Treatments for Mental Illness


Medication can help people with mental illnesses in several ways. It can relieve the distress and anguish caused by illness by controlling symptoms, such as depression, mania, panic attacks, obsessions, and hallucinations. It can also prevent relapse in both schizophrenia and mood disorders. Certain medications can also reduce the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Medication is so important that it is often considered essential in the treatment of mental illness, particularly if the illness is severe and persistent. However, medication does not “cure” the illness and, of course, can have side effects. In each case, therefore, the risks must be weighed against the benefits of taking a medication or not.

It is important to know the names of prescribed medications (both the manufacturer’s trade name and the chemical generic name), as well as the dosage, therapeutic benefits, and possible side effects. Keeping a written record of all this can be very useful at a later date. Any other doctor or dentist should be aware of all medications taken to ensure that any medical operation or treatment is undertaken without risk of interaction with the psychiatric medication.

Medications vary as to the amount of time needed before taking effect (from a few minutes or hours in the case of anxiolytics to several weeks in the case of antidepressants). Side effects, however, can appear very rapidly, leading many people to stop their medication before they take full effect. Many side effects, though, are only temporary and may disappear after a few weeks. Ongoing treatment with medications should be supervised carefully.


Antipsychotics (also known as neuroleptics) are prescribed to counteract psychotic thinking that can occur with schizophrenia, mania and extreme depression. They help stop hallucinations, delusions and agitation, and significantly reduce the rate of relapse. The most common antipsychotics are Zyprexa, Risperdal, Haldol, and Seroquel.

Some antipsychotics are injectable in intervals ranging from one week to several months. Often, the total dosage of the medication may be reduced by giving an injection, because it is better absorbed in this form. Injections are preferable for persons who are either non-compliant or forget to take their pills.

Use of antipsychotic drugs can produce side effects. It is important to discuss with the physician or pharmacist the side effects of each medication, since the profile can vary considerably with the dose and medication taken. Following are typical side effects of antipsychotics:

– Dizziness, dry mouth, blurred vision, urinary retention, and constipation. These symptoms are due to the antichlorine effect and may decrease or disappear with time. Notify your physician if the constipation is persistent.

– Stiffness, shakiness, restlessness, muscle spasms (especially neck, eyes or tongue) and akathysia (fidget/need to walk).

– Lack of concentration or memory loss, reduced libido, increased saliva, sensitivity to the sun. In certain cases, these effects may improve with time. They are not permanent because they disappear once the medication stops.

– Flu-like symptoms with fever, sore throat, rash, stomach pain, diarrhoea, vomiting or asthma. These symptoms represent an allergic reaction, which is rare and usually occurs during the first month of treatment. Notify a physician of all these symptoms.

– Involuntary movements, especially of the mouth and fingers. When antipsychotics are used for extended periods of time, these symptoms of tardive dyskinesia may develop. Certain precautions may be taken to prevent tardive dyskinesia, such as keeping the dosage of the medication to the minimum and, perhaps, the use of vitamins E and C. Although tardive dyskinesia may improve, it is sometimes irreversible.

These symptoms are due to the neuroleptic effects on the extrapyramidal system, a part of the brain that controls muscle movements. They are worse in young males and often require a medication to counter the side effects. Medications for these reactions include Kemadrin and Cogentin.


These drugs are used to treat depression by reducing the symptoms of sadness, agitation, irritability, and inability to enjoy life. Some are also useful for panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and chronic pain. Antidepressants are different from most medications since they are slow to act: with the adequate dosage, it takes two to six weeks to see if the patient reacts favourably to the medication. Overall, antidepressants can help 70 to 80 % of people with major depression. As with antipsychotics, antidepressants treat the symptoms but do not cure the illness, so they must be taken for the natural duration of the depressive episode. Like many other drugs, can be toxic when taken in overdose, so the prescribed dosage should be carefully followed.

There are many antidepressants on the market, which may lead to confusion. The choice of medication may be based on its side effects, the presence of agitation or anxiety, lack of energy or the experience that the person already has with a previous antidepressant. Antidepressants are grouped according to their mode of action and structure.

The side effects of antidepressants vary considerably according to the category and it is always good to check with the physician or the pharmacist to know the effects of the prescribed medication. The most common side effects are dry mouth, blurred vision, urinary retention, and constipation. These symptoms are due to the antichlorine effect and may decrease or disappear with time. In some cases they may cause stomach upset, weight gain, nightmares, inability to sleep, sexual difficulties, or increased seizure activity in people who already suffer from epilepsy.

Notify your physician if the symptoms persist over a long period of time.

For severe and persistent depressions that do not respond to traditional antidepressants, the physician can suggest a potentialization strategy: adding another medication such as Lithium to increase the efficacy of the antidepressant.


These drugs are used to relieve the symptoms of severe anxiety, panic attacks, short-lasting sleep disorders, and to increase the effects of antipsychotics among highly agitated patients. They also help relax muscle spasms, reduce the agitation caused by antipsychotics (akathysia) and cause sedation. They should normally be used for short periods of time because they are addictive and may produce severe reactions when used with alcohol. Commonly used anxiolytic medications are Ativan, Rivotril, Buspar, and Serax.

Side effects can include dizziness, drowsiness, loss of muscle coordination, blurred vision, agitation, decreased memory, increased appetite, and diarrhoea. Nevertheless, there is a place for anxiolytics when a person is receiving regular mental health care.

