How Do Medications Help Mental Illness?

August 5, 2020

Medications are a common component in mental health treatment plans. Well-rounded plans may also include psychotherapy sessions used in conjunction with medications. Selecting the right combination of treatment modalities requires considering the person’s individual needs as each person will respond differently to a treatment.  When medications are used, it is crucial to understand how each medicine works and the expected results.


Antidepressants are medications used, most commonly, to treat depression, but they can also be used to treat other health conditions, including anxiety, pain, and insomnia. Also, antidepressants are sometimes used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults, although they are not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for this purpose.

Common Antidepressants

The most popular types of antidepressants are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These include commonly known drugs such as Fluoxetine and Citalopram. A different kind of antidepressant is serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These medications are similar to SSRIs but function slightly differently. A third antidepressant frequently prescribed is bupropion. Bupropion works differently than either SSRIs or SNRIs and is used to treat seasonal affective disorder and smoking cessation. These medications are popular because they do not cause as many side effects as previous classes of antidepressants. They also seem to help a broader group of depressive and anxiety disorders.

How Antidepressants Treat Mental Health Disorders

Antidepressant medications work by balancing the chemicals in your brain, specifically the neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are responsible for mood and emotions. Antidepressants help to improve mood, sleep, and increase appetite and concentration. Research indicates all antidepressants work about the same when it comes to symptom improvement and symptom return reduction. Despite these similarities, some people respond better to one medication than others.

What are the Possible Side Effects of Antidepressants?

Some antidepressant medications may cause more side effects than others, and some people may need to try more than one medication before they find success. There are several common side effects of antidepressants, including nausea, vomiting, weight gain, and lethargy. Antidepressant medications may also cause other, more emergent symptoms, including suicidal ideation. If your teen is taking antidepressants for their mental health and begins to show signs of self-harm or talk of suicide, call your mental health provider immediately. There have been several documented cases of teens and adults who experience exacerbated symptoms or even take their lives due to antidepressant medications.

Anti-Anxiety Medications

Anti-anxiety medications are used to reduce anxiety symptoms, including panic attacks or extreme fear and worry. The most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications are benzodiazepines. These are used to treat generalized anxiety disorders. For panic disorders or social phobias, benzodiazepines are usually used after SSRIs, or other antidepressants have proven unsuccessful. Clonazepam and Lorazepam are two well-known benzodiazepines used to treat the short-term symptoms of anxiety. Beta-blockers are also used to help manage the physical symptoms of anxiety, including rapid heartbeat, sweating, and trembling. Using these medications for a short time can help keep the physical symptoms of anxiety under control and can also be used on an “as-needed” basis to reduce anxiety. Unfortunately, people can develop a tolerance for benzodiazepines if used for a lengthy period, and they eventually require increasing doses to get the same effects.

How Anti-Anxiety Medications Treat Mental Health Disorders

Anti-anxiety medications work by affecting the neurotransmitters in the brain. Anxiety disorders are specifically related to imbalances of these neurotransmitters, affecting a person’s sense of well-being and ability to relax and feel calm. Anti-anxiety medications work to alter neurotransmitter levels, which helps to reduce symptoms.

What are the Possible Side Effects of Anti-Anxiety Medications?

As with many medications, anti-anxiety medications have potential side effects, some of which can be very serious. Some of the most common include drowsiness, vision changes, dizziness, and headaches. Other, more severe side effects may include breathing difficulties and seizures. Although there are a variety of side effects associated with anti-anxiety medications, there are many documented cases where they have been very successful in helping to reduce often debilitating symptoms.

Stimulant Medications

As the name implies, stimulant medications increase alertness, attention, and energy in the individual. They also elevate blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate. Stimulant medications are commonly prescribed to children, teens, and adults diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. In addition to mental health conditions, stimulant medications are also prescribed to treat other health problems, including narcolepsy and depression (in those who have not responded to other treatments).

How Stimulant Medications Treat Mental Health Disorders

Stimulant medications work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation, movement, and attention. For many with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (and other illnesses treated with stimulant medications), these medications help boost concentration while reducing hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.

What are the Possible Side Effects of Stimulant Medications?

