Sometimes medication is needed to help treat a mental health disorder. Therapy is sometimes not enough to treat a mental health disorder on its own. This is because a mental health disorder can change the way the brain functions. Psychiatric medication does not ‘cure’ a mental health disorder because mental health disorders cannot be “cured.” Cures refer to physical illnesses, such as bacterial infections and viruses. Instead, people with mental health disorders achieve something called recovery.
Medication helps people achieve and stay in recovery, where they can live without their mental health disorder becoming the main focus of their lives. Below is a brief guide to what types of psychiatric medication exist, how it helps, and what to do if you are considering trying medication as part of your treatment plan.
The Main Groups of Psychiatric Medication
There are many kinds of medicine used to treat mental health disorders. They can, however, be broken down into a few distinct groups, which are:
These are medications used to treat depression. Sometimes antidepressants can be used to help treat anxiety disorders as well. Because depression can affect different parts of the brain, there are specific kinds of antidepressants used to treat them.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): Used to help your brain increase its levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that not only regulates mood but also affects your sleep and other bodily functions
- Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): Increase norepinephrine in your brain, which helps those who oversleep by helping them feel alert and awake
- Bupropion: The last kind of antidepressant, and it’s often used with other antidepressants to help keep important brain activity functioning
These are medications that help people with anxiety disorders. Sometimes they contain beta-blockers, which reduce blood pressure and regulate heart rhythm. They also treat typical physical symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, and nausea.
These medications help people manage their psychosis. Psychosis is when someone experiences hallucinations or delusions or experiences periods where they feel separated from reality. These are usually used to treat schizophrenia and other disorders with psychosis, such as post-partum psychosis or psychotic depression. People with bipolar disorder may also be prescribed antipsychotics because they can help control hypomania and mania.
These medications are typically prescribed for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They help with this condition by improving concentration and increasing alertness, attention, and energy.
These are medications that help someone regulate their emotions and treat mood swings. Bipolar disorder is a disorder that is primarily prescribed mood stabilizers, with Lithium being the most common type.
Sometimes a person may be prescribed one or more of the above types of medication to treat their mental health disorder. It depends on the disorder and the person, as not all medications can work for every person.
How Medicine Helps Your Brain Work
Psychiatric medication works by helping your brain perform normally. When you have a mental health disorder, it impacts how your brain functions. Your brain relies on special chemicals called neurotransmitters. These carry chemical messages from a nerve cell to a target cell. We rely on these to help us do everything from feeling emotion to physically moving. Negative symptoms appear when the brain cannot function well, hence the symptoms people experience as part of a mental health disorder.
Different types of medicine have different types of chemicals in them. Some chemicals are used to calm down parts of the brain that are overstimulated, overreacting, or misfiring. This is the case for those with anxiety, where their brain thinks it’s in a constant fight or flight response. Anti-anxiety medication is then used to help calm these overactive parts of the brain. Psychosis is similar in that it occurs when too many messages are being passed into someone’s dopamine receptors. Antipsychotics work by blocking some of these receptors to help reduce the symptoms of psychosis.
Psychiatric medication is simply replacing, creating, or blocking these specific chemicals and neurotransmitters. By controlling how neurotransmitters send messages out to different parts of the brain, they help people regulate how they feel. This, in general, helps people feel more stable and in control when it comes to their emotions.
To receive medication, a person must visit a doctor. Usually, this is a psychiatrist. These are medical doctors that treat mental health disorders and can order medical testing. A psychiatrist will examine a client and see how their brain functions. This way, they can prescribe the best medication possible to treat their symptoms.
Things to Keep In Mind When Taking Medication
It’s important to remember that medications are best used with therapy. Medicine may help you feel relief from symptoms, but there will keep being symptoms unless the reason behind the disorder causing them is addressed. Your therapist may recommend specific medication that they feel may help you and refer you to a trusted doctor for discussion.
It’s important to tell your doctor about any other medicines, supplements, or vitamins you take. Sometimes these can interfere with how a psychiatric medication can work. When being prescribed medication, be sure to ask questions, such as:
- What side effects can I expect?
- How do these interact with other medications, such as OTC cold medicine?
- When and how should I take these, such as with food or at night?
Your body will need time to adjust to the new medication, and it can take time to see results. Remember to never start or stop a medication without the advice of a doctor. Psychiatric drugs should never be suddenly stopped. They should instead be decreased slowly in dosage to give your body time to adjust to their absence.
Remember that you don’t have to figure all of this out on your own. There will always be professionals waiting to help you should you ask for them.
Sometimes a mental health disorder cannot be treated with therapy alone. In these cases, a person may need psychiatric medication to help them manage their symptoms. This is because a disorder sometimes changes the way the brain works, and medicine is required to correct it. This can be a difficult and scary time for those that have never needed to take medication before. Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, helps people navigate their mental health journey so that they don’t have to do so alone. This includes helping them learn how to manage their medication. If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental health disorder, call (949) 647-4090. We are here to help you.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.