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How Does Psychiatric Medication Work?

Recent data shows that approximately one in six Americans takes psychiatric medication. Medication can treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis, insomnia, and more. When taken as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, they can be incredibly effective in improving one's quality of life and managing relapse prevention.

That said, it's important to understand how these drugs work. All medication carries some risk and potential for concerning side effects. In being an informed consumer, you can increase your chance of finding and complying with a management plan that works best for you.

Who Needs Psychiatric Medication?

There isn't a perfect answer to this question. Psychiatric medication isn't always the right choice for everyone. Additionally, some people benefit from taking certain medications over others.

Mental health is inherently unique. What works well for one person may not yield the same results for someone else. It's important to be open-minded and invested in what can work for you.

Many people benefit from psychiatric medication if they struggle with:

  • moderate to severe mental illnesses that don't improve with traditional therapy.

  • psychotic symptoms (hallucinations or delusions).

  • severe suicidal thoughts.

  • co-occurring disorders and substance use disorders.

  • chronic mental health relapse.

How Do Antidepressants Work?

The most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications include drugs like Paxil, Prozac, Lexapro, Celexa, and Zoloft. Physicians often prescribe antidepressants for moderate or severe depression.

SSRIs help increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is largely responsible for mood stabilization, happiness, sex drive, and appetite.

Some common side effects of antidepressants include:

  • nausea or gastrointestinal distress.

  • insomnia.

  • increased anxiety.

  • dizziness.

  • weight changes.

  • sexual problems.

Many times, these side effects dissipate on their own. Subsequently, it can take between 4-6 weeks for these medications to achieve their full effect.

How Do Antipsychotics Work?

Antipsychotics fall into two main camps: atypical antipsychotics and older antipsychotics. Newer, atypical antipsychotics include drugs like Abilify, Latuda, Zyprexa, Seroquel, and Risperdal. These tend to be most commonly-prescribed for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Older antipsychotics include drugs like Thorazine, Prolixin, Haldol, and Navane. Some doctors still prescribe these medications depending on the individual and their case history.

Antipsychotics work by disrupting numerous neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, and acetylcholine. They largely target dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feeling pleasure, learning, motivation, mood, attention, and pain processing.

Too much dopamine can cause hallucinations and delusions. Subsequently, drug use causes unnatural dopamine surges, which can increase someone's baseline for pleasure. This pattern can increase the risk for addiction.

Antipsychotics aim to provide stabilization, although common side effects include:

  • drowsiness.

  • weight gain.

  • dry mouth.

  • movement issues.

  • restlessness.

How Do Anti-Anxiety Medications Work?

Many different medications can help treat anxiety, including benzodiazepines and antidepressants.


Benzodiazepines, also referred to as tranquilizers, are often prescribed for offering short-term anxiety relief. Common benzodiazepines include Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan.

These medications work by slowing down the central nervous system. This process can bring relief within a few minutes.

However, benzodiazepines can also result in unfavorable side effects like:

  • memory problems.

  • headaches.

  • blurred vision.

  • drowsiness.

  • poor balance or coordination.

Benzodiazepines are not meant to be taken for long-term relief. That's because the drugs can foster a sense of dependency, which means you may build a tolerance to them. Over time, it's easy for people to develop an addiction.


Antidepressants can also treat anxiety symptoms, making this medication especially useful for people struggling with both anxiety and depression. Unlike benzodiazepines, SSRIs are not physically addictive. There is no chance for abuse.

How Do Sleep Medications Work?

Many people with mental health conditions also struggle with sleep problems. Doctors may prescribe sleep medication to help with insomnia, nightmares, or other sleep issues.

Hypnotics and Sedatives

These drugs, also known as Z-drugs, promote drowsiness, and they work by increasing the brain's production of GABA. Common medications include Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata.

Although some doctors consider them safer alternatives to benzodiazepines, they do present with a risk for abuse, dependence, and withdrawal. They can be effective in promoting deeper sleep, but users can develop a tolerance to them.

Other side effects include:

  • reduced appetite.

  • memory loss.

  • persistent drowsiness.

  • eye and head pain.

Final Thoughts on Psychiatric Medication

Psychiatric medication does present with risk, and it's important to discuss any concerns you have with your psychiatrist or primary care physician. They can explore different options with you and help track any side effects once you start taking a new prescription.

Ultimately, millions of people report living happier, healthier lives while taking medication. While there isn't a cure for mental illness, the right treatment can make an invaluable difference.

At the Mental Health House, we believe people can achieve meaningful recoveries despite their circumstances. We understand the complexity of mental illness, and we work hard to support our clients, their families, and the greater community. Contact us today to learn more.

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