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The SANE Blog

Busting myths about psychiatric medication

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Psychiatric medications, also known as psychotropic medication, play an important role in the treatment and management of mental illness.

Yet despite being commonplace, there are many myths surrounding the use and effectiveness of psychiatric medication.

These myths can magnify anti-treatment attitudes within the community and result in people failing to seek treatment or ceasing their medication. 

Psychiatric medication works by altering, blocking or enhancing levels of the brain's naturally-occurring chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters.

Common psychiatric medications include:

  • Antidepressants, estimated to account for 68.7% of all mental health-related prescriptions 
  • Anxiolytics, also known as 'tranquilizers' or 'anti-anxieties'
  • Antipsychotics, used in the treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
  • Mood stabilisers, mainly lithium and anticonvulsants
  • Sedative-hypnotics, also known as 'sleeping pills'
  • Stimulants, used to treat disorders from attention-deficit disorder to narcolepsy.

Myth: Psychotropic medications are addictive

Most psychotropic medications – with the exception of anxiolytics, stimulants and hypnotics – are not addictive. Addictive behaviour is defined by intense urges, obsessions, loss of control and behaviour to satisfy the addiction. Psychotropic medications do not create dependencies, where you need to keep increasing the dosage to receive the same effect. Nor do they result in cravings associated with addiction.

It is not uncommon for people to experience temporary withdrawal symptoms (or discontinuation syndrome) when they first stop taking certain medications. This could include dizziness, headache, lethargy, sweating, nausea, insomnia, restlessness and disturbed mood. These tend to begin within the first few days after stopping or significant reduction, and generally ending after a week.

But this temporary response does not mean an addiction has developed.

SANE advises against stopping medications without the supervision of a treating physician. You may experience adverse effects if you suddenly stop, particularly if you are at a higher dosage. If you have any concerns about your medication, please raise them with your doctor.

Myth: If a drug has worked for my friend it will work for me

Everyone's body is unique, this includes how our brains are wired. So medication will work differently in each person. Trial and error and patience are still the best ways to find the medicine that will work for you.

Because of this, do not try other people's medications. Many conditions have similar symptoms but are treated differently. Your friend may have other conditions present, or they may require a different dose to you. 

Myth: I will feel better straight away

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Because sleeping aids or pain medication offer quick relief, many people think psychotropic medication will act the same way. Instead, it can take four to six weeks or more at the right dosage to determine if a medication is alleviating symptoms.

Finding the right medication can be difficult, sometimes taking two to three attempts to find the right one. Don't hesitate to contact your doctor if you go beyond this normal trial period without seeing results. 

Myth: If the first medication doesn't work, others won't work either

There are lots of psychotropic medications available, and while they all have a lot in common they're not identical.

Keep in mind there are countless variations in medication treatment. This can include varying dosage levels and combinations of medications. This is a normal part of treatment, many people try more than one treatment option. 

Myth: Supplements are effective for managing symptoms

Many people feel that vitamin supplements are natural and therefore safe. Supplements are not rigorously studied, regulated, or proven to be safe or effective. Some contain potent ingredients that cause serious biochemical changes and interact with medications. Some contain chemicals that are similar to chemicals in prescription medications. 

Myth: Once I start feeling better I can stop taking my medication

Doctors recommend that people stay on their medication for the time prescribed, even if they feel recovered. This prevents relapse. If you want to stop, talk to your doctor about gradually coming off your medication. 

Myth: Medication is for weak people

Psychotropics help alleviate the symptoms of genuine medical disorders. Far from being a sign of weakness, it takes courage for someone to admit they have an illness that may benefit from medication.

Every year more than 317 million prescriptions are written for medication. Of these more than 36 million are for mental illness. Rather than a sign of weakness, this proves medication is a normal part of good healthcare.

While medication can't alleviate the environmental circumstances that cause some mental illnesses, they can ease symptoms enough for a person to benefit from lifestyle changes, support groups and counselling.

Myth: Side effects are worse than the illness

As with any medication, side effects experienced with psychotropic medications can vary from person to person.

It is not uncommon to experience side effects in the short term, such as when starting or increasing the dose of a medication. Side effects occur because your body is acclimatising to this new biologically active compound in your system. Once the body re-equilibrates, and gets used to the drug, the side effects usually subside.

For those who do experience side effects, they are usually noticeable in the first couple of days but taper off after two weeks.

Some medications can have long term (sometimes debilitating) side effects, such as weight gain, fatigue, loss of desire, and persistent dry mouth. These can be difficult to balance out with any benefits you may be experiencing.

SANE recommends working with your health professionals to try to balance the risks and benefits of your treatment, and to consider whether your current experience is an improvement over what would happen if the illness wasn't treated. If you have concerns, have a conversation with your doctor.

Myth: I can take medication when I feel like it

Failure to commit to a prescription plan is a major reason why medications do not work as intended. When medications are not used as prescribed, adequate drug blood levels are not achieved, reducing medication effectiveness. Medications are more effective when taken as directed.

Deciding to take medication can be a big decision and it is important you have all the facts about how they can and can't help alleviate symptoms. If you are apprehensive about starting a course of medication, or have concerns about the effects of those you are taking, it is important to speak with your treating doctor.

If you have any questions about medication, treatment, or mental illness you can contact the SANE Help Centre on 1800 187 263. Or if you want to discuss issues with your peers try the SANE Forums.

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