A psychiatric medication is a licensed psychoactive drug taken to exert an effect on the chemical makeup of the brain and nervous system. Thus, these medications are used to treat mental illnesses. Usually prescribed in psychiatric settings, these medications are typically made of synthetic chemical compounds. Since the mid-20th century, such medications have been leading treatments for a broad range of mental disorders and have decreased the need for long-term hospitalization, therefore lowering the cost of mental health care.[1][2][3][4] The recidivism or rehospitalization of the mentally ill is at a high rate in many countries and the reasons for the relapses are under research.[5][6][7][8]


Modern psychiatric medication has advanced significantly over the past century. The reuptake hypothesis by Julius Axelrod involves the interaction among neurotransmitters, and forms the cornerstone of the development of modern psychotropic drugs.[9] His work allowed researchers to further advance their studies into the effects of psychiatric medication. Mental health medications were first introduced in the mid-20th century with the widespread introduction of chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic. The popularity of these drugs have increased significantly since then, with millions prescribed annually.[10]

As of 2013, the 10 most prescribed psychiatric drugs by number of prescriptions were alprazolam, sertraline, citalopram, fluoxetine, lorazepam, trazodone, escitalopram, duloxetine, bupropion XL, and venlafaxine XR.[11]


Psychiatric medications are prescription medications, requiring a prescription from a physician, such as a psychiatrist, or a psychiatric nurse practitioner, PMHNP, before they can be obtained. Some U.S. states and territories, following the creation of the prescriptive authority for psychologists movement, have granted prescriptive privileges to clinical psychologists who have undergone additional specialised education and training in medical psychology.[12] In addition to the familiar dosage in pill form, psychiatric medications are evolving into more novel methods of drug delivery. New technologies include transdermal, transmucosal, inhalation, and suppository supplements.[13]


Psychopharmacology studies a wide range of substances with various types of psychoactive properties. The professional and commercial fields of pharmacology and psychopharmacology do not typically focus on psychedelic or recreational drugs, and so the majority of studies are conducted on psychiatric medication. While studies are conducted on all psychoactive drugs by both fields, psychopharmacology focuses on psychoactive and chemical interactions within the brain. Physicians who research psychiatric medications are psychopharmacologists, specialists in the field of psychopharmacology.

Adverse and withdrawal effects

Psychiatric medications carry risk for adverse effects. The occurrence of adverse effects can potentially reduce drug compliance. Some adverse effects can be treated symptomatically by using adjunct medications such as anticholinergics (antimuscarinics). Some rebound or withdrawal adverse effects, such as the possibility of a sudden or severe emergence or re-emergence of psychosis in antipsychotic withdrawal, may appear when the drugs are discontinued, or discontinued too rapidly.[14]


There are six main groups of psychiatric medications.


Antidepressants are drugs used to treat clinical depression, and they are also often used for anxiety and other disorders. Most antidepressants will hinder the breakdown of serotonin or norepinephrine or both. A commonly used class of antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which act on serotonin transporters in the brain to increase levels of serotonin in the synaptic cleft.[16] SSRIs will often take 3–5 weeks to have a noticeable effect, as the regulation of receptors in the brain adapts. There are multiple classes of antidepressants which have different mechanisms of action. Another type of antidepressant is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, which is thought to block the action of Monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down serotonin and norepinephrine. MAOIs are not used as first-line treatment due to the risk of hypertensive crisis related to the consumption of foods containing the amino acid tyramine.[16][17]

Common antidepressants:


Antipsychotics are drugs used to treat various symptoms of psychosis, such as those caused by psychotic disorders or schizophrenia. Atypical antipsychotics are also used as mood stabilizers in the treatment of bipolar disorder, and they can augment the action of antidepressants in major depressive disorder.[16] Antipsychotics are sometimes referred to as neuroleptic drugs and some antipsychotics are branded "major tranquilizers".

There are two categories of antipsychotics: second-generation antipsychotics and atypical antipsychotics. Most antipsychotics are available only by prescription.

Common antipsychotics:

Typical antipsychotics Atypical antipsychotics

Anxiolytics and hypnotics

Benzodiazepines are effective as hypnotics, anxiolytics, anticonvulsants, myorelaxants and amnesics.[19] Having less proclivity for overdose and toxicity, they have widely supplanted barbiturates.

Developed in the 1950s onward, benzodiazepines were originally thought to be non-addictive at therapeutic doses, but are now known to cause withdrawal symptoms similar to barbiturates and alcohol.[20] Benzodiazepines are generally recommended for short-term use.[19]

Z-drugs are a group of drugs with effects generally similar to benzodiazepines, which are used in the treatment of insomnia.

