If you’ve ever watched any bit of TV and come across a commercial for a new medication, you know how terrifying, and confusing, the information can be. On one hand this new miracle drug is designed to solve all your problems, but on the other hand it can leave you with debilitating side effects that make your life terrible in other ways. How do we know the truth? And when it comes to psych drugs and safety, how do we know if they’re really safe?
Consult with a Licensed Physician About Any Medication
First things first, it is critical that you consult with a licensed physician any time you consider taking a medication. A doctor will be able to give you the most up to date information about the medication and any potential side effects. In addition, your doctor will be able to incorporate your own health history in any discussion. This will help you determine which psych drugs are safe for you.
There are many medications that have both prescribed and off-label usage. That is, some medications work for multiple conditions but that may not be widely known. For example, a commonly prescribed antidepressant named Bupropion can also be prescribed for sexual dysfunction in non-depressed patients. Psychiatric medications sometimes have a variety of uses and a licensed physician will work closely with you to find your best treatment options.
Become a Critical Thinking Consumer
The commercials about psych drugs definitely don’t do any favors in settling our fears about them. In one second you learn about the life-changing benefits, and then in the next minute you learn how the drug may lead to some incredibly tough consequences such as other illnesses or death! It’s scary to say the least.
Part of understanding whether psych drugs are actually safe or not is to understand how to be a critical consumer. For example, because of regulations, those commercials have to share ALL potential side effects of their medications. What you don’t hear in those messages is how often each specific side effect occurs and under what circumstances.
A drug may list both increased drowsiness and suicidal thoughts as potential side effects. But, what if drowsiness was experienced by 10% of people in their trials and 20 people (out of thousands) experienced an increase in suicidal thoughts? And what if those 20 people also had some other commonality that doesn’t apply to you? There’s no way to know that unless you look at actual research itself and I imagine that most folks aren’t up to do that. That’s why consulting with a doctor is always going to be a good idea.
A Note About Personal Research
If you are in the deep throes of a serious mental health condition, with appropriate support and monitoring you may decide that medication is still the best option for you. It may still be worth trying. You may also decide that it’s not. Ultimately, that’s a personal decision that you must make with yourself, your family and your doctor about your contributing factors and potential risk for each side effect. Medication is an incredibly complicated science, but there is always the challenge of managing risk versus reward.
As a consumer, you should also know that the Food and Drug Administration also has a system and procedures for reporting side effects, and as they call them “adverse events”. This is a highly regulated area of policy. You can learn more about that system and the procedures here.
That being said, due to our access to technology many of us are researchers now too! But, be careful about the sources that you get information from. While helpful, personal stories and anecdotes may not include all pertinent or relevant information that you may need to know in order to make an informed decision.
I highly recommend that if you are at least considering medication and you don’t have a current therapist or doctor, it is worth it to at least book an hour of their time and discuss your concerns and options. No one can force you to do anything you don’t want to do, and at the very least you will have more accurate information based on training and experience rather than second-hand stories only.
Psych Drugs & Side Effects
Anything that you put in your body changes your body. This means any food you eat, but also what medications you put in your body. For most people, when they ask, “are psych drugs safe?” they are most concerned about potential, negative side effects.
In all likelihood, most of us know someone (or know someone who knows someone) that has taken some sort of psychotropic medication. And with that likely comes some horror stories. You may have heard about someone having a terrible reaction to a medication or witnessed a challenging period of withdrawal. These things do happen but I caution you in generalizing those experiences to reflect psych drugs overall.
There are a lot of variables when it comes to the effectiveness and safety of psych drugs. First there is dosage. It’s important that anyone who prescribes them is under the treatment of a licensed physician (MD) and receives the appropriate dosage. Then there is also the concern of follow-up care and treatment adherence. It is imperative that if you are taking psych drugs that you take them as prescribed and that you attend any appointments with your doctor and therapist. They will help you effectively monitor your progress with the treatment. And, if you are experiencing any side effects, regular monitoring will help you catch important changes early on and potentially positively impact any side effects as they occur. For some psych drugs this monitoring can be the difference between getting better much sooner and spiraling into an exacerbation of symptoms.
If you are looking for more information on the potential side effects of some of the most commonly prescribe psych medications, the post Common Side Effects of Psychiatric Medications is a brief and helpful read.
It’s an individual decision
As you can see, it is hard to determine if psych drugs are “safe” or not. The answer to that question is highly complicated and individualized. If you are considering starting a psychiatric medication I highly recommend you talk through your concerns with your prescribing doctor and therapist. There’s no point in obtaining a prescription you know that you’ll never take, but if you can talk through your concerns perhaps there is more information that you need in order to make a fully informed decision for you.
Jor-El is Co-founder of Viva Wellness and a foodie and film buff. He most often writes about mental health, relationships, food and mindfulness. When he’s not busy working, he typically can be found lounging or walking around NYC with his pup Nomi.