While we live in a time where physical wellness and mental health are openly talked about, even possibly trending, the last two years have tested our mental health in ways that none of us could have imagined. Even those who are there to help us are struggling.
People are eager to grasp at what will make them “feel better” in these unprecedented times, resulting in a new wellness crisis of sorts. Doctors are being inundated with patients concerned about their mental health. At the same time, plant medicine is a growing trend and becoming more adopted as a personal choice. The cannabis industry, for one, grew at an unprecedented rate with more turning to the plant for the first time during the pandemic. Psychedelic compounds like psilocybin are continually being researched for their antidepressant potentials.
Consequently, people have gotten so passionate about their way being the “right way,” that we have a divisive culture on our hands, which has led to the shaming of people for their choices and personal paths to well-being.
A perfect example is the #plantsoverpills hashtag that has been trending on Instagram and other social media platforms for years. While the inspiration for the hashtag is intended to break the stigma against plant medicine users, it has been co-opted as a motto by some in favor of one remedy to the overt aversion of another.
Disparaging or shaming someone’s chosen path does not foster community or connection. Instead, looking down our nose at others’ wellness choices creates a distracting us vs. them mentality that prevents us from truly learning from one another.
Wellness today comes from a variety of sources, and it is important to always assess the impact of influencer-generated propaganda on creating a forced-choice binary. The reality — and privilege — of “choice” is not the same for everyone. From our perspective, the silencing and shaming of others have real consequences, such as continued lack of education and stigmatization.
The Evolution of #Plantsoverpills
From our perspective, the idea that one must choose plants or pills can be traced back to the early medical treatment of veterans by Veterans Affairs (VA). Despite rising evidence on the potential value of cannabis for managing pain, prior to a rule change in 2010, veterans who were receiving pain medication from the VA were denied access to medical cannabis, meaning they had to choose between solely traditional pharmaceutical medications or to participate in state-run medical cannabis programs — but not both. But many veterans have chosen cannabis instead of narcotics, rejecting pills in favor of plants.
Like many concepts in society today, the “plants over pills” movement has taken a complex scenario and boiled it down to a passionate and oversimplified motto with the potential to isolate and shame people for their choices. For instance, this binary ignores the many people who might benefit from a combination of plant-based medicines and pharmaceuticals, or even pharmaceutical products that are plant-derived.
This mantra that forces people to choose one over the other is perpetuated by the professional world on both sides of the coin.
Traditional herbalists express disdain for the use of modern pharmaceuticals, often pointing to troubling side effects and the money-making interests of pharma companies and prescribing doctors as a reason. Meanwhile, doctors trained in the FDA tradition often reject many plant medicines because they lack FDA approval, a system that is not set up to approve complex products like whole plants.
Because various practitioners sit on such polarized sides of the spectrum, stigma continues to fester. Both sides are resistant to learning about each other’s methods and practices, with the exception of some progressive osteopathic and naturopathic practitioners. The stigma against other paths to wellness is carried through to how they talk to their patients and which topics are allowed in the examination room.
Medical schools still largely do not educate on cannabis outside of a harm perspective. This lack of willingness to accept any medical value pushes those who find medical benefit to dig their heels in against the Western medical community. The impact of this can range from a lack of transparency with their medical provider to a refusal to receive Western treatment because of mistrust.
Shame breeds silence even when certain medical paths are legal. We encourage cannabis users to be open with their doctor in health situations for safety reasons (for example, cannabis use may affect anesthesia); similarly, we don’t want to shame people for using pharmaceutical medicine for the same reasons. Being silent can cause harm.
Moving Beyond a Hashtag and Into Conversation
It doesn’t do us any good to take complicated topics and medical concepts and distill them into hashtags. This does a disservice to all involved and prevents a real and productive conversation about the merits of both approaches. Instead of rooting for one side to win, let’s look at why these sides are being touted as mutually exclusive and what we can do to change that.
With every tough conversation, there is an immense opportunity. There is a chance for the plant medicine community to reach out across the FDA-approved line while also being more welcoming to those who also rely on pharmaceuticals. There is a chance for the medical community to listen to patients who use plant medicines and consider advocating for their inclusion in medical education. For all of us, it is a chance to remember that few things, if any, are completely binary.
And on the Topic of Hashtags
The next time you get the urge to casually use a hashtag that compels people to take a side, consider pausing and reflecting: Why am I using this hashtag? What are some potential dangers/negatives of my use?
Then take the time to develop a practice of consideration for what is behind the hashtag and how we can turn that intention from division to acceptance. #ThinkAboutIt
Co-authored by Anne-Marie Fischer, BA, M.Ed., Founder & CEO, CannaWrite.