Although there are fewer of them because fewer studies have been conducted, meta-analyses also support the effectiveness of drug therapies for psychological disorder. For instance, the use of psychostimulants to reduce the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is well known to be successful, and many studies find that the positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia are substantially reduced by the use of antipsychotic medications (Lieberman et al., 2005). 1
People who take antidepressants for mood disorders or antianxiety medications for anxiety disorders almost always report feeling better, although drugs are less helpful for phobic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some of these improvements are almost certainly the result of placebo effects (Cardeña & Kirsch, 2000), 2 but the medications do work, at least in the short term. An analysis of U.S. Food and Drug Administration databases found effect sizes of 0.26 for Prozac, 0.26 for Zoloft, 0.24 for Celexa, 0.31 for Lexapro, and 0.30 for Cymbalta. The overall average effect size for antidepressant medications approved by the FDA between 1987 and 2004 was 0.31 (Deshauer et al., 2008; Turner, Matthews, Linardatos, Tell, & Rosenthal, 2008). 3
One problem with drug therapies is that although they provide temporary relief, they don’t treat the underlying cause of the disorder. Once the patient stops taking the drug, the symptoms often return in full force. In addition many drugs have negative side effects, and some also have the potential for addiction and abuse. Different people have different reactions, and all drugs carry warning labels. As a result, although these drugs are frequently prescribed, doctors attempt to prescribe the lowest doses possible for the shortest possible periods of time.
Older patients face special difficulties when they take medications for mental illness. Older people are more sensitive to drugs, and drug interactions are more likely because older patients tend to take a variety of different drugs every day. They are more likely to forget to take their pills, to take too many or too few, or to mix them up due to poor eyesight or faulty memory.
Like all types of drugs, medications used in the treatment of mental illnesses can carry risks to an unborn infant. Tranquilizers should not be taken by women who are pregnant or expecting to become pregnant, because they may cause birth defects or other infant problems, especially if taken during the first trimester. Some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may also increase risks to the fetus (Louik, Lin, Werler, Hernandez, & Mitchell, 2007; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2004), 4 as do antipsychotics (Diav-Citrin et al., 2005). 5
Decisions on medication should be carefully weighed and based on each person’s needs and circumstances. Medications should be selected based on available scientific research, and they should be prescribed at the lowest possible dose. All people must be monitored closely while they are on medications.