A Family Guide to Concurrent Disorders - Part III: Medication
Outline - Chapter 8: Medication
Drug therapy for mental health problems
Medications are essential to many clients’ treatment programs, but they are not the only treatment. In most cases, medications
are more effective if they are combined with some of the interventions that were discussed in Chapter 7.
Often, psychiatric medication will help stabilize people and clarify their thinking so they can focus on treatments such as
cognitive-behavioural therapy, group therapy or family-focused therapy.
Types of psychiatric medication
Most mental health medications are used to help restore chemical balance in the brain. This can help to reduce the frequency
and severity of symptoms. Medications are divided into four main groups based on the problems that they were developed to
Medications have a generic (or chemical) name and a brand (or trade) name that is specific to the company that makes the medication.
For example, the generic antipsychotic clozapine is sold under the brand name Clozaril. The brand name may change depending
on the country in which the medication is marketed.
Figure 8-1: Traditional uses for classes psychiatric medications
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Despite the four distinct classes of psychiatric medications listed above, each type of medication can be used to treat various
disorders. For example, a person who takes a mood stabilizer to treat bipolar disorder may also take an antidepressant, anti-anxiety
or antipsychotic medication to treat symptoms such as depression, sleep problems, anxiety or psychosis.
Figure 8-2: Alternative uses for classes of psychiatric medications
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Antidepressants work via a number of different mechanisms, but the end result is to increase the level of communication between
nerve cells in the brain. While they were originally used to treat depression, antidepressants are also used to treat chronic
pain, bulimia, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety disorders. In fact, antidepressants,
especially the class known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, are used more often to treat
anxiety disorders than are traditional anti-anxiety medications such as Valium.
Mood stabilizers are used to help control mood swings (extreme highs and lows) connected with bipolar disorder, and to prevent
further episodes of this condition. Lithium was the ﬁrst mood stabilizer on the market and is still a useful medication. Other
medications used to stabilize mood include anticonvulsants, which were developed to treat epilepsy and other seizure disorders.
Treatment of bipolar disorder depends on the individual’s symptoms. Bipolar disorder may also be treated with antidepressants
in combination with mood stabilizers.
Anti-anxiety medications / Sedatives
The main group of medications in this class consists of benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan).
While they are legitimate medications for treating anxiety and sleep disorders, they can become addictive if used for more
than about four weeks; they also have the potential to be abused (see “Medication abuse or dependence,”). An anti-anxiety medication that can be used for a longer period of time is buspirone (BuSpar).
Antipsychotics reduce the effect of dopamine in the brain. They are traditionally used to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. The newer, second-generation antipsychotics are now also being tested
as mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety medication and even as a treatment for refractory depression (depression that is difficult
For more information about psychiatric medications, see:
- Medications (published by the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S., and available online in PDF format by clicking here.
- Psychotherapeutic Medications 2008 (published by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center in the U.S. and available online
in PDF by clicking here.
A Family Guide to Concurrent Disorders
Part I: What are concurrent disorders?
1. Introduction to concurrent disorders
2. Substance use problems
3. Mental health problems
Part II: The impact on families
4. How concurrent disorders affect family life
Part III: Treatment
7. Navigating the treatment system
9. Relapse prevention
10. Crisis and emergency
Part IV: Recovery