Understanding Your Medications

Today, patients often receive psychotropic medications without being evaluated by a mental health professional, according to a study last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Many visit their primary-care physicians (GPs) and may walk away with a prescription for an antidepressant or other drugs without being aware of other evidence-based treatments — such as cognitive behavioral therapy — that might work better for them without the risk of side effects.

All kinds of treatment have some placebo effect and some drug trials have found only slight differences between the effects of placebos and active drugs.

"I would say at least half the folks who are being treated with antidepressants aren't benefiting from the active pharmacological effects of the drugs themselves but from a placebo effect," says Steven Hollon, PhD, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University who has conducted extensive research on the effectiveness of antidepressants. "If people knew more, I think they would be a little less likely to go down the medication path than the psychosocial treatment path."

Before taking medication for your mental illness, be sure to be properly evaluated by a mental health professional who can develop a treatment plan that will be most beneficial for you in treating your mental health problems. It is very helpful to have both a psychiatrist and a psychologist working in collaboration to provide you the best care as medicines are usually more effective when combined with psychotherapy. You should also make regular visits to your psychiatrist and psychologist for ongoing treatment to continually monitor your mental health problems, how the treatment is going (e.g. medication side-effects, treatment efficacy) and if the treatment plan needs to be modified (e.g. reduction in medication dosage, decrease in frequency of psychotherapy sessions).

*A psychiatrist is a medically-qualified practitioner who will have spent 5-6 years training as a doctor. He or she will then have worked as a doctor in general medicine and surgery for at least a year. He or she will then have had at least 6 years of further training in helping people with psychological problems. Psychiatrists tend to focus primarily on handling the medication aspect of an individual’s treatment plan.

*A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional who has spent 4 years completing a university degree in Psychology and then an additional 6 years training in mental health issue to graduate with a PhD in Clinical Psychology. He or she provides professional services for the diagnosis, assessment, evaluation, treatment and prevention of psychological, emotional, psychophysiological and behavioral disorders across the lifespan. Clinical Psychologists focus on providing psychological assessments (e.g. intelligence testing, assessment of learning disorders, ADHD) and treatments (e.g. talking therapy).

For some people, drugs are a short-term solution used to get them over an immediate crisis. For other people, drugs are an ongoing, long-term treatment that enables them to live with severe and enduring mental health problems. Many people do not want to stay on medication for years, but it can help some people to lead the kind of lives they want to lead, without relapses and readmissions to hospital.

Medications may work better for one person than for another. It is difficult to predict exactly who will respond to what medication.

Although medication is easier to administer than talking therapies or exercise programmes, for example - which are also effective for many mental health problems - most have side effects and people may have problems when they stop taking the medication. Abuse of medication that has been prescribed to treat a mental health problem can cause additional problems.

If you are prescribed a medication, be sure that you:

  • Told the doctor all about your mental health problem (e.g. signs, severity).
  • Tell the doctor about all medications and vitamin supplements you are already taking.
  • Remind your doctor about any allergies and any problems you have had with medicines.
  • Understand how to take the medicine before you start using it and take your medicine as instructed.
  • Don't take medicines prescribed for another person or give yours to someone else.
  • Call your doctor right away if you have any problems with your medicine or if you are worried that it might be doing more harm than good. Your doctor may be able to adjust the dose or change your prescription to a different one that may work better for you.

Your doctor is responsible for:

  • Giving you a thorough mental health assessment and ruling out alternative diagnosis.
  • Continually monitoring if the drug is helping (your mental health problems) or hurting you (e.g. side effects).
  • Giving you only the necessary drugs at your necessary therapeutic dosage, no more and no less.
  • Working together with any other mental health care professionals (e.g. psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors) who are involved in your treatment plan.

Information about medications changes frequently. Check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency for the latest warnings and patient medication guides.

Brand names are not referenced on this page, but you can search by brand name on MedlinePlus Drugs, Herbs and Supplements website. The MedlinePlus website also provides additional information about each medication, including side effects and FDA warnings.

The 5 main classes of psychiatric medication are: