Treatments and drugs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Your particular treatment depends on the type of mental illness you have, its severity and what works best for you. In many cases, a combination of treatments works best.

If you have a mild mental illness with well-controlled symptoms, treatment from one health care provider may be sufficient. However, often a team approach is appropriate to make sure all your psychiatric, medical and social needs are met. This is especially important for severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

Your treatment team

Your treatment team may include your:

  • Family or primary care doctor
  • Psychiatrist, a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats mental illnesses
  • Psychotherapist, such as a psychologist or a licensed counselor
  • Pharmacist
  • Social worker
  • Family members


Although psychiatric medications don't cure mental illness, they can often significantly improve symptoms. Psychiatric medications can also help make other treatments, such as psychotherapy, more effective. The best medications for you will depend on your particular situation and how your body responds to the medication.

Here's an overview of some of the most commonly used classes of prescription psychiatric medications:

  • Antidepressant medications. Antidepressants are used to treat various types of depression and sometimes other conditions. Antidepressants can help improve such symptoms as sadness, hopelessness, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating and lack of interest in activities. Different types of antidepressants are grouped by how they affect brain chemistry. The best one for you depends on your particular situation and how your body responds to medication.
  • Mood-stabilizing medications. Mood stabilizers are most commonly used to treat bipolar disorder, which is characterized by alternating episodes of mania and depression. Sometimes mood-stabilizing medications are added to antidepressants to treat depression.
  • Anti-anxiety medications. Anti-anxiety medications are used to treat anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. They may also help reduce agitation and insomnia. These medications are typically fast acting, helping relieve symptoms in as little as 30 to 60 minutes. A major drawback, however, is that they have the potential to cause dependency.
  • Antipsychotic medications. Antipsychotic medications, also called neuroleptics, are typically used to treat psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Antipsychotic medications may also be used to treat bipolar disorders or added to antidepressants to treat depression.


Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy or psychological counseling, is a process of treating mental illness by talking about your condition and related issues with a mental health provider. During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition and your moods, feelings, thoughts and behavior. Using the insights and knowledge you gain, you can learn coping and stress management skills.

There are many specific types of psychotherapy, each with its own approach to improving your mental well-being. Psychotherapy often can be successfully completed in a few months, but in some cases, long-term treatment may be helpful. It can take place one-on-one, in a group or along with family members.

Brain-stimulation treatments

Brain-stimulation treatments are sometimes used for depression and some other mental health disorders. They are generally reserved for situations in which medications and psychotherapy haven't worked. They include electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), transcranial magnetic stimulation, vagus nerve stimulation and an experimental treatment called deep brain stimulation.

Make sure you understand all the risks and benefits of any recommended treatment.

Hospitalization and residential treatment programs

Sometimes mental illness becomes so severe that you need psychiatric hospitalization. Hospitalization is generally recommended when you can't care for yourself properly or when you're in immediate danger of harming yourself or someone else. Options include 24-hour inpatient care, partial or day hospitalization, or residential treatment, which offers a supportive place to live. One other option may be intensive outpatient treatment.

Substance abuse treatment

Substance abuse commonly occurs along with mental illness. Often it interferes with treatment and worsens mental illness. If you can't stop using drugs or alcohol on your own, you need treatment. Substance abuse treatments include:

  • Psychotherapy, to learn more about your condition and gain insight
  • Medications, which may help ease withdrawal symptoms or reduce cravings
  • Inpatient treatment, such as withdrawal (detox) treatment
  • Outpatient treatment programs, which require regular attendance for a set period of time
  • Support groups or 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Participating in your own care

Working together, you and your health provider can decide which treatment options may be best for you, depending on your symptoms and their severity, your personal preferences, side effects, and other factors. In some cases, a mental illness may be so severe that a doctor, loved one or guardian may need to guide your care until you're well enough to participate in decision making.

Sep. 15, 2012