Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Failures of Modern Psychotropic Medications, Yet No Alternatives Exist

As published in the November 2020 issue of Buffalo Healthy Living 

Bipolar Disorder Challenges
Medications, Compliance, Side-Effects


By Helaine Sanders, LMSW, JD


I live with bipolar disorder (bipolar), a mental health condition that causes episodes of mania, depression, and severe mood swings that can result in serious consequences, including psychiatric hospitalization. Having lived with bipolar for the past 30 years, I can tell you that it’s not easy. Managing bipolar requires lifelong maintenance, professional treatment, and coping with sometimes overwhelming side effects of medications.


My bipolar manifests itself with episodes of depression and mania, and the side effects of my medications require that I plan my day carefully. An antipsychotic mood stabilizer I take causes excessive sleepiness rendering me unable to perform any activity after taking it. If I force myself to stay awake at bedtime, I become so tired I am unable to fall asleep immediately. When this happens, I divert my attention by flexing my leg muscles in order to fall asleep. I must also sleep an average of 8.5 hours each night in order to function properly. Not getting enough sleep results in loss of balance, and I have slipped in the shower several times because of this. My side effects prevent me from being able to work a paid job. Thus, I make it a point to participate in volunteer activities, which I schedule for afternoons or early evenings.


On top of all of this, the anti-anxiety medication I take to feel more relaxed exacerbates my sleepiness, so I have to make sure that I take it at the appropriate time each day. The anti-seizure medication I require to stabilize my moods makes me so dizzy that I must take it in a lower dose. Last year, when my son suffered a prolonged illness, my doctor prescribed an anti-depressant which has worked well. However, its side effect is anxiety, so when I attended a meeting several weeks after taking the anti-depressant, I found myself interrupting others and ended up crying in the hallway. The incident underscored how hard I have to work to control my reactions.


Most of the drugs I take also cause constipation and weight gain. Medications to control these symptoms are especially challenging while raising two active teenagers. Despite all of this, I have come to learn that my medications help me, and I am stabilized to the point where I only see my psychiatrist for medication-management. However, it is my greatest wish for others who have loved ones struggling with bipolar to understand the monumental effort it takes to manage it. Simple daily life activities most people take for granted like sleeping long enough, eating healthfully, and compliance in taking medication at the appropriate time require a great deal of thought and planning, along with a commitment to being compliant.


Helaine Sanders has an MSW and JD. She teaches a class to local refugees, and is the author of the blog,, which focuses on mental health issues and other topics relating to stigma


Monday, August 24, 2020

Let Me Speak - Zack

Personal Note: I’m really tired of saying “OK” when people ask me how I’m doing. I’m not really OK; I’m struggling. I’m doing fine professionally, but personally, I’m sad, lonely, anxious and isolated...and I’m an introvert. (Yes, introverts can get lonely). I know others are struggling as well. As alone as I may feel most of the time, I know that I’m not actually alone in this.

Sometimes I see these memes pop across my feed to promote mental health awareness. Maybe they do some good; I certainly hope so. But I think what might matter more is to just reduce the stigma of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. People need to be open about their struggles without fear of judgment.

For those that don’t know me well, I might appear to be thriving. Social media can be deceptive. We try to eat well, and I’m always coming up with ideas for weekend adventures. But it’s hard. I feel drained and on edge. And I just don’t know how to recharge my batteries.

I honestly don’t want anyone to worry about me. I just need to deal with my own crap in my own way. I may reach out to some of you, and while I really do appreciate others touching base with me from time to time, right now I’m just kind of spent. I’m grateful to have enough work to provide me with energy, focus and the opportunity to help other people deal with their problems. But immersing myself in work is not a long-range solution for me; in fact, it’s not a great short-term solution either.

The point of this post, to the extent there is one, is just to encourage anyone else who might be struggling to reach out. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to actually talk, but I’ll always listen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Let Me Speak - Hannah's Mother

I cannot be with her in person, but today is a very special day for the Duke family. This is the day, seven years ago, that Hannah Duke decided to recover from anorexia. I’ll post her reasons for choosing this date next. Of course, I hope everyone knows that it is a long and painful journey to get to that point, and afterwords, recovery is not linear.
Even now, she needs to be careful to maintain her mental health regarding her eating disorder. It can be triggered (mentally), not in behavior, by so many things. She lives in NYC, ground zero for eating disorders. Most of her friends have disordered eating. Many of her friends take 3-4 exercise classes A DAY, EVERY DAY, wearing their Apple watches to check their calories burned each hour.
Anorexic fashion models people the streets. And everywhere, people talk about food ad nauseum. Not in terms of how delicious something is, but is it “healthy," is it “good” food ,etc. all euphemisms for diet culture whether they know it or not. That would not trigger you maybe, but it sets off alarms in the minds of someone with disordered eating. I usually write how happy we are about Hannah’s recovery, but today, I thought it might be better to talk about her recovery. Hannah volunteers for NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association), talking to people who have called the hotline. She has become a resource for many friends who have this mental illness.
If you know somebody who needs help or someone to talk to, please let me know me and I’ll give them Hannah’s number.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Trump's Disease

As published in the Buffalo News:

Every year from elementary school until college, I participated in my town’s Memorial Day parade. We marched from our elementary school to the library, where there is a memorial to those who lost their lives to war. We’d lost three in WWI, four in WWII, and seven in Vietnam. When I was a child, my mother wanted me to understand we lost the same number of soldiers in Vietnam than in WWI and WWII combined.

