Searching for help for mental health and behavioral challenges is no easy task. If you’re reading this blog post today, you’re likely looking for ways to help you or a loved one better manage mental health symptoms. Medication for mental health diagnoses is a complex topic that can be overwhelming, but it also offers a lot of hope to those who are struggling to function in day-to-day life.
I’m here to break down the basics of psychotropic medications and help you along your mental wellness journey.
How Is Medication Used to Treat Mental Illness and How Does It Work?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 2007, medication is often prescribed alone, or in combination with psychotherapy. Psychotropic medications work through their influence on chemicals in your brain known as neurotransmitters. Our brains have more than a dozen neurotransmitters, and most of us are familiar with at least some of them and how they affect our mood, energy, and cognition.
“Well, I’ve had my serotonin fix for the day,” is a common saying I’ve heard related to serotonin, one of the most common neurotransmitters involved in mood. Other key neurotransmitters targeted with medications include norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine, glutamate, and GABA.
Your medication provider will choose medications based on multiple factors including your symptoms, diagnosis, and medical and psychiatric history (NIH, 2007).
Does Medication Work?
Psychotropic medications carry stigma (NIH, 2007)— some people don’t believe medications are necessary or that they work for mental illness. But just like physical health concerns, psychiatric disorders are based on biological and environmental factors that cause symptoms that interfere with our ability to function in our day to day lives. Mental illness can have serious consequences if left untreated, including suicide.
Just like all prescribed medications, psychiatric medications go through a rigorous study and approval process to ensure safety and efficacy (Seemüller et al., 2012). Psychiatric medications are generally no less effective than those used in general medicine, and can improve symptoms of mental illness and increase functioning in many areas of your life.
When Will Medication Start Working?
The thing to know about starting a new medication is that they take time to work (Harvard Health, 2021). Often, relief from symptoms is not immediate, but occurs gradually over time. Depending on the type of medication you've been prescribed, such as antidepressants, it can take up to six or eight weeks to begin feeling its full effects. Your provider will let you know when to expect results with each medication.
Finding the Right Medication
Finding the right medication for you is a highly individualized process (NIH, 2007). Your medication provider will perform a full diagnostic assessment including your psychiatric symptoms, medical and psychiatric history, and family medical and psychiatric history. They may refer you to a psychologist for additional psychological testing or obtain lab work if needed. This is to ensure appropriate diagnosis and determine if you have underlying medical conditions that may influence diagnosis or treatment.
How medications work in your body and what your body does to the medication is influenced by genetics, according to the American Psychiatric Association (2019). Your medical provider can use your personal and family medication history, as well as genetic testing as tools to help them know if you’ll be more susceptible to side effects, or if you’ll need higher or lower doses depending on how fast your body gets rid of the medication.
Will Medication Cure Me?
Most mental illnesses cannot be cured (NIH, 2007). The goal of treatment is to improve your quality of life by improving functioning in areas such as work, school, home, and social settings. Psychotherapy, in addition to medications, can be beneficial in managing symptoms.
How Do I Know if Medication Is Right for Me?
Working with your medication provider to obtain an accurate diagnosis, then reviewing risks and benefits of treatment options, is the best way to determine if medication is right for you (NIH, 2007). Once you start a medication, it’s important to follow-up with your mental health provider to monitor any side effects and if the medication is working.
Just like general medicine, psychotropic medications have risks for side effects, adverse events, and medication interactions (NIH, 2007). Side effects are highly dependent on the medication and the unique body chemistry of the individual taking them (APA, 2019). One person may have a serious side effect from a medication, while another person taking the same medication may not experience any side effects at all. To avoid medication interactions, let your provider know of any other medications or supplements you’re taking.
Who Prescribes Mental Health Medication?
Psychiatric medications can be prescribed by your primary care provider. However, you may be referred to a mental health specialist for medication management, especially for more complex mental disorders or multiple mental disorders (NIH, 2007).
At Dakota Family Services, our psychiatrist and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners provide medication management services. These providers have specialized education, training, and licensing in psychiatric and mental health diagnosis and treatment.
Does Insurance Cover Medication?
Most insurance plans provide a degree of coverage for your medication. Contact your insurance company to verify coverage provided under your plan.
Can I Change Medications?
Absolutely! Many medication options are available. Communication with your provider is key to ensuring that you’re on a medication you are comfortable taking (NIH, 2007). Let your provider know if you are experiencing any intolerable side effects, or if the medication makes you feel like you’re not yourself.
Do not abruptly stop a medication without telling your provider (Finegan, 2019). Some medications may need to be tapered off due to risk of withdrawal symptoms and the possibility of dangerous side effects.
Can I Stop Taking Medication When I Feel Better?
Just like choosing the right medication, the duration of treatment is highly individualized (Finegan, 2019). Some people only need medications for the short-term such as 1 to 2 years. However, some require life-long medication management to prevent symptoms from reoccurring.
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of psychotropic medication management, I hope you feel more empowered to make an informed decision about your mental health care. If your child is struggling with their mental health, you can also read our blog on psychiatric medication for children. The providers at Dakota Family Services are motivated to provide high quality, collaborative mental health services for you and your loved ones. Contact our office to schedule an appointment with a provider who can assist you with your medication management needs.
American Psychiatric Association. (2019, February 6). Genetic testing to improve psychiatric medication choice. Psychiatry.org - Genetic Testing to Improve Psychiatric Medication Choice. Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://www.psychiatry.org/News-room/APA-Blogs/genetic-testing-to-improve-psychiatric medication
Finegan, A. (2019, February). What to expect from your medications. NAMI. Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatment/Mental-Health-Medications/What-to-Expect-From-Your-Medications#:~:text=Some%20people%20need%20to%20take%20medication%20for%201%20to%202,and%20thinking%20from%20getting%20worse.
National Institutes of Health. (2007). Information about mental illness and the brain - NIH curriculum ... Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20369/
Seemüller, F., Möller, H. J., Dittmann, S., & Musil, R. (2012). Is the efficacy of psychopharmacological drugs comparable to the efficacy of general medicine medication?. BMC medicine, 10, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-10-17
Stahl, S. M. (2014). Stahl's essential psychopharmacology. Cambridge University Press.
When to expect results from a new medication. Harvard Health. (2021, February 12). Retrieved May 1, 2023, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/when-to-expect-results-from-a-new-medication.