If you've been suffering from a mental health problem for some time it's likely that your doctor (GP) will suggest some medication. Understand what's on offer with our overview of medical treatments.
What does 'medical treatment' mean?
Psychiatric drugs are the most common kind of medical treatment for mental health problems. There are a huge number of psychiatric drugs available, with different types used to treat different forms of mental health problems. They work by altering the chemistry of the brain, and affect people's mood and behaviour. Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is another form of treatment but this is normally only used as a last resort after all other options have been tried.
You have the right to decide whether or not to accept any treatment a doctor suggests. Your doctor (GP) should give you enough information to understand the nature of any treatment and its risks and effects, including its chances of success and any alternatives available. Once you've given your consent, you're entitled to change your mind at any point. Treatment can only be given without your consent if you're detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983. This is known as 'being sectioned'.
All drugs have the potential to cause unwanted side effects and psychiatric drugs are no exception. Some people who are prescribed these drugs stop taking them because of distressing side effects. People who are already experiencing the distressing symptoms of mental illness can find it hard to tolerate the adverse effects of medication, particularly since many potential side effects occur early on in treatment, before the drugs have started to work.
Always remember that medical treatments are not the only form of treatment for mental health problems. Talking treatments such as counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) are also widely used, either alone or together with medical treatments.
Antidepressant drugs are used primarily in the treatment of depression, but can also be used to treat other conditions, such as anxiety, panic attacks and phobias. Though antidepressant drugs can lift your mood and alleviate the distressing symptoms of depression, they do not address the underlying cause of why a person became depressed in the first place. Due to this, many people are referred for talking treatments as well as being prescribed drug treatment.
These drugs, also called minor tranquillisers, are used in the treatment of anxiety; but are sometimes also used to treat other conditions such as panic attacks, insomnia, and acute alcohol withdrawal. Drugs called benzodiazepines work by calming the activity of the brain. They can be very effective in alleviating the psychological symptoms of anxiety; however, long-term use should be avoided as there is a high risk of developing dependence. Other drugs known as beta-blockers can be effective in treating the physical symptoms of anxiety such as palpitations and tremor.
Antipsychotic drugs, also known as major tranquillisers or neuroleptics, are used primarily in the treatment of psychosis. Psychosis is a major symptom of illnesses such as schizophrenia and manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder). Antipsychotic drugs can be effective in controlling the symptoms of psychosis - they can lessen delusions, hallucinations, incoherent speech and thinking, and reduce anxiety, confusion and extreme agitation. The drugs can be useful in treating paranoia by making the person feel less threatened, and can help reduce manic, excitable or violent behaviour. Most antipsychotic drugs have a sedative effect, meaning they can be used to calm a person, without impairing their consciousness.
Mood stabilising drugs, also known as anti-manic drugs, are used primarily in the treatment of manic depression. These drugs aim to control acute attacks of mania and also prevent their recurrence. They can prevent the extreme swings of mood from high to low that are characteristic of manic depression.
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
ECT is mainly used in the treatment of longstanding severe depression, but it is also occasionally used to treat manic depression, schizophrenia and post-natal depression. ECT does not work for everyone, but when it does work well people tend to respond very quickly. In ECT, a series of brief, high-voltage electric pulses are passed through the brain triggering a form of seizure or fit. The procedure is carried out in hospital under a general anaesthetic. Most people are treated with a course of between four and eight sessions of ECT.
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