Medication for mental health conditions is a very important part of treatment. Medications help manage symptoms that can sometimes hinder individuals’ daily routines and quality of life. Although many medications exist to help those experiencing different symptoms of their mental health conditions, these medications also come with some side effects. The medication types we will be discussing in this article include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, stimulants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers. With that, let’s dive right in!
Antidepressants, as you can probably tell by their name, are used mainly to treat depression, but they can also be used to treat “anxiety, pain, and insomnia” . Depression is a mental health condition that can cause “feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and at home” .
Now, there are different types of antidepressants that can be prescribed, and different medications do come with different side effects. “Commonly prescribed types of antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs)” . The reason these are commonly prescribed medications is because they “are associated with fewer side effects than older types of antidepressants” . However, that does not mean that older medications, like tricyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), won’t work better for some individuals. “Common side effects of SSRIs and other antidepressants may include upset stomach, headache, or sexual dysfunction” . These side effects have the possibility of improving, especially if patients follow a treatment plan that slowly increases the daily dosage of the medication. It’s also very important to take medication as directed in order to have the best chance of managing the symptoms that come with depression.
If you notice your symptoms are not improving, there is a medication called “esketamine”. “Esketamine is a newer FDA-approved medication for treatment-resistant depression, which may be diagnosed when a person’s symptoms have not improved after trying at least two antidepressant therapies” . This is a nasal spray administered at a health care facility, and it is usually still used in conjunction with an oral antidepressant for the best maintenance of depression symptoms. Medical professionals must take care in prescribing patients a combination of medications that affect the serotonin system because it is possible to experience serotonin syndrome. “Symptoms of serotonin syndrome include agitation, muscle twitches, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things others do not see or hear), high temperature, and unusual blood pressure changes” . Be sure to alert your doctor if you experience any of these side effects due to a combination of antidepressants.
Anti-anxiety medication is another self-explanatory medication group, they help with different symptoms that may come with anxiety. Anxiety is described as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure” . There are different kinds of anxiety disorders; some examples include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. As we went over before, “many medications commonly used to treat depression—including SSRIs and SNRIs—may also be used to treat anxiety” . Many health care providers choose to prescribe these medications at first for anxiety disorders because they don’t have as many side effects compared to other medications . “Another common type of anti-anxiety medication is benzodiazepines, [...] [which] are sometimes used to treat generalized anxiety disorder” . Benzodiazepines are used for short-term treatments of anxiety; beta-blockers are another short-term treatment for anxiety symptoms . “People with phobias—an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation, such as public speaking—often experience intense physical symptoms. Beta-blockers can help manage these symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, sweating, and tremors” . Although beta-blockers are great for managing such physical symptoms of anxiety, they “generally are not recommended for people with asthma or diabetes because they may worsen symptoms related to both conditions” . Benzodiazepines are used short-term because taking them “over long periods may lead to drug tolerance or even dependence. To avoid these problems, health care providers usually prescribe benzodiazepines for short periods and taper them slowly to reduce the likelihood that a person will experience withdrawal symptoms or renewed anxiety symptoms” .
Another type of anti-anxiety medication that is longer-term is buspirone. “In contrast to benzodiazepines, buspirone must be taken every day for 3 to 4 weeks to reach its full effect and is not effective for treating anxiety on an “as-needed” basis” . Some side effects caused by buspirone include but are not limited to: dizziness, diarrhea, trouble sleeping, weakness, rash, blurred vision, fast or irregular heartbeat, and agitation . The last four of those listed side effects are more serious, and you should definitely contact your doctor if you experience any of these while taking this medication.
Stimulants will need a bit more of an explanation compared to these other mental health medication categories. “Health care providers may prescribe stimulant medications when treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy” . ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder, and narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that causes excessive feelings of sleepiness during the day. Stimulants are meant to “increase alertness, attention, and energy. They can also elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing” . You should follow your doctor’s directions exactly when taking stimulants, as that will ensure the safest way to take them. “Most side effects of stimulant medications are minor and disappear at lower doses,” so it is very important to take these medications as directed in order to avoid major side effects .
Antipsychotic medications are used to treat psychosis, which is a mental disorder that includes symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. “Psychosis can be related to drug use or a mental disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression” . Although usually prescribed to individuals experiencing psychosis, “health care providers may also prescribe antipsychotic medications in combination with other medications to relieve symptoms associated with delirium, dementia, or other mental health conditions” . Now, there are a few side effects that come with taking antipsychotic medication. Firstly, “the FDA requires that all antipsychotic medication labels include a black-box warning stating that antipsychotics are associated with increased rates of stroke and death in older adults with dementia” . These are extremely serious effects, which is clearly why this warning label is required. Continuing, “first-generation antipsychotic medications are sometimes called “typical” antipsychotics or “neuroleptics.” Long-term use of typical antipsychotic medications may lead to a condition involving uncontrollable muscle movements called tardive dyskinesia (TD)” . Now, this first generation of antipsychotic medication is older, and there are newer medications, today. “Second-generation medications are sometimes called “atypical” antipsychotics. Several atypical antipsychotics may be used to treat a broader range of symptoms compared with older medications. For example, these medications are sometimes used to treat bipolar depression or depression that has not responded to antidepressant medication alone” . So, these newer medications can be used in conjunction with other mental health medications. As far as side effects go, second-generation antipsychotic medications, “health care providers may ask people taking atypical antipsychotic medications to participate in regular monitoring to check weight, glucose levels, and lipid levels” . As with all medications, if your side effects are severe, it is important to alert your doctor so they can adjust your dosage or even change your prescription to a different medication.
The final mental health medication we will be going over are mood stabilizers. “Mood stabilizers are typically used to treat bipolar disorder and mood changes associated with other mental disorders. In some cases, health care providers may prescribe mood stabilizers to augment the effect of other medications used to treat depression” . Again, mood stabilizers are another mental health medication that can be used in combination with others. “Lithium, an effective mood stabilizer, is approved for the treatment of mania and maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder” . When it comes to the side effects of lithium, “health care providers generally ask people who are taking lithium to participate in regular monitoring to check lithium levels and kidney and thyroid function” . There is another form of mood-stabilizing medication that may work better than lithium for some individuals. These medications are anticonvulsant medications, and health care providers will ask that you monitor and “assess side effects and potential interactions with other common medications” when taking anticonvulsants .
Now that we’ve gone over all these mental health medications, the conditions and disorders they’re used to treat, and their side effects, we have more insight into what kind of questions to ask our health care providers and what our health care providers may expect of us if we ever end up needing any of these medications. Just remember, always communicate with your health care provider if you are concerned about any symptoms you experience or if symptoms become severe.
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, June). Mental Health Medications. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/mental-health-medications
2. What is Depression?. Psychiatry.org - What Is Depression? (2020, October). https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression
3. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Anxiety. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety
4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019, April 15). Buspirone: Medlineplus Drug Information. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a688005.html#side-effects
Author: Lauryn Agron
Editor: Shandrix Ferrer
Health scientist: Catherine Sarwat