Medicating For Mental Health
Given the uncertainty, stress and grief we’ve all experienced in various measures over the last couple of years, it will come as no surprise to hear that mental health issues are on the rise.
Two of the most common conditions in the UK are depression and anxiety. While people suffering from depression may experience feelings of extreme sadness, helplessness, fatigue, insomnia or low self-esteem, anxiety manifests itself through symptoms of panic, nausea, shortness of breath and excessing sweating. It’s possible to be diagnosed with both an anxiety disorder and clinical depression.
While self-care practices such as exercise, a good diet and counselling can be effective in treating depression and anxiety, it’s recommended that you speak to a medical professional if your symptoms don’t improve or worsen.
Whether or not you’re offered medication for your mental health will depend on your diagnosis, your symptoms and how severely they’re affecting your daily life. Side effects are common during the first few months of taking any mental health medication, but many will wear off over time. The key is finding a balance between treating your symptoms while managing any potential side effects.
To help you understand the different options, we’ve broken down the key treatments prescribed by doctors in the UK.
Antidepressants are by far the most well-known and popular medicine group for treating mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Between January to March 2021 alone, 20.2 million antidepressant drugs were prescribed in the UK, a 3% increase from the same quarter in the previous year.
Although not fully understood, it’s believed that they work by increasing levels of certain chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin, that help improve your mood and emotions. However, exactly how much you should take, and for how long, will vary from person to person.
There are several different types of antidepressants, each with various potential side effects – including problems sleeping, flu-like symptoms, irritability, dizziness and headaches – amongst others. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are believed to have the fewest, while older medicines such as tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and mono-amine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) sit on the opposite end of the scale.
Antipsychotic medications are generally used to treat psychotic disorders, but they can also be used to treat bipolar disorder or severe cases of anxiety and depression. So, how do they work?
High levels of dopamine – a chemical that carries messages from one part of your brain to another – has been known to cause symptoms often associated with psychosis and other mental illnesses. Antipsychotics work by blocking the effect of dopamine.
It’s impossible to predict which one will work best for you, so you may have to try a few before you find the right fit. There are two types; typical or ‘first-generation’ medications have been used since the 1950s, while atypical or ‘second-generation’ antipsychotics are newer, having been introduced in the 1990s.
Although both can cause changes to your body, first-generation antipsychotics are known to cause more side effects than newer antipsychotics. These could include shakiness, drowsiness, weight gain and dry mouth, to name just a few.
Mood stabilisers are a type of medication that can help with mood swings caused by mania, hypomania and depression. They help to control and ‘even out’ these mood swings.
There are three main types: lithium, anticonvulsants and antipsychotics. These are often used to treat depression as part of bipolar disorder. This is because, although antidepressant medications can be effective, using them on someone with bipolar disorder could turn a depressive episode into mania. This risk is lower if the person is also taking a mood stabiliser.
Usually prescribed for more severe cases of anxiety, benzodiazepines – or ‘benzos’ as they’re often called – are a type of sedative. They’re typically prescribed on a short-term basis because they can become addictive if taken for longer than a month.
Benzodiazepines can be particularly helpful for people with panic disorders, but are also used to treat insomnia and alcohol withdrawal. There are two types: hypnotics and anxiolytics. If you suffer from sleep problems, you’re more likely to be prescribed hypnotics, whereas anxiolytics are used to treat those with anxiety. Common side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, confusion and numbed emotions, amongst others.
The key thing to remember is that there is no shame in asking for help. Putting up with prolonged negative feelings and thinking you just need to pull yourself together, is just ignoring the problem.