Lady Gaga’s Lesson for the World

Learn more about Lady Gaga's mental health battle

3 min

“I know that this is controversial in a lot of ways, but medicine really helped me.”

Lady Gaga’s Lesson for the World

Learn more about Lady Gaga's mental health battle

3 min
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These words grabbed my attention as I, a doctor, settled into a cozy afternoon lunch break. Lady Gaga was a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s 2020 Vision Tour. They were discussing Lady Gaga’s “psychotic break”. To me, her statement wasn’t controversial in the slightest. “Medicine really helped me?”, I questioned. “Of course it did! That’s what psychiatric medication is meant to do.” Apparently, many disagree. “What is the controversy about medications and mental health?”, I wondered.

Our society is not uncomfortable with the notion of taking medications. Most American adults have complex pill regimens for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes — the list goes on and on. Preventable chronic diseases are affecting our communities at epidemic scales. As such, most patients understand the real risk of harm — or death — associated with not taking medications. It’s clear that organs (like the heart or pancreas) may become sick, needing medications to survive. So, why isn’t this clear for another organ: the brain?

As Lady Gaga’s story continued, she remarked,

“And I have a very unorthodox, actually, set of pills that I take. But they — they saved my life. And I’m very grateful.”

We are accustomed to hearing medicine described as ‘life-saving’. We see doctors saving the lives of car accident victims with brain bleeds, premature infants with underdeveloped lungs, or an adult with heart disease. Still, some continue to wonder whether it’s possible to have a diseased brain. If one can die from heart disease, can one die from brain disease as well? Lady Gaga’s rhetoric suggests that medicine for the brain can be interpreted as equally life-saving as other medicines for other organs. Certainly, just as untreated heart disease has predictable, deadly outcomes, so too, does untreated mental illness have predictable, deadly outcomes: suicide, malnutrition, injury, and overdose.

Still, my original question remained: “What is the controversy about medications for the treatment of mental illness?” The answer revealed itself while reflecting on the words of those who questioned my choice of a career in psychiatry:

“Depression is, simply, laziness.”

“He became addicted when he lost touch with God.”

“She went crazy after returning from war.”

While it’s clear that our mental illnesses can be related to our behaviors, spirituality, or memories, for many, it’s unclear how medications can help with these issues. Aren’t medications simply masking the more profound causes of our suffering? Aren’t pills a shallow solution for someone’s unwise behaviors, existential spiritual questions, or painful memories?

It’s at this moment when Lady Gaga began to describe her path to recovery:

“That has come from both medicine [and] therapy”

Like most, her story goes beyond medications. It is the synergy of medications and therapy which allowed for Lady Gaga’s healing. Therapy, specifically an aspect of her dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) had a profound impact on her mental health:

“It’s called radical acceptance.”

She describes radical acceptance: her practice of shedding her shame and ego to embrace both the bad and good in her life. For Lady Gaga, radical acceptance has been critical to her recovery from trauma, chronic pain, and mental illness. Yet, without medications, “radical acceptance” might not have been possible. Mental illnesses like depression strip us of the very motivation, focus, and energy necessary for productive therapy. Lady Gaga’s medications likely brought her to a functional level where she could then participate in deeper behavioral, spiritual, and psychological healing.

So, perhaps it’s understandable why medications for mental illness are controversial. Pills will not magically resolve spiritual suffering, traumatic memories, or troublesome behaviors. Such problems can only heal with deep, personal work, like the radical acceptance, prayer, and therapy that Lady Gaga describes. However, her story reminds us of the organ-ness of the brain; it, too, can become sick. She reminds us that we must see mental illness as equal to heart illness or liver illness. Until we change our perception of mental illness, we’ll perpetuate a stigma that rids too many of their “controversial” life-saving treatment.

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