Are Antipsychotic Drugs Really Worthwhile?

If you ever want to scare yourself, look up on the internet how mental health issues were treated in the past. Often the treatments were bizarre, verging on cruel.

Frequently the only “therapy” was confinement. All over New Zealand, and most other countries, you can still see the remnants of huge rambling mental hospitals that used to be full but are now abandoned or used for other purposes. The main reason they are now empty is that modern drugs mean that far more people are able to have their symptoms treated while still living at home and in the community.

As you know, it is still a drag having mental health problems. The good news is that most psychological and psychotic issues can now be helped with good therapies; the bad news is that the drugs are not perfect, and the process of diagnosis and prescribing the right medication is still far from perfect as well. We are all different and a drug that really helps one person might not do anything for another except give them side effects. It can be upsetting and make us wonder if we might not be better off without any treatment at all. However, we have to at least admit that things are so much better than they used to be. When medication gets tweaked and fine-tuned to suit us, our life is usually so much better than when we are trying to cope with untreated symptoms. Hang in there – that ‘tweaking and tuning’ can take a while. Here are a few tips and insights to help you get there.

  1. Become an expert on yourself. Diary your experiences, noting anything about your mood or behaviour that might be a bit different. Look up some of the possible side-effects that can occur with your medication and make a note if any of them occur. Discuss your findings with your doctor – your diary can be very useful.
  2. You might become the expert on yourself, but your doctor is still the expert on the drugs. Resist the temptation to alter your dose or try some non-prescribed drugs without talking to a medical professional.
  3. Don’t be afraid of annoying your doctor by asking lots of questions and requesting changes if things are not working well. Your doctor understands the ‘tweaking and tuning’ process, and will not be insulted if you say a medication doesn’t work as well as hoped. (Sometimes, though, drugs do take a while to work well: your doctor might be quite right to ask you to be patient and persevere a bit longer).
  4. Treatment with drugs is only part of getting your mental health back. Counselling, life-style changes and social support can all have brilliant benefits.
  5. Many of the more common side effects – such as constipation, weight gain and insomnia – can be treated to make the anti-psychotic drugs more tolerable. Many side-effects also decrease as your body gets used to the drug.
  6. Keep an eye on your overall health – antipsychotic drugs are ‘relatively’ safe but, for some people, they can affect their cholesterol and heart and cause other problems. If in any doubt, at least call your doctor’s nurse.