Every person’s mental health journey is unique, and especially at the beginning of treatment, it can be challenging to navigate treatment options. Many individuals ask questions such as, “Do I need psychiatric help?” and “Do I need medication to manage my mental illness?”
While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to treating a mental illness, many people discover that medication is an important part of their treatment plan. Especially when it’s used appropriately and alongside talk therapy and lifestyle changes, it can be a powerful tool to help individuals achieve the quality of life they deserve.
Unfortunately, there remains a strong stigma surrounding the role of medication in treating mental illnesses. This is likely due to misunderstandings related to how medications work and where they fall short. The truth is that while medication doesn’t provide a magical cure for mental illness, it can greatly support the individual’s mental health journey.
Assessing the Role of Medication in Mental Health Treatment
Mental illness isn’t a choice, and it’s not a sign of a personal failing. In some cases, lifestyle factors contribute heavily to conditions such as depression—those who work in certain fields or are living with a substance use disorder, for example, are significantly more likely to develop a mental illness. In other cases, developing a mental illness may have more to do with genetics than external factors, and still for others, depression or anxiety is linked to medical problems or medications.
For many people, medication is a critical component of mental health treatment because it can address the biological cause of the condition. For example, antidepressants can correct some of the brain’s chemical imbalances that contribute to depression.
Treating a mental illness generally involves a multifaceted approach that addresses the root cause of the condition while helping the individual develop healthy habits and coping mechanisms for managing symptoms. This is where one-on-one or group therapy can be effective, giving the individual the roadmap and support they need to navigate challenges.
Indications for Medication in Mental Health Care
Several mental illnesses may require medication, depending on their severity and the individual’s health goals. While not everyone living with these illnesses is automatically prescribed medication, and not everyone’s medication regimen looks the same, drug therapy can greatly improve the individual’s quality of life.
Psychotic disorders are a group of mental illnesses that affect how a person’s mind works. Someone living with a disorder in this class may have difficulty when it comes to thinking and communicating clearly, making sound judgments and behaving appropriately. In the more severe cases, they may have difficulty separating reality from delusions.
There are several types of psychotic disorders, including:
- Schizophrenia, which is characterized by delusions and hallucinations that last longer than 6 months
- Schizoaffective disorder, which combines schizophrenia with a mood disorder
- Schizophreniform disorder, which is characterized by the symptoms of schizophrenia for between 1 and 6 months
- Brief psychotic disorder
- Delusional disorder
- Substance-induced psychotic disorder
Treatment for these disorders typically includes antipsychotics, which are medications that are generally effective in managing troubling symptoms such as hallucinations and thinking problems.
Bipolar disorders feature extreme mood swings, with the individual often experiencing episodes of extreme excitement followed by extreme depression. In some cases, the individual may have periods in which their moods are even and they don’t experience symptoms. Others experience these mood swings with little relief in between the extremes. Symptoms may appear for a few weeks, or they may last for years.
Some of the most common symptoms of bipolar disorders include:
- Setting unrealistic goals
- Risk-taking behaviors
- Extreme happiness or optimism
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Changes in weight
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Poor concentration
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Depending on the individual’s condition, their medication regimen may include antianxiety drugs, antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs or mood stabilizers.
Depression, or major depressive disorder, is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting about 8% of all adults. It’s characterized by feelings of sadness, numbness or a loss of interest in daily life. It has a significant impact on how the individual thinks, feels and behaves and can lead to a host of problems, from relationship troubles to job loss.
Common symptoms of depression include:
- Changes in appetite
- Social isolation
- Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or sleeping too much
- Unexplained physical pain
- Trouble concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
Doctors typically prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, more commonly called SNRIs. Both types of drugs address the chemical imbalances that can contribute to depression. In some cases, doctors may recommend combining two medications to achieve the desired effect, or they may pair an antidepressant with a mood stabilizer or antipsychotics.
Anxiety is a mental illness that causes constant feelings of worry and fear. Studies indicate that the brain of someone living with anxiety actually perceives the world differently, causing them to see danger in situations that others typically see as benign. In some cases, an individual may experience an anxiety disorder for a few months. For others, symptoms can last for years.
Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Avoiding certain situations or scenarios
- Obsessions and compulsions
- Sleep-related problems
Along with talk therapy, medication can be a key component of effective anxiety treatment. The health care practitioner may prescribe benzodiazepines, which are sedatives that produce a calming effect, or antidepressants, which alleviate symptoms by affecting the brain’s neurotransmitters.
Exploring Non-Medication Approaches to Mental Health
While medication can be a helpful tool for managing mental illnesses, it’s not for everyone. Some people opt to avoid medications because they don’t want potential side effects, or they don’t want something they have to remember to take every day. For other people, medication is a last resort they’d rather avoid. Fortunately, there are evidence-based non-medication approaches to mental health.
Mental health care professionals use talk therapy to treat a variety of mental health conditions and address traumas and disruptive life events, such as the death of a loved one or past experiences with abuse.
Talk therapy can also be effective in treating mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and panic disorders. It provides the individual with the opportunity to talk through their experiences and gain insight into coping strategies and techniques that may help in certain areas.
Neurorehabilitation is a cutting-edge treatment that involves retraining the brain through noninvasive stimulation and feedback. Through innovative technology, mental health care professionals can observe the role thee brain plays in continuing the cycle of illnesses such as bipolar disorder and anxiety. This type of therapy may include:
- Neuropsychological testing
- Brain mapping
- Biosound monitoring
- Neurofeedback training
- Transcranial stimulation
It’s easy to downplay the impact lifestyle may have on the severity of a mental illness. However, taking steps toward setting appropriate work/life boundaries, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising consistently and getting enough sleep is important for giving the brain the tools it needs for balance. For example, studies have demonstrated that regular exercise releases chemicals in the brain that naturally ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
While lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough for everyone who’s living with a mental illness, they can effectively complement treatments such as talk therapy and neuro rehab.
Collaborative Decision-Making: When to Consider Medication
There are several factors to consider before an individual can answer the question, “Do I need medication?”
First, it’s helpful to consider how severe the mental health symptoms are. If they’re mildly disruptive but manageable, medication may not be necessary. Second, the individual may want to consider whether the therapy they’re receiving is moving them toward their goals, or if they feel that their current treatment plan isn’t working. In some cases, their therapist may be recommending necessary changes but they may be struggling to implement them, and medication may give them the help they need.
Lastly, their own feelings about medication can influence whether that route is a good option for them. Health care providers may make recommendations, but ultimately, it’s the individual’s decision as to whether they want to try medication.
Medication can be a powerful tool for those living with a mental health disorder, but it’s not for everyone. Understanding how these medications work, what they can and can’t achieve and when they may be beneficial can help an individual make informed decisions regarding their treatment.
If your current treatment plan isn’t helping you achieve your goals and you want to find out if medication may be right for you, our mental health care professionals are here to help. Contact us today at (844) 598-1246 to talk about the next steps in your mental health journey.