A Girl’s Guide to Mental Health Medication

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. My information comes from research and my experiences as a patient. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any medications you’re considering for your mental health!

I was eighteen when I started taking Lexapro for my anxiety. I still take Lexapro today, plus two more medications for my mental health. Clearly, I’m not someone who balks at the idea of medication for mental illness.

But depending on where you live or who you hang out with, you may have heard otherwise. Some people believe needing medication makes you “weak” (it doesn’t), that mental health medications aren’t safe (they are) or that taking medication will change your personality (it won’t).

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, it’s my opinion that my mental health medications saved my life and gave me the boost I needed to start working on my mental health. That’s why I support movements like #WearYourMeds — and why I’m writing this post to educate you all about mental health medication. (Remember: I’m not a doctor, and you should never start a new med without talking to your doc first!)

Why People Take Medication

People take medication for mental illness for a variety of reasons. When it comes to anxiety, many people say that meds “take the edge” off just enough to allow them to use their therapy skills to calm themselves down (this was the case for me when I started Lexapro). Or, someone with depression might find that medication gives them more energy, allowing them to take part in more positive activities throughout the week (this is also the case for me and my two other medications).

Medication is often associated with severe cases of mental illness, but you don’t have to be hospitalized or incapacitated to need or want psychiatric medication. So, when should a person start to consider taking medication for their mental health? There’s no simple quiz you can take to determine if you need medication, but here are some situations where medication might be necessary:

  • To stabilize acute symptoms (i.e. while in the hospital, while suicidal or when having a panic attack)
  • To treat conditions that are resistant to other types of treatment, like talk therapy
  • To treat conditions where medication is the first line of treatment, such as schizophrenia
  • To treat patients who feel they need additional help beyond therapy
  • To counteract the side effects of other psychiatric medications (for example, Wellbutrin is sometimes prescribed to counteract sexual side effects of SSRIs)

Even if you have a therapist, a doctor (as in, an MD or a DO) is the only person who can prescribe medication, whether they are a psychiatrist or your primary care physician. Make a doctor’s appointment to chat if you’re curious about starting psychiatric medication — I’ll offer tips on talking to your doctor about psych meds later in this post!

Types of Psychiatric Medication

When you decide to talk to your doc about starting psychiatric medication, there are a host of different types of medications they might mention during your conversation. I recommend researching them in advance, so you’re at least aware of what the different medications are for your condition. To get you started, I talk about some of the most common types of mental health medication below:

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by inhibiting, or stopping, the reuptake of serotonin by neurons, so more serotonin is available in the brain to make you feel happier and healthier. SSRIs include Lexapro (escitalopram), Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline). They’re frequently prescribed to treat depression and anxiety.

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) work the way SSRIs do, but they block the reuptake of another chemical called norepinephrine in addition to serotonin. SNRIs include Effexor (venlafaxine), Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Pristiq (desvenlafaxine). They’re frequently used to treat depression and anxiety.

Antipsychotics are prescribed to treat psychotic symptoms, yes — but they’re also prescribed for a host of other reasons. For example, antipsychotics are also prescribed to treat bipolar disorder, and as a supportive therapy for depression alongside traditional antidepressants (that’s why I take one!). Antipsychotics include Abilify (aripiprazole), Seroquel (quetiapine) and Risperdal (risperadone).

Other drugs used to treat mental illness include atypical antidepressants (like Wellbutrin/bupropion), BuSpar/buspirone (used to treat anxiety) and Lithobid/lithium (used to treat bipolar disorder).

Talking to Your Doctor About Medication

If you’re contemplating starting medication for a mental health concern, your first step is to make an appointment with your primary care physician or a psychiatrist. They do not have to be a specialist: as long as the clinician has a medical degree, they can prescribe psychiatric medication.

But talking to your doctor about something as sensitive as mental health medication can be scary — which is why I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you talk to your doctor about medication:

  1. Write down what you want to say. If you’re anything like me, you might rehearse what you want to say for an hour, only to forget it the minute you get to the doctor’s office. Write down what you want to say, and especially any questions you want to ask, to prevent this effect.
  2. Explain why you think medication is a good idea. Remain calm and rational (or as calm and rational as possible), and get specific. Explain yourself in clear, concise terms. For example, you could try saying “I’m ready to try medication for my mental illness” or “I want to know if mental health medication is an option for me.”
  3. Communicate with your doctor. Your doctor will likely have their own opinions about what is best for you and your mental illness. Listen to them, but don’t be afraid to communicate with your doctor. If you’re confused or not feeling heard, say so. If they want to put you on a medication you don’t want to be on, say so. When we don’t communicate, we prevent ourselves from getting what we want without even giving others the chance to help. So, make sure you are open and honest with your doctor about what you want. This is YOUR health — be an active participant in it!

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