UPDATE: A previously published version of this story failed to credit writer and activist Imani Barbarin for the creation of the #INeedMyMedsMarianne hashtag. This story has been amended to credit Barbarin.
To put it mildly, Marianne Williamson has some controversial views. The best-selling author, spiritual advisor, and Democratic presidential candidate has taken heat for her past stances on everything from vaccines to her love for the James Cameron epic Avatar. Yet as Williamson gains more attention and acclaim, particularly following the last debate, one of these stances has sparked a great deal of backlash: specifically, her criticism of antidepressants.
Last week, numerous media outlets reported that Williamson had authored a number of tweets criticizing antidepressants, arguing that they were overprescribed for “numbing our pain” instead of being used to treat legitimate mental illness. In one 2014 tweet, she appeared to attribute actor Robin Williams’ death to the fact that antidepressants were found in his system at the time of his death, writing, “The truth about anti-depressants: Helpful for some, but harmful for others.” And as recently as 2018, she tweeted that the FDA had issued a black box warning for antidepressants, on the grounds that they increase rather than decrease the risk of suicidal ideation for people 25 and under. (The FDA issued this black box warning in 2004 for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, not all antidepressants; in 2007, it revised the warning after receiving backlash from the scientific community.)
In an interview with Anderson Cooper on Thursday, Williamson tried to do damage control by attempting to clarify her comments. When asked about her usage of the terms “numb” and “mask” with reference to antidepressants treating mental illness, and whether such comments would discourage an at-risk person from taking the medication they needed, Williamson said, “I think that would be a not good message and I think I’ve never given that message. That’s just never the way I’ve spoken and it is a complete mischaracterization of my commentary,” she said. She said that her criticism of antidepressants did not apply to people who suffered from depression and other mental illnesses, but to those who were on “a normal spectrum of human despair,” adding that there is “value” to experiencing the range of human emotions. She then appeared to take aim at the mental health community for overdiagnosing clinical depression, saying that she has “questioned sometimes how that is looked at.”
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Williamson’s comments on the use of antidepressants to treat mental illness are significant, in that the vast majority of credentialed mental health experts would deem them wrong. While different types of antidepressants have varying side effects, as do all prescription medications, SSRIs like Prozac have been on the market for long enough that there is established consensus within the scientific community that they pose relatively low risk for most people. Further, there is significant evidence that antidepressants are beneficial to those suffering from major depressive disorder, which affects nearly 7 million adults in the United States, according to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). Indeed, one of the most comprehensive studies to date, a 2018 meta-analysis assessing 522 trials involving more than 116,000 participants and 21 different medications, found that antidepressants were uniformly more effective for treating major depressive disorder than placebos, with modest variations between medications in terms of efficacy and acceptability (i.e., whether patients experienced side effects that significantly outweighed the benefits).
This is not to say that antidepressants are a panacea; they are not, and there is also a significant body of research to support that a combination of traditional talk therapy combined with taking antidepressant medication is far more effective than taking antidepressants alone. It’s also not to say that all antidepressants work for everyone, or that they are not without risks, or that everyone who suffers from depression would benefit from taking them. It is to say, however, that they benefit many, many people, many of whom took to Twitter following Williamson’s comments to use a hashtag started by writer and activist Imani Barbarin after Williamson responded to a piece she wrote critiquing Williamson’s views on disability and chronic illness. The hashtag, #INeedMyMedsMarianne, went viral:
The new Hashtag is #iNeedMyMedsMarianne.
If anyone has ever told you that they didn’t believe you or that your illness or disability was because of a lack of faith, use the tag to show how harmful that is. https://t.co/eW08qTe6BH
— Crutches&Spice ♿️ Crutch Girl Summer (@Imani_Barbarin) August 2, 2019
I'd be sick. I'd still not be eating, my weight would keep dropping, I'd be fainting more.
I'd be having anxiety attacks every day. I'd never leave the house. I'd never do anything.
I wouldn't SLEEP.
I'd be dead. #iNeedMyMedsMarianne
— GHOUL (@0mnigul) August 2, 2019
Now I'm 40 years old with two amazing kids and a business helping moms every day. BECAUSE MY MEDS WERE AVAILABLE TO ME.
Because I fought through the stigma.
This is the 2ndtime I've rallied with others to speak out about how dangerous she is.#meditateonthis#iNeedMyMedsMarianne
— Graeme Seabrook (@GraemeSeabrook) August 2, 2019
Ultimately, Williamson’s comments on antidepressants and mental health weren’t just wrong — they were actively harmful, in that they feed into and propagate a preexisting stigma associated with speaking openly about mental illness. The idea that mental illness is all in a person’s head, and that it can be overcome through the power of positive thinking alone, is widely prevalent, to the degree that one research review of 22 studies found that the shame and embarrassment associated with seeking help for mental illness was the primary reason why people decided not to get help at all. Considering how common depression and anxiety are, and considering that suicide is the second leading cause of death globally for young people, arguing at length and repeatedly against seeking help for mental illness could be viewed as not just inaccurate, but actively harmful. At the very least, it is, to borrow the parlance of another less-than-qualified political candidate who made waves by expressing his outrageous views on social media, “fake news.”