Psychiatric Medications

Detailed overview of psychiatric medications. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications, bipolar medications, antipsychotic drugs.

Mental illnesses are among the most common conditions affecting health today: One in five American adults suffers a diagnosable mental illness in any six month period. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, though, some 90 percent of these people will improve or recover if they get treatment. Psychiatrists and other physicians treating mental illnesses have a wide variety of treatments available today to help them help their patients. Most often, psychiatrists will work with a new patient to construct a treatment plan that includes both psychotherapy and a psychiatric medication. These medications--combined with other treatments such as individual psychotherapy, group therapy, behavioral therapy or self-help groups--help millions each year to return to normal, productive lives in their communities, living at home with loved ones and continuing their work.

Mental Illnesses and Medications

Psychiatric researchers believe that people suffering from many mental illnesses have imbalances in the way their brain metabolizes certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters. Because neurotransmitters are the messengers the nerve cells use to communicate with one another, these imbalances may result in the emotional, physical and intellectual problems that mentally ill people suffer. New knowledge about how the brain functions has permitted psychiatric researchers to develop medications which can alter the way in which the brain produces, stores and releases these neurotransmitter chemicals, alleviating the symptoms of the illness.

Find out about specific psychiatric medications

Psychiatric Medications

Psychiatric medications are like any other medicine your doctor would prescribe. They are formulated to treat specific conditions, and they must be monitored by a physician, such as a psychiatrist, who is skilled in treating your illness. Like most medications, psychiatric prescriptions may take a few days or a few weeks to become fully effective.

Detailed overview of psychiatric medications. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications, bipolar medications, antipsychotic drugs.All medicines have positive and negative effects. Antibiotics, which cure potentially serious bacterial infections, can cause nausea. Heart disease medication can cause low blood pressure. Even over-the-counter drugs such as cold remedies can cause drowsiness, while aspirin can cause stomach problems, bleeding and allergic reactions. The same principle applies to psychiatric medications. While very effective in controlling the painful emotional and mental symptoms, psychiatric medicines can produce unwanted side effects. People suffering from mental illness should work closely with their physicians to understand what medicines they are taking, why they are taking them, how to take them and what side effects to watch for.



Before deciding whether or not to prescribe a psychiatric medication, psychiatrists either conduct or order a thorough psychological and medical evaluation which may include laboratory tests. After a patient has begun taking a medication, the psychiatrist closely monitors his or her patient's health throughout the time the patient is taking the medicine. Often, the side effects disappear after several days on the medication; if they don't, the psychiatrist may change the dose or switch to another medicine that maintains the benefits but reduces the side effects. The psychiatrist may also prescribe a different medicine if the first one does not alleviate symptoms within a reasonable period of time.

Classes of Medications

Anti-depressant medications

Depression, which afflicts 9.4 million Americans in any six-month period, is the most common form of mental illness. Far different from the normal mood shifts everyone feels on occasion, depression causes a profound and unremitting sense of sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, guilt and fatigue. People suffering from depression find no happiness or joy in activities once enjoyed or in being with family and friends. They may be irritable and develop sleeping and eating problems. Unrecognized and untreated, depression can kill, as its victims are at high risk for suicide.

However, up to 80 percent of people suffering from major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder (manic-depression), and other forms of this illness respond very well to treatment. Generally treatment will include some form of psychotherapy and, often, a medication that relieves the excruciating symptoms of depression. Because people suffering from depression are likely to suffer from a relapse, psychiatrists may prescribe anti-depressant medications for six months or longer, even if the symptom s disappear.

Types of anti-depressant medication

Three classes of medication are used as anti-depre ssants: heterocyclic antidepressants (formerly called tricyclics), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and serotonin-specific agents. A fourth medication--the mineral salt lithium--works with bipolar disorder. The benzodiazepine alprazolam is sometimes also used with depressed patients who also have an anxiety disorder (see section on anxiety disorder medications).

Taken as prescribed, these medications can mean the difference between life and death for many patients. Anti-depressant medications alleviate the terrible emotional suffering and give people a chance to b enefit from the non-drug therapies that enable them to deal with the psychological issues that may also be part of their depression.

Heterocyclic (Tricyclic) Antidepressants: This group of antidepressants comprises amitriptyline, amoxapine, desipramine, doxepin, imipramine, maprotiline, nortriptyline, protriptyline, and trimipramine. They are safe and effective for up to 80 percent of all people with depression who take them.

At first, heterocyclics may cause blurred vision, constipation, a feeling of light-headedness when standing or sitting up suddenly, a dry mouth, retention of urine or feelings of confusion. A small percentage of people will have other side effects such as sweating, a racing heartbeat, low blood pressure, allergic skin reactions or sensitivity to the sun. Though bothersome, these side effects can be lessened with practical suggestions such as increasing fiber in the diet, sipping water, and getting up from a seat more slowly. They generally disappear after a few weeks, when the therapeutic effects of the medication take hold.

Last Updated: 05 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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