to take pills every day. The number of side effects alone makes it easier to understand why someone would stop taking their pills. Even for Mardon, the choice to take his medication is not an easy one.
“It’s not a choice between win or lose,” Mardon says. “It’s a choice between less-lose and more-lose. You’ll face challenges either way, but at least with medication you get the chance to live your own life.”