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Understanding Mental Health Meds


When it comes to mental health or addiction, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment approach.  Some people respond very well to talk therapy alone, while others may need medication to assist with the process.  When combined with therapy, medication can be an important part of the treatment process.

It is important to note that unlike antibiotics, psychotropic medications do not cure the disorder but rather help you to feel better in order to function and fully participate in the process of recovery.  Medication without therapy is like a Band-Aid; it covers the cut, but the cut is still there.  It isn’t the Band-Aid that heals the cut but rather the body doing the work of repairing the wound.  The Band-Aid merely provides a cover to allow the body to do its work.  Likewise, therapy is the work that is required to heal the wound, and the medication alleviates symptoms to allow you to do the work. 

Medications work by changing the imbalance of chemicals in the brain.  These chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, are needed to carry messages from one brain cell to the next so you can receive information from your senses; recognize, process, and make sense of the information; and react and make decisions based on the information you’ve received and processed. 

There are four main types of neurotransmitter: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.  When brain chemicals get out of balance, it’s harder to receive and process information, resulting in some type of mental disorder.  A person may experience unusual sensations (i.e. hallucinations or delusions), confusion/nervousness, racing thoughts, fatigue, depression, etc.  Some examples:
Too much dopamine = schizophrenia
Too little dopamine = Parkinson’s disease
Too little serotonin = depression or OCD
Too little norepinephrine = depression
Too little acetylcholine = Alzheimer’s disease

Medications for addiction can be used to manage withdrawal symptoms (aka medical detoxification), prevent relapse, and/or treat co-occurring mental health disorders.

Different medications work in different ways to adjust the brain chemicals and relieve symptoms.  While it can seem overwhelming to have so many available, it also means that there are a lot of options in case the first medication isn’t the best fit.  It’s very common for a person to have to try more than one type of medication to get the best possible symptom relief.  It’s also important to keep in mind that certain medications need time to build up in your system before they start to work, so be sure to give the medication enough time to work before you get discouraged.

It’s very important for you to be honest and thorough with your prescribing doctor.  There are no lab tests to measure neurotransmitter levels to determine the best possible medication, so it’s important for the doctor to have as much information as possible about you and your symptoms.  Additionally, drinking and/or using other substances may react with certain medications and be dangerous or render the medication ineffective. 

Medication is prescribed based on individual circumstances, which is why prescriptions should not be shared, even if it is the same type of medication.  Type and dosage of medication is based on a number of factors, including the presenting problem(s), age, sex, weight, medical comorbidities, habits (i.e. smoking, drinking, exercise), liver and kidney function, genetics, other medications or supplements the person may be taking, diet, etc.  Some people get great results from medications, do well in therapy, and don’t continue to need the medication long-term.  Other people may have more chronic disorders and may need to take medications indefinitely.  Either way, it’s important to continue taking medications as prescribed until otherwise directed by the prescribing doctor.  Especially with psychotropic medications, it can be very dangerous to suddenly stop.  If you believe that the medication is not working, or if you are experiencing uncomfortable side effects, consult your doctor before you make any changes to how/when you take your medication.

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