Psychotropic medications are psychiatric medicines used to treat mental health disorders and other emotional and psychological issues. Psychotropic medications adjust levels of different chemicals in the brain, thus impacting a person's behavior, mood, and state of consciousness. These medications are usually taken as daily pills or capsules, though some can be taken in liquid form or as injections.
Most providers start patients on a low dose of medication and slowly increase it depending on the need. Particularly when it comes to mental health disorders like depression, research shows that best results are found when a person combines psychotropic medication with therapy. Medication alone is not as effective in the treatment of most disorders.
Whenever stopping a medication, it's necessary to work with a doctor to taper off the dosage while brain chemicals get used to the change. Never stop taking a psychotropic medication abruptly, as this can lead to uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous side effects.
What are psychotropic medications?
Psychotropics generally fall into 4 categories:
The most prescribed psychotropic medications, antidepressants are primarily used to treat mental health disorders like depression. Antidepressants impact the brain's levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are responsible for the regulation of emotion.
Common antidepressants include Prozac, Lexapro, and Zoloft.
2. Anti-anxiety medications
Anti-anxiety medications are medications whose sole purpose is to limit the physical and emotional effects of anxiety. Benzodiazepines are some of the most well-known anti-anxiety medications, of which Xanax and Valium are some of the most common.
Benzodiazepines can be very effective for stopping anxiety symptoms in the short-term, especially as they're fast-acting. However, it's easy to become addicted to them, and those who do can often develop a tolerance, needing more and more of the drug to get the same effect. Those who cease taking benzodiazepines can face very serious and uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal.
Common anti-anxiety medications include Xanax, Valium, and Ativan.
Antipsychotic medications are meant to address mental disorder symptoms related to psychosis, such as delusions and hallucinations. They are often used to treat schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, and work by influencing the brain's level of dopamine.
Common antipsychotics include Risperdal, Abilify, and Zyprexa.
4. Mood stabilizers
The majority of mood stabilizers are used to address symptoms related to bipolar disorder and other mental health disorders that result in radical mood swings. Mood stabilizers are also sometimes used to enhance the effects of other drugs, including those used to treat depression. Mood stabilizers work by reducing "abnormal" activity in the brain. Most notably, they can inhibit highs (manic episodes) and lows (depressive episodes).
Common mood stabilizers include lithium, valproic acid, and Carbamazepine.
According to 2013 data, the most frequently prescribed psychotropic drugs in the U.S. (along with the number of prescriptions) are the following. With the exception of Xanax, which is an antianxiety medication, they are all antidepressants:
- Xanax, 48.5 million
- Zoloft, 41.4 million
- Celexa, 39.4 million
- Prozac, 28.3 million
- Ativan, 27.9 million
- Desyrel, 26.2 million
- Lexapro, 24.9 million
- Cymbalta, 18.6 million
- Wellbutrin XL, 16.1 million
- Effexor XR, 15.8 million
What are the risks of taking psychotropic medications?
As with most drugs, psychotropic medications can result in side effects. Common side effects of antidepressants include fatigue, weight gain and loss of sexual appetite or erectile dysfunction. Antianxiety medications can cause nausea, drowsiness, dizziness, and weight gain. Antipsychotic medications can cause blurred vision, dry mouth, and weight gain. Mood stabilizers can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and weight gain in the first few months of use.
Not everyone will experience all side effects, and part of the purpose of working with a psychiatrist is to regulate and normalize dosage to keep patients as comfortable as possible. When exploring using psychotropic medication, it's critical to work with medical professionals to find the medication that's best for you.
What are the advantages of psychotropic medications?
Particularly for those struggling with co-occurring disorders, such as having an alcohol or drug addiction as well as depression at the same time, medication can play an important role. It can help stabilize a person so that they can engage in other parts of the process, like therapy and developing life skills.
Prescribed medications can also lessen symptoms of psychiatric conditions, preventing full relapses of disorders like bipolar or anxiety disorders. In addition, medications can help diminish cravings of addictive substances like drugs and alcohol, making it easier to maintain sobriety.
As with many other aspects of recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, psychotropic medication can be an important part of the process. It's also important to keep in mind that it's not the only element of it.
Therapy is always an important component of the healing process. In fact, research shows that therapy can actually affect the brain's structure in important ways. It can prompt the growth of new neurons and synaptic connections between neurons, thus helping the brain to restructure itself in positive ways. Medication for anxiety, depression, and other issues does not do this.
When combined with other forms of support, psychotropic and other medications can help advance the journey towards sobriety, particularly for those with co-occurring disorders. Medication can provide short- and long-term relief from symptoms, while therapy has the capacity to heal core issues and lead to long-term positive changes.