Using medication to treat mental illness
One of the most controversial topics in the realm of mental health is the issue of medication for mental illnesses (psychotropic drugs). It is estimated that at this point one in five adult Americans is taking at least one psychotropic drug, with anti-depressants leading the market, followed by anti-anxiety medication and drugs for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The pharmaceutical industry is a huge business; advertising is supposed to sell medication and doesn’t always portray it realistically or objectively.
All medication has potential side effects and some of them can be pretty severe. For psychotropic medication, side effects can be as mild as a stomach ache or as severe as suicidal thoughts. Some of these medications also have the potential for addiction or physical dependence. The mechanisms by which psychotropic medications work are highly complex and don’t affect everybody in the same way, which makes it hard to find the right one for each person.
Most physicians are comfortable prescribing more common psychotropic medications, such as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs. But people who suffer from more complex problems such as schizophrenia or severe post-traumatic stress disorder, might have to see a specialist for their medication management. Counselors or therapists are not able to prescribe medication and have to refer their clients to physicians or psychiatrists.
Some people believe that mental health problems are “all in your head” and that you should be able to just think your way out of them. They view medication as a crutch or even a dangerous solution to a problem they should be able to deal with on their own. People on the other end of the spectrum are quick to take medication for any feeling of discomfort or anxiety and often view it as the only way to cope with their problems.
Even though there are many mental health problems that don’t require medication at all, in many cases, a combined approach seems the best way to go. With a more physical problem, for example high blood pressure, most people would agree that medication is necessary to reduce the immediate danger but that the best outcome is achieved when the person also changes his or her lifestyle, exercises more, eats better, loses weight and the like. At some point, that person might be healthy enough that he or she no longer needs blood pressure medication, or at least does not need it as much.
The same principle works for most mental health problems. Medication can ease the symptoms and address the immediate problems, such as panic attacks or suicidal thoughts. When the person is in a somewhat better state, he or she can engage in counseling and learn about lifestyle changes, coping skills, and other useful techniques that might enable him or her to reduce medication or completely stop taking it in the long run.
Some severe problems, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, might require life-long medication, with or without additional therapy. But even people who have to take psychotropic medication continuously can improve their situation and their quality of life if they engage in counseling. Concurrent therapy has also shown to improve medication adherence, which usually leads to a better outcome for the individual.
As always, there is no solution that works for everybody. If you suffer from mental health problems of any kind, get as much information as you can, read about recommended medication, talk to your physician, find out if counseling is appropriate, and make the decision that seems to work best for you. And then re-evaluate every few weeks or months to find out if this is still the best approach for you or if you need to change anything.
Both your physician and your counselor should be willing to discuss treatment options with you and help you find the best way to address your problem.
- Antje Rath
- January 2015