When it comes to your mental health, it can be difficult to know what kind of treatment is right for you. While we always advocate for working with a therapist, depending on your situation, medication can also help.
So how do you know if taking medication is the right choice, who do you talk to about starting medication, how can you prepare to start taking medication for your mental health, and what kind of medications are available and for which conditions?
Psychopharmacology is the use of medication to treat mental health conditions. Some patients only take medication, what others are treated through a combination of therapy and medication. For some people, multiple medications might be required, depending on their situation.
Psychiatric medications can only be prescribed by a licensed medical professional such as a psychiatrist, primary care physician, physician’s assistant, or nurse practitioner (depending on the US state in which you live). If you are in therapy, it's great for this person to work in partnership with your therapist. Mention to your therapist that you're considering medication, or if your therapist is the one who brought it up, you might want to unpack and talk through what that means for you with your therapist.
There are no right or wrong answers so far; just give yourself some space to think and process. How does the thought of taking medication make you feel? Do you have cultural or value-based beliefs that impact or influence how you might be thinking about medication? Did someone else bring it up to you or did you think of it first? What are your desired outcomes? What are the some of the hopes and fears that you might be anticipating, wanting to avoid, or wanting to encourage or facilitate?
If this all sounds overwhelming, that makes total sense. Having an honest conversation with your doctor and/or therapist about why you would like to start taking medication, your symptoms, and your concerns is the first best step. Even though it's hard, being actively involved in your treatment will make a big difference when it comes to your recovery.
Medication for mental health can be confusing because the same drug can go by multiple names. There's a generic name, a chemical group name, and then the brand name or whatever the drug is called on the market, which can be different when several companies are making their version of the generic drug. Here are a few types of drugs that treat mental health conditions:
Antidepressants are used to treat depression and occasionally other health conditions such as anxiety, pain, and insomnia. Commonly prescribed types of antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs).
Anti-anxiety medications help reduce symptoms of anxiety, such as panic attacks and extreme fear and worry. Many medications commonly used to treat depression—including SSRIs and SNRIs—may also be used to treat anxiety. For panic disorder or social anxiety disorder, you might start with SSRIs or other antidepressants as the first treatment because they have fewer side effects than other medications. Another common type of anti-anxiety medication is benzodiazepines, sometimes used to treat generalized anxiety disorder.
Stimulants increase alertness, attention, and energy and can also elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. These medications can markedly improve daily functioning for people with significant focus problems, such as people with ADHD.
Antipsychotic medications are typically used to treat psychosis, a condition that involves some loss of contact with reality. People experiencing a psychotic episode often experience delusions (false beliefs) or hallucinations (hearing or seeing things others do not see or hear). Psychosis can be related to drug use or a mental disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression (also known as “psychotic depression”).
Mood stabilizers are typically used to treat bipolar disorder and mood changes associated with other mental disorders. In some cases, health care providers may prescribe mood stabilizers to augment the effect of other medications used to treat depression. For people with bipolar depression, health care providers typically prescribe a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant to reduce the risk of switching into mania or rapid cycling.
Before taking any medication for your mental health, it's important to have a conversation with your healthcare provider about a number of things so you're getting the care that you need. Your healthcare provider is going to want to know:
Giving your healthcare provider a clear picture of your situation, needs, and anything that might conflict with any medication they prescribe can help them plan for your treatment and allow them to co-create a plan that is safest for you.
Some people need medication for a short time and others people need it for a longer period of time. Medications like antidepressants and antipsychotics may take a few weeks to fully work. Remember that you might need to take a medication for several weeks or months in order to see an improvement.
If you feel like your medication isn't working or you're having side effects that are bothering you, you should speak to your healthcare provider, who should be able to make adjustments to your dosage or even switch you to another medication.
It's very important not to stop medication suddenly. If you want to stop taking your medication for any reason, your doctor will help you taper off properly in order to avoid or reduce withdrawal symptoms.
It's important to remember that medication for your mental health treats symptoms. Medications are not a cure, so if you stop taking them your symptoms can return. Every medicine has potential risks that come along with taking it. It's important to have a conversation with your healthcare provider about the risks and side effects so you can make an informed decision.
Medications work best when they're part of a more holistic treatment program that often includes therapy. Group programs and other rehabilitative services might also be part of your treatment plan. No medication will fix all of your problems instantly.
Sometimes, the side effects will start before you feel the positive effects, so again, it's important to keep your doctor and therapist in the loop and let them know how you're progressing, what symptoms you're experiencing, and if there any side effects so that they can monitor your treatment.
Deciding to take medication for your mental health can be difficult and feel overwhelming at first. There's still stigma attached with both seeking treatment for mental health and with taking medication for your mental health, but getting mental health support or taking medication are never a sign of weakness.
Taking medication for your mental health is the same as taking medication for high blood pressure or an infection. It's just medication that's used to keep you as healthy as possible. For some people, it's the right decision, and for others it might not be the right course of action. The most important thing is to talk to your doctor about what's right for you so you can get the support that you need.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.