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5 Things to Consider Before Taking Psychiatric Medication

Make the decision based on what's best for you instead of fears and myths.

Key points

  • Research suggests that a combination of therapy and medication is most effective for many conditions.
  • When deciding what's best for you, consider your experience and get professional advice.
  • Don't let fears, stigma, or bad information keep you from accessing medication that could improve your life.
Christina Victoria Craft on Unsplash
Source: Christina Victoria Craft on Unsplash

There is no shortage of bad press out there covering medication for mental health conditions, such as ADHD and depression. At least once a year, prominent newspapers publish articles asking whether its worth taking psychiatric medications considering the risks. There is considerable debate among professionals about their efficacy, and most professionals debating this issue have very strong opinions, one way or the other.

As a psychologist, I don't prescribe medication for mental health conditions, but many of my patients receive diagnoses that might benefit from medication, at least for a period of time. I believe that patients should be well informed of the risks and benefits of medication and know what to consider to make an informed decision. Mental health conditions improve most with a comprehensive treatment plan, and sometimes that may include medication.

Here are five things to think about if a physician or mental healthcare provider has recommended that you consider medication.

1. Are your symptoms significantly disrupting your daily life?

Some people with mental health challenges — such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD — may benefit from medication, although they can make it through life without it. They may experience thoughts and feelings that prevent them from having the quality of life they desire, or they may struggle in their relationships to the extent that the relationship is in jeopardy.

Other people may struggle with their symptoms to the extent that they cannot get out of bed in the morning, go to school or work, or get through the day successfully. In these cases, medication is more of a necessity to participate fully in life.

It is important to take a serious look at your educational, occupational, social, behavioral, and interpersonal life to see whether your mental health condition is preventing you from reaching your goals, achieving your potential, or even just getting through the week without feeling like you're having a mental breakdown. Missing too many days of school or work, missing out on social activities, or feeling isolated can cause bigger problems, and medication may be useful in improving some of your symptoms enough to take better care of yourself and continue functioning.

2. What other interventions have you tried?

If you are already in therapy, or you've tried therapy but it hasn't been helpful, talking to someone may not be enough to address the gravity of your mental health condition. Sometimes, feeling overwhelmed with intense emotions, anxiety, or challenges in every day functioning prevents people from making the most out of their therapy sessions. For therapy to be effective, you have to put effort into it, and you have to have the energy to do the follow up strategies that you're given. In this case, medication may be effective in reducing the intensity of unwanted thoughts or intense emotions so that it's possible to go to therapy with more energy and optimism. Most of the research on conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD, supports the notion that therapy and medication work well together as a treatment approach.

3. Are your fears about side effects or other consequences of medication preventing you from trying it?

Most people tell me that they are concerned about side effects, such as fatigue, weight gain or loss, changes in appetite, or just not feeling like themselves. These are legitimate concerns, but rather than going to Google or social media, talking with a trusted professional can help answer your questions about potential risks.

While primary care physicians, physicians’ assistants, and nurse practitioners are qualified to prescribe these types of medication, if you have serious questions or concerns, it's best to discuss them with a board certified psychiatrist. I would even go a step further to say that if you are diagnosed with ADHD, see a specialist in that area, or if you have chronic depression, talk to a psychiatrist who has extensive experience in treatment resistant depression. Take the time to find the answers that you need to have a well-formed opinion based on clinical experience and scientific evidence.

4. Are you concerned about stigma?

Many people still believe that taking medication for a mental health condition means that they aren't trying hard enough to get well, or that they just need to have a more positive outlook on life. Taking medication does not mean that you are "taking the easy way out" of your mental health problems. I use this metaphor with my patients and they seem to appreciate it: if you were diagnosed with diabetes, no one would shame you for taking insulin so that your pancreas could function. Your brain is an organ, just like your pancreas. So if there's a medication that can help your brain improve its functioning so that you can live a better life, it makes sense to give it a try.

5. What is your family history of mental health conditions?

When considering whether a trial of medication is a good next step, it's important to assess your family history, if that's possible. Many mental health conditions run in families, and knowing about your family history can help you make an informed decision. This is especially true if people in your family have taken medications that have resulted in adverse side effects. Due to stigma, not everyone freely discusses whether they have tried medication for depression or other mental health challenges. But if you do have the chance to ask one of your parents or a sibling, it can be an extra piece of information that helps you decide. If you don't have access to your family history, then you can still ask the questions above to make an informed decision.

Deciding to take medication for any diagnosed condition, whether it's mental or physical, should be based on a thorough assessment of your history, family history, and other factors affecting your daily functioning and quality of life. If you’re considering taking medication for your mental health, do yourself a favor and take these factors into account so that whatever you decide, you know that you have gotten advice based on facts, not myths or fears.

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