Drug Therapy: Lesson, Definition & Quiz

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Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Drug therapy plays an important role in the treatment of mental disorders today. Learn about the different types and common uses of these drugs and test your knowledge with a quiz.

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What is Drug Therapy?

Scientists agree that the brain is the most complex organ in the body. Modern science is only just beginning to understand the nervous system and the chemistry that makes the brain work. Fortunately, the past century has seen great advancement in the creation and testing of new drugs to help treat mental disorders.

Drug therapy, also called psychopharmacology, is the treatment of a mental disorder with the use of prescription drugs. These drugs are prescribed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional, and are often used in conjunction with talk therapy to treat mental disorders. We are going to learn how and why the five major types of psychoactive drugs are used.

Drug Effects and Side Effects

Medical research has uncovered many drugs useful in the treatment of mental disorders. Scientists strive to increase the effectiveness of these drugs while eliminating the side effects. Ideally, they wish to create a perfect pill for each disorder. But what causes side effects in the first place?

Think about the brain like a computer. The brain is a network of nerves that pass signals throughout the entire person just as wires pass electrical information throughout the computer. These signals are called neurotransmitters, and they are like the message carriers of the brain. If there are not enough signals, the messages will not be received. When signals are not received properly in the brain, you can blame a neurotransmitter. There are dozens of types of neurotransmitters that all carry out multiple functions in the brain and interact to affect each other as well.

Psychoactive drugs used in drug therapy are believed to work on the neurotransmitters of the brain. While a computer is a complex machine, the human brain is far more complex. Since it controls the entire body, a small imbalance in one area of the brain can create symptoms in other parts of the brain or the body. For doctors and scientists, messing with the chemical balance of the brain is like trying to rearrange a spider web. When they pull one strand, all the connected strands move and shift with it. Scientists adjust a brain chemical one way, and three other brain chemicals move out of place. The web of chemical impulses that make up the body are all intertwined and stuck to each other.

All drugs have side effects. If you read the back of the box or bottle of any over-the-counter medication, you are bound to see lists of warnings for drug interactions, allergies and side effects. So far it has been impossible for scientists to create a perfect drug free from side effects. It becomes even more difficult when working with the chemistry of the master computer that is the brain.

Side effects of drug therapy can include mental or physical symptoms. Some of the more common side effects across all types of drug therapy are digestive problems, shakiness, dry mouth, weight changes, headaches, or dizziness. Some can even create anxiety or depression. All of these effects can vary in how bad the symptoms are and how long they last based on dose, age, weight and other factors.

Regardless of the difficulty, great strides have been made in the past 50 years to create some effective drug therapy treatments for most mental disorders. Scientists are constantly trying to find different natural and created chemical compounds for use in drug therapy. Some states have made the use of medical marijuana legal to treat depression when prescribed by a doctor. However, the vast majority of prescription drugs used to treat mental disorder are synthetic and created in a laboratory.

Most psychoactive drugs fit into one or more of five categories grouped by their effects.

Stimulants

Although we may not think of it as a psychoactive drug, the caffeine in coffee is the most common and widely used stimulant in the world. Stimulants increase action in the central nervous system, providing energy and alertness. The most widely known prescription stimulant is Ritalin. Ritalin is used to treat attention disorders in both children and adults.

Antidepressants

As the name implies, antidepressants were created to treat depression. Unlike stimulants, antidepressant medication does not energize the person taking it. Antidepressants treat the depression and the depressive symptoms so the person can be normally active again.

Entire books have been written about Prozac, the most widely known antidepressant. Prozac belongs to a group of antidepressants known as SSRI's. SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which simply means that it keeps the neurotransmitter serotonin available in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain whose job is to create feelings of comfort. Other drugs in the SSRI group are Zoloft and Paxil.

These antidepressants have also recently been found to be helpful in treating eating disorders, chronic pain and sometimes anxiety disorders such as phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Antianxiety Drugs

Antianxiety drugs, also known as depressants, work the opposite of stimulants by decreasing stimulation of the central nervous system. This creates a feeling of calm, reduces anxiety and can cause fatigue. The most common depressant drug is alcohol. We've all heard people say they are going to go home from work and crack open a beer to relax. Alcohol is not a drug that doctors prescribe for anxiety, but many people use and abuse it for that reason. Depressants are easy to get addicted to and can be very difficult to stop using.

Brand-name, prescription antianxiety medications include Valium, Xanax and Klonopin. These depressants all create a calming effect by working on the neurotransmitter GABA. Antianxiety drugs can be used to treat anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias.

Mood Stabilizers

Mood stabilizers are used to treat mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and mania. Most of these drugs were originally used to treat seizure disorders, but luckily scientists found that one of the side effects was a stabilized mood. Lithium is the most commonly used mood stabilizer and can be very effective for people who can live with some of the many side effects, including weight gain and skin problems.

Antipsychotics

Antipsychotics are used to treat symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations and delusions. Unlike some other drug therapies already named, antipsychotics do not treat the main problem, but they do reduce the symptoms. Antipsychotic medications are used to treat psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. These drugs also reduce upsetting thoughts and any wild fluctuations in mood that also can happen in psychotic disorders.

Is Drug Therapy Worth It?

Many people who are treated with drug therapy find it helpful to fight their illnesses and continue taking their prescribed drug despite the side effects. Some find that the side effects are worse for them than the disorder itself and either change drugs or find other ways of treating their symptoms. Science agrees that drug therapy and talk therapy together are the most effective form of treatment for most mental disorders. As science advances, better options for both natural and lab created drugs will be discovered.

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