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For people with a mental illness such as schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, severe depression and/or anxiety, medication is often a key part of their treatment or management plan. There are a variety of medication options available and it can take time to find the medication that works best for each individual. What may work for one person may not work for another. Therapy is also an important part of managing mental illness, with most treatment plans combining medication and additional therapies for the best results.
Navigating and understanding what medications and therapies are available can be confusing and difficult. To help, here is a list of some of the more common types of medications used to treat the symptoms of mental illnesses.
Antidepressants are commonly used to treat depression, but they may also be used to treat other conditions like anxiety, pain and insomnia. People respond differently to different types of antidepressant medications, so a person may need to try several different medications and/or medication types before they are able to find one that works. Currently, there are three main types or categories of antidepressants most commonly prescribed: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) and Bupropion. These are newer types of antidepressants that usually have fewer side effects. There are also older categories of antidepressants such as tricyclics, tetracyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) that may have more side effects, but are more effective for some people.
Anxiety is most often treated with benzodiazepines, including clonazepam, alprazolam and lorazepam. These medications help reduce symptoms of anxiety like panic attacks and extreme fear.
Mood stabilizers are used to treat bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and other mental illnesses that cause people to experience extreme shifts in mood. Lithium is one of the more common types of mood stabilizers used to treat episodes of mania in people with bipolar disorder. Sometimes certain anticonvulsant medications, which were initially created to treat seizure disorders like epilepsy, have also been found to be effective in stabilizing moods.
Antipsychotic medications, often referred to as simply "antipsychotics," are used to treat psychosis which may be a symptom of several mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression. These medications may be used in combination with other medications to treat anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and eating disorders. First generation antipsychotics, also known as typical antipsychotics or neuroleptics, have been associated with more severe side effects like tremors or muscle spasms. Second generation antipsychotics, or atypical antipsychotics, tend to have fewer side effects and may help treat a wider range of symptoms associated with schizophrenia. Antipsychotic medications have gone through many years of changes and improvements leading to these variations, but depending on the person, some first generation antipsychotics work better than second generation antipsychotics.
Long-acting injectable antipsychotics
More recently, researchers have been looking into the benefits of long-acting injectable antipsychotics for the treatment of schizophrenia. These medications replace regular oral antipsychotic medications a person may use to manage symptoms. Long-acting injectable antipsychotics are injected by a healthcare professional at regular intervals, such as every two to four weeks and even every three months. This is particularly helpful for people with schizophrenia who have difficulty continuing to take their medication as prescribed. Long-acting injectable antipsychotics have been linked to a number of benefits, including lower risk for relapse and rehospitalization compared to oral medications. Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of oral antipsychotics compared to injectable antipsychotics will depend on a person’s specific needs and can be discussed with their doctor or psychiatrist.
Check out the following articles to learn more about the potential benefits of long-acting injectable antipsychotic medications:
There are many different medications and combinations of medications available. It is important to discuss medications with your health care professional and follow the instructions for taking medications closely. Any changes in types or dosages of medication should be done in consultation with a psychiatrist and/or physician to best monitor the possible short and long-term effects of such changes. People who have a mental illness often benefit from working with a team of health professionals to support different aspects of their health.
In cases of serious mental illness, medications play an important role in helping stabilize a person's mental health. However, all treatment plans should consider including therapies and treatments that work in conjunction with medication, like psychotherapy, rehabilitation and support groups.
Therapies and other treatments only work when a person has worked to stabilize mental health symptoms that interfere with the potential success of therapies and other treatments. Examples of these that are often recommended include psychotherapy, rehabilitation and support groups.
Psychotherapy or talk therapy helps people explore their concerns and learn new ways of coping with difficult emotions and managing symptoms of their mental illness by working with a therapist. There are a number of different types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy.
Rehabilitation and skills training
Rehabilitation services and programs help people rebuild skills they may have lost due to their mental illness and improve their level of functioning in their daily life. Training may be provided in such areas as independent living skills, housing issues, vocational counselling and job placement, communication skills and cognitive remediation.
Support groups help individuals by connecting them with others who face similar challenges. Through these connections people find mutual support, as well as information about various treatments and services available. Support groups can also be helpful for family and friends of someone with a mental illness.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, it is crucial to talk to a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible to start figuring out a treatment plan that will work best.
The following resources offer additional information about medications and other treatment options for mental illness:
Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre's Medications has detailed information about different types of medication available.
The info sheets on Mental Illnesses from the Canadian Mental Health Association - BC Division include information about the treatment options available for specific mental illnesses.
Mental Health Medications from the National Alliance on Mental Illness covers medications used to treat different types of mental illness.
The website 24x7 Schizophrenia by Janssen Pharmaceutica provides information on treatment options for schizophrenia.
HeretoHelp's info sheet Working with your Doctor for Mental Illness has tips for people with mental illness to work with their health professional to create a treatment plan.
About the author
The BC Schizophrenia Society helps individuals and families find their way in the mental health system. They also provide regional programs and services to help people with serious mental illnesses and their families. For more, visit www.bcss.org or call 1-888-888-0029.