After Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s controversial claims about medicine and healthcare, individuals with chronic illnesses took to Twitter under the hashtag #iNeedMyMedsMarianne to raise awareness of how medication improves their health and quality of life. One meme circulated by some of these Twitter users, many of whom suffer from psychiatric illnesses, contains the following slogan: “If you can’t make your own neurotransmitters store bought is fine.” The well-intentioned meme was meant to reduce the stigma against psychiatric drugs. However, this assertion is false: these medications are not “store-bought neurotransmitters.”
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help signals travel between nerve cells, helping to regulate thoughts and emotions. Many mental illnesses occur when levels of neurotransmitters in our brains get out of balance. No current psychiatric drug produces new neurotransmitters, but they can change how much or how little is available at any one time.
For instance, depressed patients have too little of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) prevent serotonin from being reabsorbed back into the cells, while the older antidepressant drugs, called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), block the enzyme that helps break down serotonin.
Some psychiatric illnesses, like schizophrenia, result from too much serotonin and dopamine rather than too little. Antipsychotics work by blocking the receptors of these chemicals on the nerve cells, preventing the cells from being overloaded.
This misunderstanding of psychiatric drugs as “store-bought neurotransmitters” or otherwise made of the same "stuff" as neurotransmitters may seem minor, but it isn’t. People who claim to be on the side of science and medicine need to demonstrate that they know what they’re talking about, or they (and the rest of us scientists) won’t be taken seriously. And the reality is that, because the brain is so complex, scientists simply don’t yet know the best way to treat psychiatric illnesses. The drugs available today were discovered through serendipity and don’t work for every person. Unfortunately, no patient can simply buy neurotransmitters off the shelf, the way a diabetic can take insulin. Anyone who uses psychiatric drugs should know what they actually do and why.