Coping with Mental Health: Medications

Treating mental health conditions with drugs is common. About 1 in 6 American adults takes a mental health medicine.1

Classes of drugs

Antidepressants

Antidepressants are drugs commonly used to treat depression. These drugs may be used for other conditions, such as:2

  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep

Antidepressants may be used to treat other conditions. The most common type of antidepressants is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Examples of SSRIs include:2

  • Prozac® (fluoxetine)
  • Celexa® (citalopram)
  • Zoloft® (sertraline)
  • Paxil® (paroxetine)
  • Lexapro® (escitalopram)

Another common type of antidepressants is serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Examples of SNRIs include:2

  • Effexor XR® (venlaxafine)
  • Cymbalta® and Irenka® (duloxetine)

The most common side effects of antidepressants include:2

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight gain
  • Diarrhea
  • Sleepiness
  • Sexual Problems

Serious, life-threatening side effects of antidepressants can occur. If you experience any of the following side effects, call your doctor or get emergency care:2

  • Thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself
  • Attempting suicide
  • New or worsening depression or anxiety
  • Feeling agitated or restless
  • Other unusual changes in your mood or behavior

Anti-Anxiety drugs

Anti-anxiety drugs help decrease the symptoms of anxiety, including panic attacks, extreme fear, and worry. The most common class of drugs that treats anxiety is benzodiazepines. Examples include:2

  • Klonopin® (clonazepam)
  • Xanax® (alprazolam)
  • Ativan® (lorazepam)

The FDA reports the most common side effects for benzodiazepines as:2

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Tiredness
  • Nightmares

Mood stabilizers

Mood stabilizers are used for the treatment of bipolar disorder and other mood disorders. Mood stabilizers have been shown to decrease suicidal thoughts and mood swings. Lithobid® (lithium) is a well-known medicine from the anti-manic agent class of drugs. Other mood stabilizers come from the anticonvulsant class. Common anticonvulsants include:2

  • Depakote® (divalproex sodium)
  • Tegretol® (carbamazepine)
  • Lamictal® (lamotrigine)
  • Trileptal® (oxcarbazepine)

Multiple drugs may be needed to manage bipolar disorder. The most common side effects of these drugs include:2

  • Itching, rash
  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Tremor (shakiness) of the hands
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Fast, slow, irregular, or pounding heartbeat
  • Blackouts
  • Changes in vision
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of coordination
  • Swelling of the eyes, face, lips, tongue, throat, hands, feet, ankles, or lower legs

Antipsychotics

Antipsychotics are used to manage psychotic episodes, or psychosis. Antipsychotics treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. In combination with other drugs, and often in lower doses, they can be used to manage:2

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Severe depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • The manic phase of bipolar disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder

First-generation antipsychotics were difficult to tolerate and had severe side effects. These include:2

  • Haldol® (haloperidol)
  • Trilafon® (perphenazine)
  • Prolixin®(fluphenazine)

Second-generation antipsychotics are better tolerated with less severe side effects. These newer antipsychotics are called “atypical” antipsychotics and include the common brand names:2

  • Risperdal® (risperidone)
  • Zyprexa® (olanzapine)
  • Seroquel® (quetiapine)
  • Geodon® (ziprasidone)
  • Abilify® (aripiprazole)
  • Invega® (paliperidone)
  • Latuda® (lurasidone)

Common side effects of antipsychotics are:2

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Restlessness
  • Weight gain
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Low blood pressure
  • Uncontrollable movements, tics, and tremors
  • Seizures
  • Low white blood cell count

Stimulants

Stimulants are used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These drugs can have a calming and focusing effect for those with ADHD. Common drugs of this class include:2

  • Concerta® and Ritalin® (methylphenidate)
  • Adderall® (amphetamine)
  • Dexedrine® (dextroamphetamine)
  • Vyvanse® (lisdexamfetamine)

Stimulants may also be used to treat narcolepsy and treatment-resistant depression.
Common side effects of stimulants include:2

  • Difficult falling or staying asleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache

The use of prescription drugs for the management of mental health conditions carries both benefits and risks that you should discuss with your doctor. Like all drugs, mental health medicines have side effects. Taking some classes of drugs (such as benzodiazepines) may lead to dependence or abuse. The side effects listed on this page are not all the possible side effects of mental health drugs. Talk to your doctor about what to expect or if you experience any changes that concern you during treatment.

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Written by: Katie Murphy | Last reviewed: March 2021