Medications used to manage mental health disorders are often misunderstood or subject to scrutiny, but for many people, they can be a vital part of treatment. Though they may not work for everyone, prescription medications can make living with symptoms that might otherwise interfere with a person’s daily life or safety feel much more possible. These articles talk about the history of psychiatric medication, the potential pros and cons of taking certain medications, and how to talk to your doctor about taking medication for your mental health.
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The information below is not meant to serve as medical advice. Always consult with your primary care doctor before starting or stopping any medication.
Medically Reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Medication is a primary component of treatment plans for a wide range of mental health challenges. Typically prescribed to minimize symptom severity, mental health medications can help improve mood, enhance cognitive functioning, decrease physical challenges, and address a variety of other concerns arising out of mental health disorders.
Often used alongside other modalities, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, medication is a proven effective treatment option for anxiety disorders, depression, and other common conditions. Prescriptions for psychiatric medications generally must be provided by psychiatrists, primary care physicians, and other medical doctors.
How Does Medication Work?
In many cases, medication can significantly improve symptoms of mental health conditions. Typically, psychiatric treatments work by addressing changes in brain function. Many conditions, like depression or bipolar disorder, can develop due to alterations in brain structure or imbalances in levels of important neurotransmitters and hormones.
For example, depression is thought to be partly caused by a deficit in serotonin, which helps regulate mood, sleep, and several other vital functions. Common antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), treat depression by increasing the amount of this chemical in the brain.
Medication can also address the physical symptoms of these disorders; for example, certain drugs can help reduce symptoms such as elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and tension that often accompany a condition like anxiety. Some medications also help with cognitive function; for example, stimulants can help promote enhanced focus.
The exact medication that will be prescribed may depend on an individual’s symptoms, medical history, lifestyle, and a variety of other factors. A healthcare provider may have to adjust the dose or medication type due to undesirable side effects or a lack of improvement. The process of finding the right medication can take time and may result in the individual taking multiple types of medication or changing prescriptions several times.
Common Medications For Mental Health Disorders
Over the years, a wide variety of medications have been developed to address and treat mental health disorders, and new pharmacological solutions continue to be created. Some conditions can be treated with various types of drugs (e.g., SSRIs and MAOIs for depression); and some types of psychiatric medications can be used for multiple conditions (e.g., SSRIs for depression and anxiety).
The following are common mental health challenges and some of the medications used to treat them:
The most frequently prescribed medications for depression are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), tricyclic antidepressants, and bupropion. Antidepressants can help elevate an individual’s mood, regulate their sleep cycle, and increase their energy.
SSRIs and SNRIs, which are primarily used to manage depression symptoms, are commonly prescribed for anxiety as well. Benzodiazepines and beta-blockers are also frequently utilized to address the short-term symptoms of anxiety. Medication for anxiety can help calm an individual down by reducing the severity of their physical symptoms and alleviating feelings of fear, nervousness, and worry.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Medication for ADHD generally comprises stimulants (e.g., amphetamines and methylphenidate) and non-stimulants (e.g., atomoxetine and guanfacine). These drugs are meant to improve focus, help with executive function, and address similar areas that are often affected by ADHD symptoms.
Individuals with schizophrenia are typically prescribed antipsychotics like risperidone, clozapine, and olanzapine. These medications can reduce hallucinations, delusions, and other symptoms that may alter reality for someone living with psychosis due to schizophrenia.
Mood stabilizers, including lithium and antipsychotic medications, are often used to address the manic episodes that people with bipolar disorder experience. For depressive episodes, common antidepressants are usually prescribed.
Medication is generally not meant to serve as a cure. Various medications can, however, effectively treat symptoms of mental health conditions, which may help an individual function better and improve the likelihood of positive outcomes in other modalities, such as therapy. For example, if an individual takes stimulants for ADHD, they might find it easier to navigate daily life and achieve treatment goals due to an increased ability to focus and stay organized.
Psychiatric Medication Side Effects
While medication is considered a safe form of treatment, it can still produce adverse effects. Your psychiatrist may start you off on a low dose, or have you try a medication for a few weeks before committing to a full treatment plan. A healthcare professional will typically discuss side effects of a medication prior to prescribing a medication. The following are common psychiatric medications and their potential side effects:
- SSRIs, SNRIs, and other antidepressants: Antidepressants can produce gastrointestinal distress, changes in sleep patterns, weight fluctuations, and sexual dysfunction.
- Benzodiazepines: This anti-anxiety medication can lead to slow breathing, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, and confusion.
- Stimulants for ADHD: Common stimulant side effects include trouble sleeping, headache, lack of appetite, and symptom rebound.
- Non-stimulants for ADHD: Appetite suppression, fatigue, and increased heart rate have been reported by those taking non-stimulants.
- Antipsychotics: Medication for schizophrenia and other conditions that cause psychosis can cause diarrhea, sexual dysfunction, sedation, dry mouth, weight gain, and other serious adverse effects.
Online Therapy As Part Of A Comprehensive Treatment Plan
Research shows that incorporating psychotherapy or talk therapy into a treatment plan that includes medication can improve treatment outcomes for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Additionally, studies have found that online therapy is an effective way of providing psychotherapy. In a meta-analysis of 92 studies, researchers concluded that there was “strong support for the adoption of online psychological interventions as a legitimate therapeutic activity” when treating various mental health challenges.
If you’d like help addressing a mental health concern or working through the emotional effects of a medication, know that help is available. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can connect with a therapist remotely, which can be helpful if your symptoms make leaving home difficult. BetterHelp works with thousands of healthcare professionals—who have a wide variety of specialties—so you’ll have a good chance of matching with someone who can address your specific challenges.
Psychiatric medication can make it easier for you to foster emotional wellness and live a full, healthy life. It is often, along with psychotherapy, a crucial aspect of a successful mental health treatment plan. If you’d like further support addressing emotional challenges related to medication, a mental health disorder, or similar concerns, consider getting matched with a licensed therapist online. With the right guidance, you can find out more about the best treatment for you and take the next steps on your journey.