Medication for mental health problems

Your doctor may offer you medication to treat your mental illness. Medication can significantly improve your symptoms, although you may experience side-effects.

*Last updated: 21 July 2021

Medication can be a way to get through a crisis or a long-term treatment. You might take it to treat or reduce the symptoms of your mental illness, or stop them from coming back.

What types of medication are there?

There are four main types of medication for mental health problems.

  • Anti-anxiety drugs – to help you feel calm, or get to sleep if you have severe insomnia.
  • Antidepressants – usually for moderate to severe depression.
  • Anti-psychotics – to reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, psychosis, and sometimes severe anxiety or bipolar disorder.
  • Mood stabilisers – to help you avoid extreme mood swings. You may be prescribed them for bipolar disorder.

What do the different medication names mean?

It’s easy to get confused when talking about mental health medication because the same drug may be known by several different names. These are:

  • the trade name. This is the brand name given to it by the manufacturer. If more than one company makes the same drug, each will have a different name.
  • the generic name. This describes the active chemicals in it.
  • the chemical group name. This describes the larger chemical family to which the drug belongs.

For example, diazepam (generic name) belongs to the benzodiazepine (chemical group name) family. It may be sold under the trade name Valium.

How will my doctor decide what medication is right for me?

Your doctor will consider a number of things when deciding which medication to prescribe. These include:

  • your symptoms
  • any side effects or risks. All drugs have side effects and some come with risks. For example, lithium can be toxic if you take too much. Your doctor should explain any side effects and risks to you
  • which medications you’ve tried before and how effective you found them
  • your reaction to the medication. Your doctor should monitor you to check how it’s working
  • how much they know about the medication. Your doctor may prefer a particular medication based on their experience of what works for other people, or based on what research tells them
  • how cost-effective the medication is. Doctors follow the guidance of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).

It’s not possible to predict which medication is right for you before you try it. Some drugs work better for some people than others and it may take time to find the right drug and dose for you.

What should I ask my doctor?

If your doctor has suggested you take medication, don’t be afraid to ask questions. We’ve listed some examples below, but ask about anything that’s important to you.

  • What is this medication for? It may be to treat your symptoms or to counteract the side effects of other drugs, for example.
  • How long will it be before it takes effect?
  • What are the side-effects? How likely am I to experience them?
  • How long will I need to take it for?
  • Do I need to take any precautions? Some drugs can affect your ability to drive, for instance, or shouldn’t be taken with other medication or alcohol.
  • Are there any other ways to treat my condition? How effective are they? For example, you could ask about talking therapy, support groups or exercise classes. You may want to try these instead of or as well as medication.

Tell your doctor about any other medication you take, including any over-the-counter or herbal remedies. They may interact with the medication you’ve been prescribed. Let them know about any other mental or physical health problems you have too, as well as any previous experience of taking mental health medication.

After you start taking medication, you should have regular reviews with your doctor or psychiatrist so you can talk about how you’re finding it. They should ask how you’re feeling, if you feel the medication is working and any side-effects you’re experiencing. You don’t have to wait for a review if you have questions about your medication though – get in touch with your doctor at any time.

How can I find out more about my medication?

You can find out more about your medication from:

Do I have to take medication?

In most cases, you can’t be forced to take medication. You have the right to refuse it and ask for an alternative treatment.

There are some circumstances where you can be given medication even if you haven’t agreed to it, however. These are:

  • if you’ve been detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act (‘sectioned’)
  • if you’re on a Community Treatment Order (CTO)
  • if you don’t have the mental capacity to consent to treatment, but it’s decided that it’s in your best interests.

What if I want to stop taking my medication?

If you don’t find your medication helpful, you may want to stop taking it. Or perhaps the side effects are worse than any benefits you’re getting from it, or you’ve found another way to cope with your symptoms such as talking therapy or exercise. Or you may have been feeling better for a long time and want to try coming off your medication.

Whatever your reasons, talk to your doctor first and make a plan. It’s important to slowly reduce your dose over time. Stopping suddenly can increase your risk of withdrawal symptoms and can even be dangerous for some medications. Slowly reducing your dose also gives you time to adjust to being without your medication and see how you feel without it.