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Science

Treatments for Mental Health Conditions: A Spotlight on Medication

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Amanda Tillemans
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This week on Mind Tap, Scott investigates treating mental health conditions with medication. Speaking to Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner student, Amanda Tillemans, this episode explores anti-depressants, what they are, when to use them and what alternative treatments exist. 

Last week on Mind Tap, I spoke to Krystoff Kissoon, the host of KISU’s ‘Navigating Diversity’, and Simon Studevant, the President of the Sexuality and Gender Club at Idaho State University. We discussed the importance of including elements of diversity, such as, race, culture, sexuality and gender, in the conversation surrounding mental health. If you want to listen back to this, or any other Mind Tap episode, visit KISU.org and navigate to the Mind Tap program link.

This week, I am tackling another important mental health topic. That is – treating mental health challenges and conditions, with medication. In 2019, 15.8% of adults in the USA used prescription medication for to help manage their mental health. I think that bears repeating, 15.8% of US adults are using prescription medication for to help manage their mental health – and that’s according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

And to link back to last week’s episode on Diversity, and illustrate that many of the mental health topics we discuss here on Mind Tap are connected - the CDC reported that race was a major factor in who is seeking mental health support, with white adults receiving far more medication treatments than Black or Hispanic Adults.

This week, to find out more about treating mental health with medication, I was lucky enough to speak to an expert – Amanda Tillemans, who is a psychiatric nurse practitioner student.

Amanda started by telling me that the mental health challenges that she most encounters are depression and anxiety, conditions that often manifest together for patients. Amanda also brought attention to the importance of the COVID-19 pandemic in this context, and how the impacts of the virus have led to increasing severity and frequency of depressive symptoms in her patients.

A key part of Amanda’s training is recognizing the signs that somebody might benefit from medication to help treat their mental health. Amanda was quick to point out that medication is not always the best way to treat mental health and that there are many other options available, including therapy and lifestyle modifications, such as exercise, eating a well balance diet, and getting enough sleep. She told Mind Tap that a good time to seek an appointment to discuss medication would be when you are experiencing prolonged symptoms of anxiety or depression, which are affecting your ability to continue and thrive in your everyday life.

But this really got me wondering, for a prescribing mental health nurse or doctor, what is the threshold at which they decide to prescribe a patient medication – and what type of medication would they prescribe.

Amanda told me that the threshold for prescribing medication is different for every patient and is discussed during consultation, where the healthcare professional will assess how the mental health challenges are impacting the patients’ health and wellbeing. Amanda also explained that there are two main types of drugs that are used to treat anxiety and depression. The first is SSRIs, which treat depression by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that carry signals between brain nerve cells (neurons). The second is SNRIs, which work to influence both serotonin and norepinephrine by preventing a person's brain cells from rapidly absorbing these neurotransmitters. By stabilizing levels of neurotransmitters, SNRIs can help improve a person's mood, reduce feelings of anxiety, and help alleviate symptoms, such as panic attacks. Both of these types of medications fall under the common term of anti-depressants.

However, many people worry about taking medication, so I asked Amanda about the side effects and how long somebody might expect to take the medications described.

Amanda told Mind Tap that anytime a medication is prescribed, the benefits must be weighed up against the risks. Anti-depressants are non-addictive but some people may need to take them to feel their best. Some of the side-effects are nausea, increased appetite and weight gain, a loss of sexual desire, and other sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction and decreased orgasm, fatigue and drowsiness, insomnia, dry mouth, blurred vision and constipation. Patients may expect to take the drugs for 6 months if its their first time, and longer if they have used the drugs in the past. 

Although this may seem intimidating, Amanda had some great advice for those using anti-depressants for the first time, explaining that the drugs may take a few weeks or even a month to start working, so patients are encouraged to persevere. And finally, Amanda outlined some alternative treatments for those who decide not to use anti-depressants, explaining that therapy and lifestyle modification can be extremely effective.

Thanks very much for Amanda this week. Join me, Scott Greeves, for Mind Tap next Friday morning at 7,35, where I will be exploring the impact of social media on our mental health.