The Role of Medications in Mental Health Treatment

Karen Dolde, MC, ARNP

The decision whether or not to use medication for mental health purposes is a difficult one, and it can be complicated by confusing information and assumptions about what medication can and can’t do. Fear of dependence and side effects can discourage you from exploring this. You might have friends or family who’ve had negative experiences with medications, or maybe you fear it will make you feel like a different person. Or perhaps you fear you’ll never be able to stop taking them once you start. Your therapist can help you determine whether to seek an evaluation for medications and provide support in exploring these issues.

We all have days when we feel extremely stressed, “blue,” or not our usual selves. This is normal in anyone’s day-to-day life and not necessarily a reason to take medication. However, if your symptoms are more ongoing or severe, a medication evaluation may be indicated. In that case, you will be referred to a psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, or a family practice clinician for the evaluation.

The prescriber will consider the intensity and extent to which symptoms are interfering with your daily life; for example, if are you experiencing depressed mood or anxiety that keeps you from functioning at your job, interferes with your sleep, or creates problems in your relationships. You will also be asked questions about your history of symptoms, family history, and past experiences with treatment, including any medications that have or have not been helpful. It’s also important to disclose your use of drugs or alcohol as well as herbal and over-the-counter medications. The decision to begin a trial of a medication should include a discussion of its risks and benefits, and a clear explanation of what you should expect to experience.

Once you start taking a medication, it is important to take it consistently, to communicate with your prescriber about any significant side effects and to follow up on a regular basis. It may take four to six weeks to see improvement, so it’s important to be patient during this initial period. The length of treatment depends on various factors; you should discuss this with your prescriber, but typically an antidepressant needs to be taken consistently for at least six months to one year following stabilization of symptoms to truly be effective.

Medications such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers can be an extremely helpful part of treatment, but are not the only tool in treating depression or other mental health disorders. Psychotherapy, good health habits, identifying underlying medical issues, and stress management are also critical aspects of treatment. Attending to these areas will help you look at the “big picture” of your life, develop better coping skills, and help you establish a holistic approach to recovery.

All of the therapists in the Women’s Therapy Referral Service have experience to help clients decide whether a medication evaluation would be a good thing to consider.

The above article expresses the opinions of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Women’s Therapy Referral Service.