There are an ever-increasing number of medications on the market that affect the brain to correct mental illness and mood disorders. From clinical depression to anxiety disorder, from dementia to hallucinations, from bipolar disorder to ADHD — all of these conditions are made easier to cope with through common psychiatric drugs.
Psychiatric drugs are an important part of a modern mental health treatment plan, modern science and our modern understanding of how the brain works and affects our daily lives.
Understanding the types (and benefits) of common psychiatric drugs is an important step in learning about mental health in our modern age. To understand them fully, it’s best to start, simply, with what they actually do.
Psychiatric drugs, mental health medications — these are just a couple of the names used to refer to a large class of prescription treatments designed to address the symptoms of mental disorders.
Mental disorders represent a wide-spanning category, and these medications can include antipsychotics, stimulants, antidepressants and antianxiety medications, as well as mood stabilizers. In each of these cases, the medications are designed to help the brain regulate chemical interactions that, in the case of a disorder, are not in balance.
That may mean helping your brain use more or less of a neurotransmitter or hormone, or it may mean outright adding supply to your brain’s available resources (like refilling a water tank).
There’s a lot of overlap in the world of mental health and psychiatric drugs, but in general, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) categorizes everything into one of five major categories: antidepressants, stimulants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and anti-anxiety medications.
Let’s take a quick look at each category.
Antidepressant drugs aren’t actually just for depressive disorder, though they do treat major depression and other forms of depression. These medications are also effective in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain, and are also used in the treatment of ADHD in some adults.
Common forms of antidepressant medications are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, which balance the serotonin supply in the brain. Other forms of antidepressants include bupropion, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, tricyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (or MAOIs).
Anti-anxiety medications are designed to reduce anxiety symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, as well as to treat panic attacks. They may include SSRIs, but also include take-as-needed benzodiazepines, which are a sedative.
Another form of anti-anxiety medication is buspirone, which, unlike benzodiazepines, is a daily medication.
If anti-anxiety medications can include sedatives, then stimulants are designed for the opposite effect. These medications increase alertness, elevate heart rate and blood pressure and give you better attention and more energy.
Commonly, stimulants are used to treat ADHD, but may also treat narcolepsy and certain cases of depression.
Antipsychotic medications are designed to treat mental health disorders that affect a user’s perception of reality — in other words, those with psychotic symptoms. They may be used to respond to delusions or hallucinations, which can be caused by bipolar disorder, severe depression, schizophrenia or even drug use.
In combination with other medications, these can treat dementia and delirium, as well as eating disorders, OCD and PTSD.
Mood stabilizers might also be employed in the treatment of impulse control issues and schizoaffective disorder. They were originally created to treat seizures, but mood stabilization is a far more common use today.
Psychiatric drugs can be very dangerous if misused — you should never take medications prescribed to someone else, you should take the ones prescribed to you as directed and if you experience problems or side effects from psychiatric drugs, you should contact a healthcare provider immediately.
Certain psychiatric drugs can cause hallucinations, nausea, sleepiness, performance issues in your sexual life, panic attacks and more. They can increase some of the very symptoms they’re designed to treat in some cases, and several of these medications can actually increase the risk of suicidal ideation and suicidal thoughts for some users (particularly in teens and adolescents).
Other drugs like stimulants can cause insomnia, weight gain, loss of appetite, as well as motor and verbal tics and even personality changes. Antipsychotics can cause tremors, muscle spasms and seizures in some cases, as well as a variety of blood pressure issues and blurred vision.
This list is neither exhaustive nor is it meant to be complete — we’re just trying to demonstrate the wide
range and severity of adverse effects from a large collection of medications.
If you’re being prescribed or considering asking for a prescription for any of these medications, it’s best to talk with your healthcare provider and read the individual literature on that particular medication — both before and during its use.
The prescribing healthcare professional will let you know what rare or common side effects should be brought to their attention immediately — if they don’t tell you, ask.
According to the NIMH, each category of psychiatric medication has several common generics that you’re likely to encounter if you’re diagnosed with depression, bipolar, anxiety or another mood disorder or mental health condition. We’ve listed them below in brief:
If you’ve been reading this story, we assume two things about you: you may be learning about a potential diagnosis for yourself or a loved one, and you may be worried about the implications of medication for mental health.
The good news is that, in both cases, there’s not as much to worry about as you think.
Mental health medications carry a stigma, and while it’s normal to worry about the potential side effects of psychiatric medications, the psychiatric disorders themselves are typically far harder to live your life with.
If you’re feeling uncertain, the best thing you can do for yourself is reach out to a healthcare professional and ask questions. They will be able to walk you through the side effect concerns you have, whether they’re about a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or one of the less common antipsychotic drugs we’ve mentioned.
They may also suggest lifestyle changes before giving you a prescription; symptoms of depression can respond to lifestyle changes like reduced caffeine intake and exercise.
Ultimately, they will also walk you through what you need to know, including how long some of these medications will take to work.
At this point, your next step is talking to a professional. Whether you’re concerned with symptoms or already diagnosed, talking to a mental health professional is the next step to a better life — with or without medication.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.