Once again the news media’s limited attention span is aimed at mental health. This week it is tennis star Naomi Osaka’s announcement that she is taking a break from her career, stating she has suffered from depression and anxiety since 2018 when she slammed down Serena Williams in the US Open to the dismay of millions of tennis fans.
For days after she withdrew from the French Open, fans and her colleagues lambasted her for refusing to hold press conferences, but they are now all “supportive” after she revealed her mental health struggles. Like a sort of imbalanced merry-go-round, mental health is sighed about by media talking heads at intervals, depending on who’s released a book or committed suicide unexpectedly. Blunt, that, but there it is.
Sighed about, sympathized about, and lamented about, voices are raised requesting money, programs, reforms. After a while—a week or so—the voices fade, no legislation is brought forward, and those suffering illness of the brain are still wandering the streets and ending up in jail.
Mood disorders and schizophrenia are hard to treat. Diagnosis can be disorderly, and just plain wrong. Treatments rely on compliance. Will you go to talk therapy? Will you take a drug that alters your mood in ways you don’t expect?
I’ve been taking sertraline (Zoloft) for decades. Menopause was the trigger for seeking help for anxiety, depression, insomnia. Sertraline is a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI). The disorders for which sertraline is prescribed include major depressive, post-traumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive, panic, premenstrual dysphoric and social anxiety disorders. Per the PubChem website of the NIH, disregulation of serotonin is behind all of these disorders identified by physicians via testing and patient interviews.
I’ve always had compliant doctors, too. Not one asked whether I felt I could withdraw from the drug—which neither myself or the husband wanted! Depressive moods were not as severe, anxiety stayed at a manageable level. I thought I was doing fine.
That is until I stopped taking it.
My new doctor, in managing one of my other chronic conditions—all of my chronic conditions seem related to modern living—advised me to stop sertraline because one of the medications she wanted to change had been shown to have a positive affect on anxiety. I was rather surprised, but here was an opportunity to try life without sertraline, and to get rid of two medications at the same time. I did find a PubMed posting announcing that a handful of studies appear to show calcium channel blockers (hypertension treatments, among others) can affect mood disorders by regulating calcium metabolism and transport, and that more studies are planned.
Besides marveling that my physician has time to read clinical trials results, I was very willing to wave sertraline goodby. Two days after discontinuing it, I felt as if I had walked from a dark, gray room into a bright garden. Of course the weather complied with clear, warm days, but oddly, my mood was better. I felt emotions like hopeful anticipation, eagerness to start and also to complete tasks that had until now felt burdensome (like finally renewing my passport, getting around to designing a new cover for one of my novels, and washing all my Crocs.)
There have been other pleasant changes, some too personal to relate here, but key to human well-being.
From my life-long brushes with mood disorders, I can understand the reluctance to talk about them. It’s not easy to cope with the monitoring that goes on, the watching for danger signs. There is that mistrust of people who say they’ve never felt depressed, or anxious, or traumatized. Haven’t we all been affected in some way? I prefer to manage my symptoms and live a normal life—as normal as it can be.
Others suffer deeply from mood disorders, and still others are imprisoned by disturbances far from their control. Arguments for and against treatments, hospitalization, electroshock or exorcism swirl in most cultures, behind a wall of denial. And each time someone who shouldn’t buys a gun and shoots up a mall, each time a celebrity shares her struggles, nothing changes. Insurance, for the lucky few who have it, can’t see the profit in paying for mental health care. Government representatives have different priorities.
Perhaps sharing our struggles, if enough of us do so, will bring about a modicum of change. I can only hope so.