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What are psychiatric medications?

Psychiatric medications are prescribed to treat mental disorders. Sometimes called psychotropic or neuroleptic medications, they can relieve or potentially eliminate serious and disabling symptoms in people with psychiatric disorders. Although they cannot cure the disorder, they can treat the symptoms, which helps people feel better so they can function.

The role of psychiatric medications

As part of an overall treatment program, these medications can make it possible for individuals to work, go to school, contribute to society and live a fulfilling life.

Scientific research indicates that symptoms of mental illnesses are associated with physiological changes that cause chemical imbalances in the brains of affected individuals. Psychiatric medications are prescribed by physicians to address those imbalances.

To get the most out of treatment, it makes sense to take an active role by working with your doctor and weighing your options. There are many factors to consider, so it is important to learn about medications. Ask your doctor about the expected benefits, any potential side effects and how the medication should be taken. Be sure to share any concerns you may have.

How they affect people

Medications work differently for different people. Some people get great results from medications and only need them for a short time. For example, a person with depression may feel much better after taking a medication for a few months, and may never need it again.

People with disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or people who have long-term or severe depression or anxiety may need to take medication for a much longer time.

Some people get side effects from medications and other people don't. Doses can be small or large, depending on the medication and the person. Factors that can affect how medications work include: 

  • Type of mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia
  • Age, gender, and body size
  • Physical illnesses
  • Habits like smoking and drinking
  • Liver and kidney function
  • Genetics
  • Other medications and herbal/vitamin supplements
  • Diet
  • Whether medications are taken as prescribed

Primary categories of mental health medications

Learning about your medication options can help you have a more meaningful conversation with your doctor. Medications for mental health conditions fall into the following types:


What they can do: Help reduce such feelings as sadness or depressed mood and anxiety as well as suicidal thoughts. They do not, however, make people “happy” or change their personalities. 

Potential side effects: Drowsiness or insomnia, constipation, weight gain, sexual problems, tremors and dry mouth.

Antipsychotic medications

What they can do: Help reduce or in some cases eliminate hearing voices or having very fearful thoughts. They can promote thinking clearly, staying focused on reality, and feeling organized and calm. They also can help you sleep better and communicate more effectively.

Potential side effects: Drowsiness, upset stomach, increased appetite and weight gain, blurred vision, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, low blood pressure, restlessness, weakness, shakes and twitches, and muscle stiffness. Rare side effects include seizures and problems controlling internal body temperature.

Mood stabilizers

What they can do: Help reduce or eliminate extremes of high and low moods and related symptoms. They shouldn't keep you from experiencing the normal ups and downs of life, though. These medications are also used to treat depression that persists for a long time, that goes away but comes back, or that isn't treated well enough with an antidepressant alone.

Potential side effects: Stomach problems, drowsiness, weight gain, dizziness, shaking, blurred vision, lack of coordination or confusion.

Stimulants and related medicines

What they can do: Have a calming effect and help improve concentration and attention span in both children and adults. They also can improve a person's ability to follow directions and reduce hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Potential side effects: Trouble falling asleep, decreased appetite and weight loss. Less common side effects can include headaches, stomachaches, irritability, rapid pulse or increased blood pressure. These often go away within a few weeks after ending use or if your health care provider lowers your dose. 

Tranquilizers and sleeping pills

What they can do: Reduce anxiety and insomnia and help you feel more relaxed.

Potential side effects: Although some are used mostly to help with sleep, they all might cause drowsiness. Usually, these medications are used only briefly because longer use can cause dependency. 

These medicines are generally safe when used as prescribed and have relatively few serious side effects. As with any medicine, though, some people may have difficulties. You should call your doctor right away if you experience headaches, slurred speech, confusion, dizziness, nausea or increased nervousness or excitability.

Items to discuss with your provider before medications for psychiatric conditions are prescribed:

  • Symptoms of your condition that bother you the most
  • If you have thoughts of suicide or harming yourself
  • Medications you have taken in the past for your condition, whether they were effective or caused any adverse effects
  • Side effects from your medications.  Some side effects may pass with time, but others may require changes in the medication.
  • Other psychiatric or medical problems you have, including a history of bipolar disorder
  • All other medications you are currently taking (including over-the-counter products, herbal and nutritional supplements) and any medication allergies you have
  • Other non-medication treatment you are receiving, such as talk therapy or substance abuse treatment. Your provider can explain how these different treatments work with the medication.
  • If you are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding
  • If you drink alcohol or use drugs

Before taking medication for a mental disorder:

  • Ask your doctor to tell you about the effects and side effects of the drug.
  • Tell your doctor about any alternative therapies or over-the-counter medications you are using.
  • Ask your doctor when and how the medication should be stopped. Some drugs can't be stopped abruptly but must be tapered off slowly under a doctor's supervision.
  • Work with your doctor to determine which medication is right for you and what dosage is best.
  • Be aware that some medications are effective only if taken regularly and symptoms may recur if the medication is stopped. 

Other questions to ask your doctor about your medications



National Institute of Mental Health
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Mental Health America

Helpful resources:

The information on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. We do not recommend or endorse any specific tests, mental health providers, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned on this site. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.

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