Like any prescription medications, mental health medications are powerful — so know their risks and side effects.
If you’re taking a prescription medication for mental health, or thinking about starting one, you’ve probably heard of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Medications for mental health help manage symptoms and improve your quality of life, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
So what should you know if you’re considering SSRIs?
SSRIs treat depression and anxiety
These medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin in your brain. With a higher level of this natural substance, your moods may be more stable. Common SSRIs include Zoloft®, Paxil®, Prozac®, Lexapro® and Celexa®.
“SSRIs have been around for almost 40 years,” says Corey Haupt, PharmD, clinical pharmacist at Geisinger. “They’re safe and effective when taken as prescribed and partnered with psychotherapy.”
But, like other mental health medications, they’re not always a perfect fit for everyone. You may have to try different regimens before finding something that works for you.
Take SSRIs as prescribed
Regularly taking SSRIs helps prevent symptoms of depression and anxiety. But taking them as prescribed by your healthcare provider is key. Missing doses or only taking it “as needed” may make the medication less effective. Irregular doses can also increase the chance of side effects.
“Read the label and instructions in detail, take it exactly as prescribed and, most importantly, keep an open dialogue with your care team about how the medication affects you,” says Dr. Haupt
You may not feel better immediately
Most people start to feel better within four to six weeks. It takes time for the chemical changes in your brain and body to take full effect. Some people report feeling a bit “muted” or dull when they first start taking SSRIs, but after a few weeks, most find they’re less depressed and anxious overall.
SSRIs work best as part of a treatment plan
Mental health is a complicated thing — so it makes sense that it might need several avenues of treatment. You can improve your mood not just with medication, but also through psychotherapy, diet and exercise changes and other kinds of self-care. Talk to your care provider about a whole-life approach to mental health and wellness.
You may have some side effects
Luckily, SSRI side effects usually aren’t serious. The most common ones: feeling a little tired or having an upset stomach in the first week or two. These typically resolve with time. Some people who take SSRIs report side effects such as sexual dysfunction or lack of interest in sex. If this happens to you, discuss it with your provider — they may be able to adjust your dosage or prescribe a different medication.
“If a specific medication isn’t working for you, don’t worry,” says Dr. Haupt. “It’s just a matter of finding the right one, and your care team and pharmacist can help.”
Rarely, an SSRI can make your depression or anxiety worse, particularly in the first week or two of treatment. In that case, talk to your prescriber to make a plan.
Don’t mix SSRIs with alcohol
Alcohol makes depression worse, and antidepressants can change how alcohol affects you. If you take any medications or drugs recreationally or are prescribed a new medication, be sure to let your care team know.
Don’t quit cold turkey
Before you stop taking an SSRI (or any other medication), talk to your primary care provider or pharmacist. Stopping these medications abruptly can make you feel worse and lead to strong side effects or withdrawal symptoms.
Making a mental health care plan
SSRIs and other mental health medications can make a big difference in your overall well-being. But they’re most effective when used as part of a larger care plan. You’ll usually have the most success when you combine medication with therapy or counseling, lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, and social support. And you can get started on a mental healthcare plan in three easy steps.
- Make an appointment with your primary care provider so you can have a conversation about what’s happening physically and emotionally.
- Be open and honest about what you’re feeling. When your care team understands what you’re going through, they’ll be able to help.
- Prepare for your appointment. About a week before your visit, start paying attention to your feelings, mood and thoughts, so you can talk about your mood changes with your care team. You might find it helpful to use the daily tracker in this mental health discussion guide to keep a written record.
And remember: If you or someone you know is in crisis, don’t wait to seek care. Contact the National Suicide Hotline by dialing 988 or dial 911 if you need immediate help.