Understanding mental health medications

Medication can be helpful, but it can also be complicated. Here’s what you need to know.

What are mental health medications?

Mental health medications, also known as psychiatric or psychotropic medications, can be helpful when you’re not feeling like yourself and if you’re struggling to cope with your daily activities. Typically, these medications are most effective when combined with talk therapy

It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience with medication is unique while one medication may work for one person, it may not work for another. This could be due to side effects or simply because our brains are wired differently. 

A psychiatrist can help you explore  whether a mental health medication is right for you. It’s also important to determine the lowest effective dose for your body so that side effects are limited. This is a process that can take time, and is best done in regular consultation with your doctor. Ultimately, understanding the ins and outs of mental health medications can equip you with the knowledge you need to make the best decision for you.

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How do mental health medications work?

To understand how mental health medications work, let’s first talk about how our brains work. All of our brains have neurotransmitters, or chemicals that work as messengers to help brain cells communicate with one another. Neurotransmitters work 24/7 to keep our brains and bodies functioning. 

Sometimes, these neurotransmitters might become less active or overactive. Their ability to send messages may slow down or speed up. Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why this happens. But when it does happen, it means our brains may not receive the signals needed to enable restful sleep, or feelings of calm or pleasure for example. 

Changes in how these neurotransmitters work can also affect how we perceive the world around us, including changes in sensory perceptions, and confusion or difficulty making sense of things. 

So, how does medication help? Basically, mental health medication is designed to adjust how our neurotransmitters function. Depending on what you’re experiencing, these medications may increase or decrease certain neurotransmitters to help relieve symptoms. 

5 types of mental health medication

There are 5 main types of mental health medication. You and your doctor can determine whether a medication makes sense for you based on the symptoms you’re experiencing and how disruptive these experiences are to your daily life.

  1. Antidepressants

    Antidepressants can be helpful for treating symptoms of depression and help prevent it from recurring. Often, antidepressants are also the first choice to help with symptoms of anxiety and chronic pain. They are also sometimes used in managing addiction. 

  2. Anti-anxiety

    Anti-anxiety medications can be helpful for treating symptoms of anxiety, including panic attacks, phobias, and social anxiety. They may also be helpful for relieving physical symptoms associated with anxiety, such as nausea, sweating, or increased heartbeat.

  3. Stimulants Stimulants are designed to have a calming effect and help improve concentration. Often stimulants are used to support individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

  4. Antipsychotics Antipsychotics are most often prescribed to help relieve symptoms of psychosis. They can help individuals communicate or think more clearly, sleep better, or feel calmer. To learn more about antipsychotics, click here

  5. Mood stabilizers

    Mood stabilizers are used to help regulate and manage emotions. In some cases, individuals might experience extreme moods, such as severe depression that can lead to suicidal thoughts or euphoria that can lead to reckless behavior. Mood stabilizers can help find a balance.

What are the side effects?

All mental health medications can have a range of side effects, and it can be difficult to predict how someone will respond to different types of medication. It can take anywhere between two weeks to two months for your body to adjust as changes occur in the brain. You may also need to try different medications to find the right fit. This is a normal and common part of treatment.

Typically, antipsychotic medications have the highest rate of side effects. But regardless of which types of medication you’re on, you shouldn’t feel “drugged up”, drowsy, or shaky for long periods of time. If this happens, you may be on the wrong dose, too many medications at once, or the wrong type of medication for your body.

It’s important to discuss what you’re experiencing with your doctor, so you can ensure you’re on the best medication and dose for you. 

For information on mental health medications and their side effects, check out this page on the National Institute of Mental Health.

Do I have to take medication forever?

It depends. The length of time someone needs to be on medication really depends on the person, the persistence of their symptoms, and how much those symptoms get in the way of day-to-day functioning.

For those of us who function better with medication -- whether that’s for high blood pressure or depression -- taking it is simply part of life and an important part of self care. It can take extra courage to not only ask for help but also to start and commit to taking medication. Taking medication is a decision that only an individual and their doctor can determine together, with all of the necessary inputs to that decision. 

Whether you end up taking the medication for short-term or long term, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Medication is a commitment: if you decide to take a mental health medication, it’s important to take the medication as directed. Otherwise, it may not work as intended. 

  • Communicate with your doctor: Be sure to discuss any and all side effects with your doctor. Only you know what you’re experiencing -- sharing this information is important for finding the best treatment plan for you. 

  • Medication is not a one-size-fits-all solution: There is still a lot about mental health medication that we don’t know, but this is one thing we know for sure. Even with medication, it’s important to continue your self-care routine. This includes checking in with how you’re feeling on the medication and letting your doctor know of any and all side effects. 

Perhaps most important of all, it’s important that we support one another in our choices about our health, including taking medication (or not).

Getting started with medication

Whether you’ve been working with a therapist or psychiatrist for some time or you’re just getting started, our Tip Sheet offers a comprehensive guide on finding and advocating for the right support tailored for your needs, including a list of questions that you can ask in initial consultation and follow up appointments.