Common Types of Mental Health Medications

By Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD on December 9th, 2021

Mental health concerns are extremely common, so learning about your options for mental health treatment can be invaluable. Medications are one of the most common tools in mental health treatment, but there are many different types that can be used to treat symptoms. This overview covers the various medications typically used to treat mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, ADHD and more.

At a Glance

  • Mental health medications include antidepressants, anxiety medications, ADHD medications, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers.
  • Some mental health medications can be used to treat multiple conditions.
  • It is important to discuss the risks and benefits of mental health medications with your doctor.

Antidepressants

Approximately 19.4 million American adults experienced depression in 2019. Unfortunately, only around 66% of those Americans received antidepressant prescriptions or any other form of mental health treatment.

Antidepressants are a drug class that can be used to treat a variety of mental and physical health conditions. These include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Insomnia
  • Seasonal affective disorder
  • Tobacco use

Many different types of antidepressants exist, including:

  • How it works: Blocks the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, keeping it around longer
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Sertraline (Zoloft), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Common side effects: Drowsiness, insomnia, weight gain
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider
  • How it works: Blocks the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Duloxetine (Cymbalta), Venlafaxine (Effexor)
  • Common side effects: Drowsiness, insomnia, weight gain
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider
  • How it works: Blocks the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Amitriptyline, Nortriptyline, Doxepin (Silenor)
  • Common side effects: Drowsiness, dry mouth, confusion, weight gain
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider
  • How it works: May increase dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Selegiline (Emsam, Zelapar), Isocarboxazid (Marplan)
  • Common side effects: High blood pressure, constipation, blurred vision, weight gain
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider
  • How it works: Varied mechanisms; bupropion may increase dopamine and norepinephrine
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Bupropion (Wellbutrin)
  • Common side effects: Fast heartbeat, sweating, weight loss
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider

Some over-the-counter antidepressant alternatives are available as well. For example, St. John’s Wort is a common option carried in many drugstores. However, it is important to tell your doctor or pharmacist if you plan to take St. John’s Wort, as it has many drug interactions. For example, it can reduce the effectiveness of hormonal birth control and reduce pain relief from narcotics like oxycodone.

Anxiety Medications

Anxiety disorders are very common, impacting more than 19% of American adults. More than half of people with these disorders have moderate or severe anxiety concerns. Five major types of anxiety disorders exist, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder

First-line treatment options for anxiety include many of the same SSRIs and SNRIs that are used for depression. In some cases, benzodiazepines may also be used. Medications for anxiety treatment can include:

  • How it works: Blocks the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, keeping it around longer
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Sertraline (Zoloft), Fluoxetine (Prozac), Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Common side effects: Drowsiness, insomnia, weight gain
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider
  • How it works: Blocks the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Duloxetine (Cymbalta), Venlafaxine (Effexor)
  • Common side effects: Drowsiness, insomnia, weight gain
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider
  • How it works: Enhances gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Diazepam (Valium), Lorazepam (Ativan), Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Common side effects: Drowsiness, relaxed mood
  • Controlled substance: Schedule IV
  • Who can prescribe the drug: A physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant

Few over-the-counter anxiety medications have been extensively studied, and those that have are known for their risky side effects. For example, the herb valerian is known for its anxiety-relieving and sleep-promoting properties. However, it can also be toxic to the liver.

ADHD Medication

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common condition that is often diagnosed in childhood. About 9.4% of children have been diagnosed with the disorder, and boys are more than twice as likely to develop it than girls. 