Most side effects associated with stimulant medications are minor and often resolve with an alteration in dosage levels. The most common side effects of stimulant medications include appetite changes, headaches, difficulties sleeping, and gastric disturbances.

Antipsychotic Medications

Antipsychotic medications are used mainly in the treatment of psychosis. Psychosis is the term used to describe conditions that affect the mind, and as a result, there has been some loss of contact with reality. Symptoms of psychosis often include delusions or hallucinations. Antipsychotic medications are commonly used in combination with other medications to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including dementia, disordered eating, severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others. Antipsychotic medications do not cure these conditions; however, they help to relieve the symptoms and improve the quality of daily life.

How Antipsychotic Medications Treat Mental Health Disorders

Antipsychotic medications help to treat mental health disorders in a similar manner to other medications. They work by affecting the neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically dopamine. By altering how the dopamine receptors in the brain work, antipsychotic medications can reduce the impact of the negative symptoms associated with various mental health conditions.

What are the Possible Side Effects of Antipsychotic Medications?

Antipsychotic medications have many side effects and risks. According to the Food and Drug Administration, typical side effects of antipsychotic medications include drowsiness, dizziness, weight gain, constipation, And other gastric disturbances. Other, more severe symptoms include involuntary movement, seizures, and changes to the white cell count in the blood.

Mood Stabilizers

Mood stabilizing medications are primarily used to treat bipolar disorder and mood swings associated with other mental health disorders. In some cases, mood stabilizers are also used in conjunction with other medications to treat depression. A common mood stabilizer, lithium, has been shown to be effective in treating mania associated with bipolar disorder. Mood stabilizers are also used to treat other mental health conditions, including depression, and other disorders of impulse control. In some cases, anti-convulsant medications are also used as mood stabilizers.

How Mood Stabilizers Treat Mental Health Disorders

Mood stabilizers work by reducing the levels of abnormal activity in the brain. Although the exact effects of mood-stabilizing medications aren’t clearly understood, it is believed these drugs influence neurotransmitters in the brain thought to be involved in causing mood disturbances. There is also evidence that anti-convulsant medications reduce the excitability of nerve impulses within the brain.

Successful Therapy - medications - Hillcrest

What are the Possible Side Effects of Mood Stabilizing Medications?

Mood stabilizers can cause several side effects, some of which can become serious if the level of the medication in the blood becomes elevated. Common side effects include itching or rash, excessive thirst, tremors, changes in vision, and changes in the heartbeat. Other more significant side effects can include seizures and swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat. Lithium is processed through the kidneys, so dosages may need to be adjusted in older adults with reduced kidney function.

Special Considerations

Medications are prescribed to all groups of people to help treat mental health conditions. However, some groups have special needs, including children and adolescents, the elderly, and pregnant women. When prescribing medications to members of these groups, it is essential to ensure their safe use.

Children and Teens

Many medications used to treat children and teens of Southern California with mental illnesses are safe and effective. However, some medications are not approved for use with children or require more study to determine their safety. However, this does not mean that a doctor cannot give a young person a Food and Drug Administration-approved medication for an “off-label” reason. “Off-label” means that the doctor prescribes the medication to the patient even though the Food and Drug Administration does not approve the medicine for that specific mental health disorder. It is also essential for children and teens to keep in mind that children may have different reactions at different side effects than adults. Some medications also have additional warnings concerning potentially dangerous side effects when taken by younger members of the population.

Pregnant Teens

There is a minimal body of research regarding the use of mental health medications during pregnancy. The risks will vary depending on which medication is used and at what point during the pregnancy it is taken. Decisions regarding prescribing psychiatric medications should be made based on the individual after carefully weighting the needs versus the risks.

Contact Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center Today

Medications are generally not the sole treatment used in treating mental health conditions. Typically, medications are used in conjunction with other treatments, including therapy and lifestyle changes, to help treat and alleviate symptoms. If your teen is experiencing symptoms related to a mental health condition or has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, look to Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center in Agoura Hills to help with teen treatment. Our experienced team of providers can help with all areas of your teen’s treatment program, including therapy, nutrition, medical needs, and medication administration (if necessary). Mental health conditions in are highly treatable, and a symptom-free life is possible for your teen in Southern California. Recovery and maintenance are improved with early intervention, so don’t wait to call Hillcrest today.