Better Living Through Chemistry?

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | September 27, 2019

Exploring the Role of Medication for Mental Health Disorders

The slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry” was originally coined by DuPont, an American chemical company, in the 1930s. The slogan is also the title of a 2014 movie featuring Jane Fonda and Ray Liotta! For our purposes, the expression brings attention to the important role that medications play in bettering our lives. Without having to think too far back, we can recall life without reliable birth control, of only weak and destructive medications for HIV, and limited treatment options for diabetes and heart disease. Most would agree that we enjoy better health and live longer thanks to the pharmacological interventions we know as medications. But, what about medications for mental health?

The use of medications to treat mental health-related concerns (referred to as psychopharmacology) has been well established by medical and scientific communities for more than fifty years. During this time, significant advances in psychopharmacology have played a key role in the treatment of anxiety, panic disorders, PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, postpartum mood disruptions, and addiction, to name a few.

Medications for mental health disorders effectively reduce or eliminate negative symptoms, improve sleep, increase motivation, help maintain focus and attention, and regulate mood. Such medications even help minimize cravings and maintain abstinence from addictive substances or behaviors.

Who can prescribe medication?

Medications for mental health-related concerns are prescribed by a medical doctor who specializes in mental health. These doctors, called Psychiatrists, differ from Psychologists because they receive advanced medical training in mental health. Psychiatrists are specialists in the field of psychiatry, or mental health disorders, in the same way that cardiologists are specialists in cardiology, or heart conditions. Although a medical doctor of any specialty can prescribe medication for mental health concerns, a Psychiatrist specializes in treatments requiring medications for mental health concerns. It is advisable to work directly with a Psychiatrist for a more focused and informed treatment that requires medication.

Psychiatrists may or may not be trained to provide therapy. Psychologists, on the other hand, specialize in therapy, the assessment and treatment of a variety of mental health concerns without the use of medications. Psychologists earn a doctoral degree and provide therapeutic interventions found to be effective through research to individuals, couples, families, children, and adolescents, but do not prescribe medications.

The combination of medication and therapy, however, is powerful and effective in treating many mental health issues.

How does the combination of therapy and medication work?

Most commonly your therapist will refer you to a Psychiatrist for an evaluation. You will still meet with your therapist regularly to learn new strategies and develop tools for a new way of thinking and living. You can sign a release of information granting permission for your Psychiatrist and Psychologist to collaborate and coordinate care. This means that all aspects of your health are considered when determining what treatment is best for you. During your initial intake assessment, your Psychiatrist takes a whole-person perspective in considering your medical, psychological, and lifestyle choices such as nutrition, sleep, and exercise. Your Psychiatrist will talk with you about your treatment options, describe the risks and side effects of medications to help you feel comfortable about making a choice that is right for you.

If your Psychiatrist thinks that you will benefit from medication, he or she will write a prescription and invite you back in two to four weeks for a follow-up appointment. It is not uncommon for your Psychiatrist to prescribe a low dose of medication at first, and then gradually increase the dose until you begin to feel relief from your symptoms. You may try a few different medications to find the right one for you, or be prescribed multiple medications at the same time. All medications must be taken as prescribed, and you should always talk with your doctor before discontinuing any medication.

Important facts about medication for mental health:

  • Taking prescribed medication is not substance abuse; it does not alter your mood. Rather, medication helps manage your mood by regulating your brain chemistry.
  • Medication cannot change your personality. Medication can, in fact, help you feel more like you.
  • Medication alone may not be enough. Research shows that the combination of medication and therapy is most effective in alleviating negative symptoms.
  • Medication is not a “happy pill.” You will still feel a wide range of emotions to understand and work through with your therapist.
  • Medications are well researched and tested before they become available to the public.
  • Taking medication for mental health does not mean you are “crazy!”

Want to learn more?

Recovery and healing isn’t easy. It takes a great deal of courage to seek and receive help. Part of your strength is in recognizing resources available to you. If you are thinking about the role of medication in your life, talk with your therapist. Share your fears, such as whether you’re worried what people might think of you for taking medication. What others might not know is that mental health issues are medical problems and aren’t your fault. By acknowledging the issue as a medical one and seeking help, you are making your health a priority.

You don’t have to go it alone. Talking with your therapist, or meeting with a Psychiatrist for a consultation is a great way to start. You have the right to live a fulfilling life and to be informed about the options to help you get there.


Image: Maksim Chernishev on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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