Mood Stabilizers

Drugs in this category are used to treat hypomania (state of perpetual excitement with an overabundance of energy, lack of sleep, irritability, etc.), mania, and psychosis in bipolar disorder (alternation of mania and depression). The most common medications in this group are Lithium, Epival and Topamax.

Lithium is the most common mood stabilizer. Lithium is not a tranquillizer but works in a more fundamental way to settle the person’s mood so that he can sleep, eat, think, feel and relate more normally. In acute mania, Lithium is often combined with other medications including the more powerful antipsychotics. People with bipolar disorder take Lithium continuously even when they feel better in order to prevent episodes of mania or depression from returning.

Lithium has side effects which may include tremor, nausea, diarrhea, frequent urination, weight gain, marked thirst, and water retention. If the lithium level gets too high in the blood, side effects will include lethargy, changes in mental function, vomiting, and diarrhoea. For this reason the dose of Lithium is carefully controlled by regular blood tests during visits to the doctor. Long term side effects of Lithium can include decreased functioning of the thyroid gland, kidney damage, and heart problems, so these too are checked regularly.

For more information on psychiatric medications:

Schizophrenia and its treatment
Bipolar Medication Profile
Mood Stabilizing Medication
Anxiety Medication Listed and Explained

Psychosocial Treatments

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy  (CBT)

This type of therapy focuses on how a person thinks and consequently acts. It revolves around understanding how we think and how those thoughts affect our actions. This type of therapy can be done in groups or individually with a therapist. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), CBT is structured, problem-focused, goal-oriented, and puts great importance on teaching and learning new strategies and skills.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

This is a type of psychotherapy that is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The difference is that while CBT works on changing unwelcome and intrusive thoughts by replacing them with more productive ones, DBT focuses on accepting the emotions and feelings an individual is experiencing, making changes in their life, and fostering social relationships. Originally, it was a therapy targeted towards Borderline Personality Disorder, but is now used for other mental illnesses.

Exposure Therapy

Usually used to treat anxiety disorders, this type of therapy involves having the individual expose him or herself to what it is that brings them anxiety in a safe environment (in small steps; not all at once). By exposing themselves to what they fear, they can eventually overcome their fear. The exposure can happens in different ways: gradual, which starts with what is less feared to the most feared; flooding, which means immediate exposure to the individual’s greatest fear; and systemic desensitization, which combines relaxation techniques and exposure in order to facilitate the process.


This approach focuses on educating an individual and providing a treatment plan that will best help them. In Quebec, there are professionals called psychoéducateurs who often see people in their office or even come to the individual’s house to work on the difficulties they are facing such as anxiety, for example. If you would like more information on how to get a psychoéducateur, contact your local CLSC or call 8-1-1.


This type of therapy, also called talk therapy, focuses on the expression of emotions. The individual sits down with a therapist and talks about how they are feeling and what is worrying them, as well as any other topics the client wishes to bring up. The therapist or psychologist then helps the client work through their problems. There are different approaches to psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioural and humanistic, but generally psychologists select from all approaches in order to help the client.

Support Groups

There are many that say support groups have helped them in their recovery. Sometimes talking to someone who is going through the same, or similar, experience as you can bring a sense of calm. It can also encourage you to reach out to others and not go through something alone.

AMI-Quebec has support groups several times a month! Click HERE for more info.

Looking for therapy or counseling? Click HERE to visit the Counseling and Therapy section of our resource list.

Little changes in your day to day life can have a big impact

Your day to day habits have been proven to have an effect on mental illness. It may seem simplistic to say that what you eat and your activity level can have an impact, but making positive changes where possible can really add up.

Eat well. Implementing healthy food choices in your diet can promote physical and mental health. Healthy food choices not only help prevent health issues like heart problems, they also help balance certain chemicals in the brain. By balancing these, you can lessen some symptoms of mental illness and stress.
For more information on healthy eating, please click here

Exercise. You can never underestimate the power of regular exercise! Whether it is taking a weekly yoga class, or a daily visit to the gym, or even simply taking a walk around the block, physical activity helps reduce stress by improving blood flow and reducing muscle tension. Exercise has been proven to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Being careful with what you drink. Beverages that have a lot of caffeine can affect your mental health. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it can affect your nerves. If you do consume a caffeinated drink, make sure it is not close to your bedtime, and drink plenty of water during the day. Alcohol consumption should also be monitored carefully, both for its effects and because it can react with certain types of medications such as antidepressants. 

A good sleep cycle. Sometimes it might not be possible to follow a strict sleep cycle, but being in the habit of getting the recommended amount of sleep can be beneficial. Not only do you feel refreshed, you also reduce anxiety, stress, and other unpleasant emotions.

Do something for you. Whether it be taking up a hobby, volunteering, doing something with the ones you love, or even taking some time for yourself, having something to do that doesn’t revolve around stress or work can help balance the different activities in your life. Doing something for yourself can be relaxing and has no pressure to it; it’s all about what you want to do for you.

Acceptance. It is important that you accept who you are. Some days will be bad, and other days will be great. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and by accepting who you are you get one step closer to being comfortable with yourself and not bringing yourself down.

Talking to someone. As much as we wish we could tackle all the problems in our lives, and as much as we want to help others, we also need to think about ourselves. Sometimes it is the help of others that we need, and that is okay; we are all human. Asking for help is also perfectly fine; there are times when you will need a helping hand, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Keeping contact. Our lives can get very busy at times, but keeping in contact with family and friends is important. It allows you to stay in touch with those closest to you, and each party can be there to support each other.

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