Symptoms can range from inattentiveness to hyperactivity and may also involve other issues with decision-making and executive function. Medications are recommended to help treat the condition, depending on the person’s age and symptoms. FDA-approved medications for ADHD include:

  • How it works: Increases norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall
  • Common side effects: Decreased appetite, nausea, dry mouth, weight loss
  • Controlled substance: Schedule II
  • Who can prescribe the drug: A physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant
  • How it works: Increases norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Vyvanse, Zenzedi, Evekeo
  • Common side effects: Decreased appetite, nausea, dry mouth, weight loss
  • Controlled substance: Schedule II
  • Who can prescribe the drug: A physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant
  • How it works: Increases norepinephrine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Atomoxetine (Strattera), Viloxazine (Qelbree)
  • Common side effects: Increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, sweating, dry mouth
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider
  • How it works: Improves working memory and behavior due to actions in the brain’s prefrontal cortex
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Clonidine (Kapvay), Guanfacine (Intuniv)
  • Common side effects: Drowsiness, headache, fatigue
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any provider

Over-the-counter alternatives to prescription ADHD medications are not generally available.

Antipsychotics

Schizophrenia is a mental health condition affecting between 0.25% and 0.64% of Americans. Globally, it is one of the top 15 causes of disability. People with schizophrenia often suffer from persistent delusions, which are false beliefs that they cannot be convinced out of. Fortunately, medication treatment can help.

Antipsychotics are a type of medication prescribed to treat conditions like:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Severe depression
  • Personality disorders

Antipsychotics are commonly divided into first- and second-class drugs, which differ in terms of their side effects. These include:

  • How it works: Blocks dopamine in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Chlorpromazine, Haloperidol, Loxapine
  • Common side effects: Involuntary muscle movements, restlessness, dry mouth, constipation
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any prescriber
  • How it works: Blocks dopamine and serotonin in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Aripiprazole (Abilify), Olanzapine (Zyprexa), Quetiapine (Seroquel), Risperidone (Risperdal)
  • Common side effects: Weight gain, metabolic problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, sleepiness
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any prescriber

Over-the-counter alternatives to prescription antipsychotics are not generally available.

Mood Stabilizers

Bipolar disorder impacts about 4.4% of Americans at some point during their lives. The condition is characterized by dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and activity levels. Bipolar disorder is further divided into bipolar I versus bipolar II. Bipolar I is considered the more severe form of bipolar disorder, as it causes more intense mood swings and more frequent depressive episodes than bipolar II.

Although “mood stabilizers” are a drug class of their own, the term is also commonly used to describe medications that can treat bipolar disorder. These include actual mood stabilizers as well as some anticonvulsants and second-generation antipsychotics, such as: 

  • How it works: Reduces the level of inositol in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Lithium (Lithobid), Valproic acid
  • Common side effects: Weight gain
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any prescriber
  • How it works: Reduces the level of inositol in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Carbamazepine (Tegretol), Lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  • Common side effects: Rash, nausea
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any prescriber
  • How it works: Blocks dopamine and serotonin in the brain
  • Examples of drugs in this class: Olanzapine (Zyprexa), Clozapine (Clozaril), Risperidone (Risperdal)
  • Common side effects: Weight gain, metabolic problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, sleepiness
  • Controlled substance: No
  • Who can prescribe the drug: Any prescriber

Over-the-counter alternatives to prescription mood stabilizers are not generally available.

Is Mental Health Medication Right for Me?

While some mental health conditions can be managed with approaches like therapy, others may require the assistance of medication. Your doctor can help you research the pros and cons of mental health medications and help you choose which medication, if any, is the best fit for you. It is important to take only mental health medications that are prescribed for you, as recommended doses can vary widely based on the person. 

Often, effective mental health treatment requires a combination of medication, therapy and maintenance resources. If you’re already receiving mental health care but looking for ways to supplement your treatment, the free-to-use Nobu app can be a valuable ally. 

Our services help you track your moods, learn new ways to cope with stress, exercise through yoga, watch expert-led mental health lessons and continue thriving in your day-to-day life. For an additional cost, we also provide teletherapy delivered by licensed mental health professionals, allowing you to receive life-changing care from the comfort of home. Start today for free and give yourself another effective way to invest in your health and recovery.

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum

Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more.

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Written by – Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD

Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. She is a double board-certified Geriatric Pharmacist (BCGP)… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.