Now, for the first time since the Civil War, our entire country is under attack. The Party of Trump focuses on First Amendment restrictions of freedom of assembly, but don’t see this is a public health crisis when certain freedoms have to be restricted for the benefit of the whole. Moreover, they deny the science that simply says please don’t breathe on me if you have germs.

Unfortunately, the same socioeconomic groups get hurt when there is any disaster. We are seeing capitalism at its worst: Aid that goes to the rich and not the poor, dysfunction at the highest levels of government, and a complete lack of empathy by this President who refuses to accept any accountability. What we need right now is national health care, education that levels the playing field between the middle class and the poor, and increased welfare.

I have seen the DC memorial for those who lost their lives in Vietnam. Already this pandemic has killed more people than the Vietnam War. Imagine a wall behind that monument listing the victims of coronavirus - that would just get longer and longer.

On this Memorial Day, we must ask ourselves why we are tolerating the number of deaths we are. As asked in the lyrics of “Blowing in the Wind,” how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?

Helaine Sanders, LMSW, JD

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Mental Health During COVID-19: Let Me Speak - David

Like many of you, I’m not OK. Unlike many of you, I’ve had to deal with bouts of depression and anxiety most of my adult life. I usually do a pretty poor job of reaching out when I’m most vulnerable, but focusing on work normally helps me escape my own inner demons. Currently, I'm not handling downtime very well.

If we haven’t communicated in a while, I would love to take this time to catch up. If you are struggling, I can still be a friendly ear. I’m really just trying to approach this day-by-day.

While I have more than my fair share of social anxiety, I also know that I truly value my connections with people. I may be reaching out to some of you more than I typically would, but I want all of you to feel comfortable to reach out to meet if you need to chat, reconnect or just get out of your own head for a few minutes. 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Trump is Coming for their Pencils!

I noticed an article from the New York Times on Friday, January 31st. I was about to teach my US citizenship class to Somali refugees. As I read it, my heart broke. When my translator came in, I gave him my phone and asked him to translate for the class. I was shaking.

The refugees I teach come from E. Africa, which includes Somalia, part of the original Muslim ban, and Tanzania under this new ban. There is no justification for this. It’s discrimination because of race and religion. Saudi Arabians flew those planes into the towers and pentagon. My students are from impoverished African countries, some torn apart by civil war. They have spent a decade, sometimes two, in UN camps. It is common for the camps themselves to come under fire. Before being allowed to come here, my students were pre-cleared in their home countries for settlement in the US. This makes them refugees, entitled to a green card, and not asylum seekers, although both carry a legal status to be in the United States.

My students speak a dialect, Mawa. It is spoken and not written. When they come here and learn English, they may be writing for the first time.

I asked them whether they wanted to talk about the article or learn the lesson. As they saw, I am going through the civics questions of the test faster to get them citizenship faster. Still, many are far away from attaining it.

I assured them when I began teaching that nothing would happen to them because they were green card holders and allowed to be in the United States. Today, February 23, I saw another article about further limiting the benefits they can receive here. Now I can only say I hope it won’t get worse, but they should be prepared.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Let Me Speak - Jacqueline

Loving a drug addict is the hardest thing you will ever do. Watching someone you love, that has fought so hard to beat addiction, throw everything away and sink back into a life that will most likely lead to jail or death, is one of the hardest things some will ever do. Even though all you want is to help them get back to a clean, healthy, and sober life, at some point, you realize you are enabling the addiction, as you have so many times before. You continue enabling them by always listening to the excuses, blaming yourself, and being there to bail them out. You want to grab and shake them and say "You have so much to live for and so many that love you, why do you continue doing this with your life?" But, at some point you realize that wouldn't make a difference no matter how much you love them or how hard you try to help them. So you sit on the sidelines and watch the tragedy unfold, feeling helpless to stop it, feeling like you haven't done enough to help, when in the end, the only truth to it all is, you can only begin to help the addict when the addict decides to help themselves.

Battling a drug addiction is a beast for the person addicted and the ones who love them. It's heartbreaking and earth shattering. So l am asking you to stand with me in prayer for every family member and friend who has lost or is losing their battle with drugs and alcohol and those who continue to conquer it!