What do psychiatric medications do?

By Alice Kim, clinical pharmacist at CHOC

Mental health is an important part of overall health. Therapy is important, but sometimes, medication is necessary to improve or maintain our mental health. These psychiatric medications are safe and effective when taken appropriately under a doctor’s supervision.

Psychiatric medications influence the chemicals in our brains that regulate emotions and thought patterns. They can reduce symptoms such as loss of energy and lack of concentration, so therapy can be more effective.

Psychiatric medications include a variety of drugs prescribed to treat different types of mental health problems, or to reduce symptoms associated with these problems. There are five main types of psychiatric medication: antidepressants, antipsychotics, stimulants, anti-anxiety, and mood stabilizers.

Antidepressants help reduce feelings of sadness or depressed mood and anxiety as well as suicidal thoughts. They do not, however, “make people happy” or change their personalities. Possible side effects of antidepressants include drowsiness or insomnia, constipation, weight gain, tremors and dry mouth.

Antipsychotic medications help reduce or, in some cases, eliminate hearing unwanted voices or having very fearful thoughts. These medications can promote thinking clearly, staying focused on reality, and feeling organized and calm. They also can help you sleep better and communicate more effectively. Possible side effects of these medication include drowsiness, increased appetite and weight gain, blurred vision, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, restlessness, shakes and twitches, and muscle stiffness. Rare side effects include seizures and problems controlling internal body temperature.

Stimulants and related medicines help improve concentration and attention spans in both children and adults by reducing hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Possible side effects include trouble falling asleep, decreased appetite and weight loss. Less common side effects can include headaches, stomachaches, irritability, rapid pulse or increased blood pressure. These often go away within a few weeks after stopping use or if your health care provider lowers your dose.

 Anti-anxiety medication can reduce anxiety and help you feel more relaxed. These medicines are generally safe when used as prescribed and usually are temporary, since long-term use can cause dependency. Call your doctor right away if you experience headaches, slurred speech, confusion, dizziness, increased nervousness or excitability when taking these medications.

Mood stabilizers help reduce or eliminate extremes of high or low moods and related symptoms. They should not keep you from experiencing the normal ups and downs of life, though. Side effects can include an upset stomach, drowsiness, weight gain, dizziness, shaking, blurred vision, confusion, or lack of coordination.

How to deal with side effects of medication

Side effects often get better with continued medication therapy. For side effects of mental health medication that linger, here are a few tips:

Side Effect What can be done
Dry mouth Try sugarless gum or mints
Constipation Drink plenty of water and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter laxatives.
Nausea or upset stomach Take your medication with a meal. Ask your doctor about anti-nausea medication.
Feeling sleepy Ask about changing the time when you take the medication.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness in the U.S. – one in five people have a diagnosable mental health disorder—an unnecessary stigma remains surrounding seeking treatment and utilizing prescribed medication. If you have a mental illness, know that you are not alone. For those without a mental health condition, educate people around you about the reality that mental illness is more common than people realize and speak out against stigma. By improving mental health education, we can challenge our misinformation and negative attitudes.

Stay informed about mental health.

CHOC Children’s has made the commitment to take a leadership role in meeting the need for more mental health services in Orange County. Sign up today to keep informed about this important initiative and to receive tips and education from mental health experts.

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