Common benzodiazepines and z-drugs include:

Benzodiazepines Z-drug hypnotics

Mood stabilizers

In 1949, the Australian John Cade discovered that lithium salts could control mania, reducing the frequency and severity of manic episodes. This introduced the now popular drug lithium carbonate to the mainstream public, as well as being the first mood stabilizer to be approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Besides lithium, several anticonvulsants and atypical antipsychotics have mood stabilizing activity. The mechanism of action of mood stabilizers is not well understood.

Common mood stabilizers:[citation needed]


A stimulant is a drug that stimulates the central nervous system, increasing arousal, attention and endurance. Stimulants are used in psychiatry to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Because the medications can be addictive, patients with a history of drug abuse are typically monitored closely or treated with a non-stimulant.

Common stimulants:

See also


  1. ^ Rose, Nikolas. Historical changes in mental health practice. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/med/9780199565498.003.0012. ISBN 9780199565498. Retrieved 24 April 2016. 
  2. ^ Grob, Gerald N. Mental health policy in modern America. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/med/9780199565498.003.0014. ISBN 9780199565498. Retrieved 24 April 2016. 
  3. ^ Becker, Thomas; Koesters, Markus. Psychiatric outpatient clinics. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/med/9780199565498.003.0086. ISBN 9780199565498. Retrieved 24 April 2016. 
  4. ^ Shaywitz, Jonathan; Marder, Stephen. Medication treatment for anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder in the community setting. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/med/9780199565498.003.0109. ISBN 9780199565498. Retrieved 24 April 2016. 
  5. ^ "The frequency of rehospitalization and associated factors in Colombian psychiatric patients: a cohort study". BMC Psychiatry. 14. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-161. 
  6. ^ Oyffe I, Kurs R, Gelkopf M, Melamed Y, Bleich A. "Revolving-door patients in a public psychiatric hospital in Israel: cross sectional study". Croat Med J. 50: 575–82. PMC 2802091Freely accessible. PMID 20017226. 
  7. ^ Frick U, Frick H, Langguth B, Landgrebe M, Hübner-Liebermann B, Hajak G. "The revolving door phenomenon revisited: time to readmission in 17'145 [corrected] patients with 37'697 hospitalisations at a German psychiatric hospital". PLOS ONE. 8: e75612. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075612. PMC 3792950Freely accessible. PMID 24116059. 
  8. ^ "Are There Schizophrenics for Whom Drugs May be Unnecessary or Contraindicated?". Authors Rappaport M, Hopkins HK, Hall, Belleza and Silverman. International Pharmacopsychiatry (Neuropsychobiology) 13:100-111 (1978)
  9. ^ "The Julius Axelrod Papers". National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 6 May 2013. 
  10. ^ Martin, Emily; Rhodes, Lorna A. "Resources on the History of Psychiatry" (PDF). National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 6 May 2013. 
  11. ^ Top 25 Psychiatric Medication Prescriptions for 2013 Author John M. Grohol, Psy.D..Psych Central.
  12. ^ Murray, Bridget (October 2003). "A Brief History of RxP". APA Monitor. Retrieved 11 April 2007. 
  13. ^ DeVane, C. Lindsay. "New Methods for the Administration of Psychiatric Medicine". Medscape. Retrieved 6 May 2013. 
  14. ^ Moncrieff, Joanna (23 March 2006). "Does antipsychotic withdrawal provoke psychosis? Review of the literature on rapid onset psychosis (supersensitivity psychosis) and withdrawal-related relapse". Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. John Wiley & Sons A/S. 114 (1): 3–13. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2006.00787.x. ISSN 1600-0447. PMID 16774655. Retrieved 3 May 2009. 
  15. ^ Schatzberg, A.F. (2000). "New indications for antidepressants". Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 61 (11): 9–17. PMID 10926050. 
  16. ^ a b c Stahl, S. M. (2008). Stahl's Essential Psychopharmacology: Neuroscientific basis and practical applications. Cambridge University Press. 
  17. ^ "Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors". 
  18. ^ Stephen M. Stahl, M.D.; et al. (2004). "A Review of the Neuropharmacology of Bupropion, a Dual Norepinephrine and Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitor" (pdf). Journal of Clinical Psychiatry; 6(04) 159-166 2004 PHYSICIANS POSTGRADUATE PRESS, INC. Retrieved 2006-09-02. 
  19. ^ a b Ashton, Heather (July 1994). "Guidelines for the rational use of benzodiazepines. When and what to use". Drugs. 48 (1): 25–40. doi:10.2165/00003495-199448010-00004. PMID 7525193. 
  20. ^ MacKinnon GL, Parker WA (1982). "Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome: a literature review and evaluation". Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 9 (1): 19–33. doi:10.3109/00952998209002608. PMID 6133446. 

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