It is not something new, the issue of how the illegal use of drugs is being glorified in popular entertainment media. Even in social media, there is a rampant and blatant display of illegal use of drugs. They make it appear fun, hip, and chic. What we don’t know is that there is another drug-related issue that has affected many people found in the opposite end of this spectrum, about people who should be taking drugs but refuse to, to their own detriment, simply because they sense the stigma associated with being medicated as a result of what they see in popular and entertainment media. Unlike the problem of drug addiction and opioid crisis, the problem of refusing to take drugs is, in comparison, often ignored despite being a serious concern. According to the book Mosby’s Pocketbook of Mental Health, “medication non-compliance is one of the most common reasons for recurrence of psychotic symptoms and readmission to hospital.”
The Role of Entertainment Media
TV shows and movies have portrayed people taking medication as problematic, hopeless, unhinged, out of control, even dangerous. These entertainment platforms showcase characters who are ashamed they have to take medicine. An example is the award-winning television series Homeland. Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) has been dealing with bipolar disorder, and she takes an anti-psychotic medication named clozapine in secret, afraid how the knowledge of her being medicated will impact the impression of her among her peers and colleagues.
This and others like this promotes the stigma associated with taking medication, and as a result, some people refuse to be under medication because they think this will make other people cultivate negative notions about them. This is a real problem. In her book The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions – Today, therapist Julia Ross describes her clients as ashamed of taking medication.
As a result, they don’t talk openly about their medication and this makes them feel trapped, suppressed, and alone. If they are anxious others will know they are medicating, they won’t bring their medication bottles with them or they would hide their prescription medication travel bag when they are out involved in social activities. When they are with others, they avoid taking their medication. They would rather risk the ill-effects of missing medication than have other people think of them as drug-dependent and drug-addled individuals who should be pitied or someone who cannot be trusted.
In the book Without Stigma: About the Stigma of the Mental Illness, Darko Pozder wrote:
Another reason the person may fear taking medication is because they are afraid being seen as people who cannot control their symptoms, which can cause them to suffer stigma.
When we watch movies or TV shows and we see a character who is taking medication, we can’t help but latch on the negative qualities of the person, despite them having redeeming qualities, maybe because the movie or the television show overtly or subliminally correlates medication with prevailing negative qualities and this is important to move the story forward or drive the character and make the story compelling.
That is art for art’s sake, but at what cost?
As a result, when doctors tell people in real life they have to take medication for their condition, there is apprehension. This will not help them become better.
The Extent of Medication Stigma
The road to healing is a long journey, and unfortunately, it is filled with a lot of roadblocks – people are either afraid or embarrassed (or both).
- People are afraid or embarrassed to admit the condition.
- Among those who admit they have a problem, some of them are afraid or embarrassed to seek professional help.
- Among those who sought professional help, some are afraid or embarrassed to buy prescription drugs despite the instruction of the doctor.
- Among those who went to the pharmacy and bought medicine, some are afraid or embarrassed to stay medicated because of how people might think.
They have lock bags for medication and this stays locked, sadly.
What Should be Done to Dispel Medication Stigma?
We should encourage the notion that medication, well-being, and quality of life are linked to one another. Stop reinforcing the idea that taking medication is something one should be ashamed of. Stop portraying people under medication as negative stereotypes. Doctors prescribe medication so that the lives of people struggling with problems improve. Medical professionals are hard at work to understand the human condition and the ways to address problems through medication. They work hard to create drugs that are useful, even life-changing, and most of all safe. It is unfortunate that all it takes is a 2-hour movie or a 30-minute TV show to undermine science, medicine, and pharmacology.
When people are embarrassed, there is non-compliance or medication nonadherence, and when there is nonadherence, there is a serious problem. In a research article published in The Permanente Journal entitled The Unmet Challenge of Medication Nonadherence, Dr. Fred Kleinsinger wrote:
Medication nonadherence for patients with chronic diseases is extremely common, affecting as many as 40% to 50% of patients who are prescribed medications for management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. This nonadherence to prescribed treatment is thought to cause at least 100,000 preventable deaths and $100 billion in preventable medical costs per year. Despite this, the medical profession largely ignores medication nonadherence or sees it as a patient problem and not a physician or health system problem.
TV shows and movies are very influential in how perceptions are created inside the society. We should use this influence to address the problem and remind the people that If we want the work done in the field of medicine and pharmacology to matter, we should let them help us by taking our meds, and more importantly, we should help those under medication by reminding them it is okay to be taking medication, that it is the normal, sane, and smart thing to do, that it is nothing to be ashamed about.