Both medication and therapy have important roles in the treatment of mental illness. Many of us already have subjective views about both, especially about which we prefer or their relative merits. However, when it comes to making decisions about treatment for mental health issues, it is helpful to have a better understanding of these treatments to ensure you make the best decision for your overall well-being.
The field of psychopharmacology has grown rapidly with the development of new and improved drugs to treat a wider range of mental illnesses. Whilst this has brought much needed relief to many individuals helping them to live normal and functional lives, medication is not the cure for everything and not without its own challenges. Psychopharmacology is a complicated field and this discussion merely provides a brief overview. Only medical doctors are licensed to prescribe medication; most often these are primary care physicians and psychiatrists. No drugs should be taken without a full evaluation and if medication is prescribed, the individual should continue to be monitored under the care of the prescribing physician.
There are some mental illnesses for which psychotropic drugs are essential, such as, but not limited to, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders. These disorders are associated with chemical imbalances and disruptions in cognitive pathways in the brain. The drugs are designed to restore these chemical imbalances to bring the individual back to normal functioning. However, the drugs are not a cure for the illness, they simply manage the symptoms, therefore, long term use of the drugs is most often a necessity to maintain healthy functioning.
For other disorders, such as mood or behavioral disorders, psychotropic drugs may help to control the severity of symptoms if the symptoms are significant enough to hinder the individual’s ability to maintain healthy functioning. Examples of such disorders include depression, anxiety, and problems with attention. Again, relief is usually limited to the time the individual is taking the medication and the medication does not treat the underlying causes for the illness. For example, anxiety symptoms are a response to feeling helpless by life events that have overwhelmed an individual’s existing coping skills.
Whilst the use of psychotropic medication has become more widespread and more positively accepted amongst the general population, this should not be reason for complacency when taking them. Typically, these drugs can have side effects, their effectiveness can be inconsistent from one person to another, and changes in an individual’s lifestyle can impact how their biological ingestion. Therefore, even after a diagnosis, it might take a few trials to find the right medication. Furthermore, the effects of the drug may change over time even if it has been working for some time. Like most drugs, the effectiveness of these drugs is very much dependent on compliance with prescription guidelines. These factors highlight the importance of remaining well informed about your medication and conscientious about communicating regularly with your prescribing physician to maintain responsible care and use. No changes should be made to the use of these drugs, even stopping their use, without proper consultation.
Psychotherapy (Counseling, Talk Therapy, Therapy)
Psychotherapy addresses a broad range of psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems through talk therapy. Therapy offers the opportunity to address complex personal issues to create change across multiple areas of life. Mood and behavioral disorders are often the symptoms of underlying personal and social issues, such trauma, developmental issues, relationship conflicts, inadequate life skills, and ineffective problem-solving skills. Therapy not only helps to reduce symptoms, it also addresses the root of the problem through increased self-awareness, cognitive restructuring, behavioral modification, and the development of healthier life skills. Therapy is collaborative and voluntary; it can be terminated at any time. Other than some discomfort from revisiting painful experiences there are no side effects from therapy. The therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the client is an important part of the treatment and its effectiveness, therefore, it is important that you select a therapist with whom you feel comfortable sharing sensitive information. The therapeutic relationship is based on unconditional positive regard, empathy, non-judgment, and a confidential place. Treatment goals are collaboratively defined and tailored to your needs.
Therapy also requires compliance and commitment to attend regular sessions if it is to be effective. These sessions are most often one-hour weekly meetings. Motivation is also an important factor for getting the most out of therapy, especially when working through the difficult experiences. The benefits from therapy are incremental, the longer you work at it, the deeper you go into the work, the greater the benefits and the more sustainable the change when therapy finishes.
Psychotherapy (Talk Therapy) and Medication Combined
In the right circumstances, medication and therapy can compliment one another to enhance the overall effectiveness of treatment. Equally, in some situations, opting for either medication or therapy alone can also compromise the benefits to be gained from the treatment. It is important then to follow the guidance of your medical doctor and/or your therapist to understand how therapy and medication play a role in your treatment and how you can best help yourself. It is also reasonable to state that therapy would be beneficial in the treatment of almost all mental health illness.
Even for the mental illnesses, such as bipolar or schizophrenia, for which medication is essential to correct chemical imbalances to restore psychological stability, it is still important to consider therapy. Because of the chaos and social disruptions associated with these types of disorders there will inevitably be a significant impact on the individual’s social functioning, such as relationships and work/home functioning, both during the time of illness prior to and after treatment. New life skills can promote a healthier approach to managing the illness over the lifetime and to repair broken or strained relationships. Medication only addresses the biological abnormalities; therapy addresses all the other issues important for a holistically sustainable healthy and productive lifestyle.
As stated above, mood and behavioral problems, such as depression and anxiety, are usually the symptoms of other underlying issues that overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope with normal life events. Sometimes the symptoms are so severe that not only is day-to-day functioning compromised, but the individual lacks the psychological or emotional capacity to participate sufficiently in therapy. In such situations, medication can be a valuable support to help the individual have emotional and psychological stability to get the most out of therapy. As work in therapy progresses and the individual’s overall functioning improves, medication can be phased out under the guidance of the prescribing physician.