Antidepressants are medications that are used to treat major depressive disorder as well as various anxiety disorders like OCD and panic disorder. They mostly work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenalin in certain parts of the brain. The most commonly prescribed antidepressants are the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which include Fluoxetine, Citalopram, and Sertraline, which are favoured because of their relatively low side effect profile. Other commonly prescribed antidepressants include Mirtazapine, Trazodone and Venlafaxine. Antidepressants can cause a range of side effects including increased thoughts of suicide, nausea and restlessness, and usually take several weeks to start working. While not technically ‘addictive’, stopping these drugs suddenly can cause withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be severe.
Anxiolytics are medications that are used to treat anxiety. while Benzodiazepines such as Diazepam are very quick and effective at treating anxiety, they are often not prescribed for long periods of time because of the potential for abuse, tolerance, and the risk of serious withdrawal symptoms if stopped suddenly. Anxiolytics that may be prescribed longer-term include Pregabalin, Beta Blockers (such as Propranolol), and Buspirone. Side effects of Anxiolytics include sedation, memory problems, and trouble with coordination.
Hypnotics, or sleeping pills, are drugs used primarily to help with insomnia. These drugs include the ‘z-drugs’ like Zopiclone and other drugs similar to Benzodiazepines. Sometimes sedating antidepressants like Trazodone are used. Other hypnotics include Melatonin, which is a natural hormone that helps regulate sleep, and antihistamines such as ‘Nytol’, which can be bought over the counter without a prescription. Side effects include daytime fatigue, cognitive impairment, and tolerance to the sleep-giving effects.
Stimulants are prescribed mainly to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and some sleep disorders like narcolepsy. They work by increasing the levels of dopamine and noradrenalin in certain areas of the brain. Side effects include insomnia, appetite loss, and increased heart rate. Many stimulants can induce feelings of euphoria or wellbeing and so have a high ‘abuse’ potential.
Antipsychotics were traditionally prescribed to treat psychosis, but have been increasingly used to treat conditions like bipolar disorder. They work by blocking the effect of dopamine, a chemical that transmits messages in the brain. Antipsychotics can be ‘typical’ (1st generation), and include drugs like Haloperidol and Chlorpromazine, or ‘atypical’ (2nd generation), which include drugs like Quetiapine and Olanzapine. While both generations of drugs have a similar efficacy, the side effects can be markedly different – sedation and weight gain are typically more common with atypical antipsychotics, while movement disorders like akathisia are usually more common with the older drugs. As with all psychiatric drugs, these drugs should be discontinued slowly to prevent discontinuation effects and ‘rebound’ psychosis.
Mood stabilisers are typically used to treat bipolar disorder, but many are also effective at treating epilepsy. Some mood stabilisers, such as Lamotrigine, are only used to treat bipolar depression, whereas drugs like Lithium and Sodium Valproate can treat both mania and depression. These drugs can have some significant side effects – for example, many mood stabilisers, if taken by a woman during pregnancy, can increase the chances of causing birth defects. Drugs such as Lithium may have a narrow therapeutic window, where there is only a slight difference between an effective dose and a toxic dose. Many professionals today are using antipsychotic drugs as a first-line in treating bipolar mania, which are typically faster acting.
If you are currently taking medication and you’re thinking of coming off it, you might find it helpful to have a look at the ‘Coming off Medication’ page on the website.
Know Your Medication: Online Resource
Our free online course looks at a brief history of medications used in mental health, a basic overview of the way neurotransmitters and synapses are involved in their efficacy, the various factors that influence whether or not medications are useful for a person’s recovery, some potential adverse effects and contraindications, the alternatives to medications and why and how people may reduce or stop taking them.
To explore this resource, and more, head over to our e-learning site where you will need to create a free account.