EXCLUSIVE: How stars like Jessica Rowe are changing the stigma around mental health and medication

''We're all a work in progress. It's about saying, 'you know what, it's okay not to be okay'.''
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Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of anxiety and depression which may be triggering for some readers.

Australia has seen a massive shift in the way we talk about mental health in the last 10 years, but there’s one topic so many Aussies still consider taboo: medication.

No one bats an eye when you mention taking Panadol for a headache, or when someone with diabetes speaks about their insulin.

So why are we so scared of the word “antidepressant”? Why do so many people still feel ashamed about taking medication for their mental health?

Dr Grant Blashki says stars like Jessica Rowe are helping reduce stigma around mental health.

(Image: Monash University/Instagram)

Beyond Blue Lead Clinical Adviser Dr Grant Blashki tells Now To Love that the stigma is rooted in common misconceptions about antidepressants, but stars like Jessica Rowe are helping change the conversation.

“Why is there stigma? For a lot of people, there’s a sense of failure, like ‘why can’t I just think my way out of this?’ … because it’s a psychological sort of issue,” he explains.

“There can be a sense of, ‘what’s deficient that I need a medication?’ So people can feel guilty and frustrated.”

That guilt and shame can lead some people struggling with depression to avoid trying medication or even raising the treatment option with their GP.

Furthermore, it makes people afraid to even talk about medication – taking it, considering it, what the side effects are, the list goes on.

And that silence allows misconceptions about antidepressants, often fuelled by misrepresentation in TV and movies, to go unchecked.

That’s part of the reason Jess Rowe has been so open about her journey with mental health and medication, telling Now To Love: “I’ve been open about my struggles with depression in the past. I still take my medication. That’s really important for me.”

Having been a mental health advocate for almost half of her life, the 51-year-old believes we’re “getting better” at talking about these trickier topics but there is still shame around it.

“I think it’s important that we’re having these conversations,” she adds.

Jess battled severe postnatal depression after the birth of her first daughter, Allegra, in 2007 and was prescribed antidepressant medication she’s been taking ever since.

She appeared happy on the outside, but Jess Rowe struggled with severe postnatal depression after giving birth to her daughters.

(Image: Getty)

Though her struggles with PND are in the past, she’s now keenly aware of her mental health – “and there are still times when I have to check in more with myself.”

Dr Grant explains that conditions like depression are made up of biological, physiological and psychological components, and not everyone experiences those in the same way.

Some people can manage their mental health with the help of a psychologist, or lifestyle changes, but others benefit more from medication – and that should be no cause for shame.

“Sometimes it’s really a biological issue, so medication works really well,” he says, but confesses that not everyone listens to doctors and experts like him.

WATCH: Jess Rowe opens up about her experience with postnatal depression. Story continues after video.

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“I often say that football players and celebrities talking about mental health are worth a thousand professors talking about mental health.”

Seeing recognisable figures talk about their own experiences with mental health helps normalise the conversation and seeking treatment.

Dr Grant adds: “It makes people think, ‘Well, if Jessica Rowe is such a functioning, amazing lady and she takes them, maybe it’s not such a big deal.'”

It’s a ripple effect Jess herself is keenly aware of, saying it’s important for people to share their stories so others who may be struggling know they’re not alone.

“We’re all a work in progress … it’s about saying, ‘you know what, it’s okay not to be okay’,” she urges.

As for people who are critical of her for being so open about mental health and medication, Jess’ response is simple: “You do what’s right for your family. I’ll do what’s right for mine.”

Of course, antidepressants aren’t a cure-all and Dr Grant warns that even as we reduce the stigma around mental health and medication, we need to be careful not to “medicalise” everyday experiences.

Not every down moment is a sign of depression, and stressing about common concerns doesn’t constitute an anxiety disorder, he advises.

At the same time, it’s important to have open and honest conversations about mental health so people who are struggling can get the treatment they need – whether that’s medication, speaking to a psychologist, or something else.

“If medications are something to think about, the GP is a great place to start because they can look at your particular symptoms, what’s worked for your family members, what other health conditions or medications could interact, etc. It’s a really individualised discussion,” he says.

Jess advocates for people to be open about mental health and find treatment options that work for them.

(Image: Instagram)

Individuals should also feel empowered to ask questions about side effects, how long they will be taking medication and any other concerns they may have.

“People should feel like they can have quite an open, mature conversation with the health professional,” Dr Grant says – if you don’t, it’s always okay to seek a second opinion.

Beyond Blue also offers a range of support services, from online web chat, to support forums and a 24/7 support service phone line you can call on 1300 22 4636.

As for Jess, medication is still a part of her daily routine and how she manages her mental health, but she encourages people to find what works for them.

“It’s what has worked for me, but it doesn’t always work … I think it’s all about sharing our experiences and stories and if there’s something that resonates with someone, fantastic,” she says.

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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