Medication for Mental Health: Let's Talk About It
Updated: Sep 26
Have you ever wondered about mental health medications? Are they okay to take? Can people become addicted? What about trying out holistic methods instead? We're going to cover all that, and more, in today's post.
Significant psychiatric drugs were developed in the midcentury, with lithium used as the first psychiatric medicine in 1948. We've come a long way in the psychopharmacology industry in the last 60+ years, and our growth in understanding the treatment of mental illness has radically expanded and changed since then. Medications used for mental health are called psychotropic medications.
How Psychotropic Medications Work
Psychotropic medications work by increasing or decreasing neurotransmitters, which are located in your brain. Neurotransmitters are little messengers that allow your brain cells to communicate with each other. If neurotransmitters are overactive or weak, this can cause a chemical imbalance in the brain that can result in a mental health condition.
When psychotropic medications are used in conjunction with therapy, they're the most effective. Psychotropic medications alone are not a cure; they help treat mental health issues, but they don't cure them. (Bhandari, 2023).
Types of Psychotropic Medications
There are 5 main types: antidepressants, anti-anxiety, stimulants, anti-psychotics, and mood stabilizers.
Antidepressants - used to treat depression, and the most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs - which increases the amount of serotonin in your brain to regulate mood), selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs - which increase the amount of norepinephrine in your brain and makes you feel more alert), and Bupropion, which helps promote brain activity
Anti-anxiety - used to treat phobias, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and other symptoms related to anxiety
Stimulants - used to treat ADHD
Antipsychotics - used for people experiencing delusions or hallucinations and can promote feelings of calm, ability to think more clearly, increase in effective communication, and increase in sleep. Antipsychotics can also be used to treat depression, ADHD, PTSD, OCD, and eating disorders
Mood Stabilizers - helps regulate extremes emotions and are primarily used to treat bipolar disorder
The Stigma Behind Psychotropic Medication
There's a lot of stigma behind taking medication for mental health. Sometimes, people think they should be able to overcome their mental health issues by exercising, eating well, and getting a good night's sleep. And while that's a major component to mental health, sometimes people can be doing all the right things but they're still struggling and need some extra support, which is where mental health medication comes into play.
As mentioned in the beginning, we've come a long way since the 1950s in the psychopharmacology industry. We have a better understanding of mental illness and what medications work best for people. For example, Xanax used to be a regularly prescribed medication for people with anxiety and panic disorder 20 years ago. Today, we have a better understanding of its addictive side effects, and it's now become a drug that is prescribed only in severe circumstances and only taken when needed, unlike what we typically see with other psychotropic medications which are usually taken daily. We've learned that SSRIs are incredibly safe to take with very minimal side effects, and they can be taken longterm if needed. SSRIs are not addictive.
We also know that medication without therapy isn't nearly as effective as medication combined with therapy.
We can't be effective in our own therapy, our own healing, if our mental health is too fragile. Medication can help the brain become balanced so that we can internally reflect, process trauma, learn healthy coping skills, and decrease the arousal of our nervous system so we can heal. If we're constantly living out of fight or flight mode, we aren't going to be able to take what we're learning in therapy and effectively apply it outside of sessions. This is one of the main reasons why medication can be helpful!
Why This Matters
If someone is struggling with mental illness, it may take them years to get to the place where they're ready to try psychotropic medication due to the stigma they have. This means that a person can lose years of quality of life. Deciding to start medication is a very personal choice that is made between the individual, their therapist, and their doctor or psychiatrist. Therapists cannot prescribe psychotropic medications, but they can help you on your journey of deciding if that's the best course of action for you.
If you have a friend or family member who is opening up to you about starting medication, or is thinking about starting, here are a few ways you can support them:
Remember that this wasn't a decision they made over night. Chances are, they've been thinking about starting medication for months, if not years, and are just now opening up about it.
Side effects come with all medications, and because they've been thinking about this decision for awhile, they've probably also looked into the side effects. Refrain from placing your preconceived fears onto them.
Tell them how proud you are of them for getting extra support.
Ask them if there's anything you can do to support them as they start medication. Typically, especially on SSRIs, there's an increase of anxiety the first few weeks. Simply telling them they can call you anytime during those first few weeks can provide a lot of relief to someone starting medication for the first time.
Trust and believe them when they tell you about their mental struggles. Refrain from saying things like "You never looked like you struggled with that!" "How did you hide that so well?" "You're not someone who I thought would have that issue!" While these statements aren't intentionally trying to invalidate the individual, it can make the person feel as though they shouldn't have that issue, or even worse, maybe they're making it sound more awful than it actually is, causing them to question if they really do need medication.
Wherever you're at in your mental health journey, know that you're never alone. Getting extra support takes immense courage and bravery. We see you, and we're proud of you.
At Root Counseling, we support clients on their individual mental health journeys and desire to see clients make choices that are best for them. If you're interested in scheduling a session with one of our therapists, you can learn more about us here.