Medications are just one of many treatment options for mental illness. There’s also therapy, lifestyle changes, and alternative treatments like herbal supplements. Each of these has their own pros and cons—there’s no one treatment option that’s right for everyone. Many people need to use multiple options together.
Some people have had bad experiences with medication, or have heard things about medication that make them nervous. But there are also some really good reasons to be open to trying meds. Let’s explore some of the pros and cons of taking mental health meds, by comparing them to other treatment options.
Medication vs. doing nothing
Your first option is to do nothing. You won’t experience side-effects… but your mental illness probably won’t get better just by waiting.
Medication vs. therapy
Medications can only help you as long as you are taking them. Therapy actually teaches you to think and act differently, so its effects can last for a long time, even after you’ve stopped going. (Some people continue to see a therapist throughout their lives, and that can be really beneficial too!)
Getting the full benefit of therapy can take a while. You might feel better after your first session, but it can take a long time to really dig deep into what’s going on. In the meantime, medications can help you find more immediate relief. Most of them don’t work instantly… but if you find one that works for you, you’ll probably feel the benefits within a few weeks.
A lot of people get the most benefit from combining medications and therapy. They work in different ways and target different causes of mental illness.
Medication vs. lifestyle changes
There are lots of things you can do on your own to improve your mental health. Eating healthier, exercising, journaling, and developing coping skills are all helpful. There are now apps that can help you manage your mental health as well.
Lifestyle changes are an important part of everyone’s mental health. For some people, that’s all they need. Those people are very fortunate—they may have strong support systems, less severe symptoms, or brains that are wired differently. Everyone experiences mental illness differently, and each person has different treatment needs. Comparing your recovery to someone else’s is an easy way to feel inadequate. Instead, focus on what works for you.
Medication vs. herbal supplements
Medications are made in a lab. They have weird names that are hard to pronounce. They were all discovered or invented pretty recently. You might figure it’s safer to take something that comes from a plant and has been used for thousands of years.
Maybe—or maybe not. Making something in a lab might seem “unnatural,” but medications also have to go through a really long and thorough review process to make sure they’re safe for most people. Drug companies are required to provide clear information about any side-effects you might experience.
Herbal supplements don’t go through this same process. Companies that sell supplements do have to give you accurate information about what’s in the bottle, but they don’t have to prove that the product is safe or effective. Some herbal supplements have been tested for mental health issues, but not as rigorously as medications are. Many haven’t been tested at all.
Not everything that’s “natural” is safe or good for you. Some plants can make you feel better, but others can make you sick. Herbal supplements aren’t bad—they just have their own pros and cons, just like medications do. If you’re going to take herbal supplements, you should treat them just like you would medications: do your research, watch out for side-effects, and talk to your doctor to make sure what you’re taking is safe.
If I take meds now, will I be on them forever?
Some people do need to take medications for their whole lives. Other people use medication early on to kick-start their recovery, then stop taking them as they start to see results from therapy and lifestyle changes.
You can develop a tolerance to a medication, meaning that you need to take more of it to get the same effect. And you can experience withdrawals if you stop taking it. That sounds scary, but it’s not the same as being addicted to something. If you get to a point where the side-effects outweigh the benefits, your doctor can help you gradually stop taking medications and find the best alternatives.