Which Is Best For Mental Health Problems: Drugs Or Therapy?
How do you know if medication or therapy is the best approach for a mental health problem?
Signed: Either Or
Dear Either Or,
There is no simple answer to that question, especially because you don’t mention what kind of mental health issue we are talking about. When we are dealing with a situation that involves some form of chemical imbalance in the body, the need for medication intervention increases. However, I think we can all agree that the less medication we need to take over the course of our life, the better off we are in the long run. So, the most important thing to figure out is WHY the chemical imbalance is happening and to treat that root cause in the best way possible. Treating the symptoms of the mental health issue is seldom effective.
Let me explain – for example, if a person is running themselves ragged and getting no sleep, many of the hormones and chemicals produced in their body/brain will start to be out of sync. The same thing happens when we are not eating properly, not getting enough activity/exercise in our lives, not drinking enough water, etc. In these cases, medication would seldom be the most helpful response. Although it might seem like a quick fix, the root problem is not being addressed. And, in time, the medication will stop being effective – it will need to be increased or changed, if the person wants the same result. Consider an alternative treatment approach – if the person learns instead (through therapy) how to make adjustments in their life so they are able to get the restorative sleep they need to produce the right balance of chemicals in their body/brain on a daily basis, the issues may be resolved without the need for any synthetic treatment. But this approach requires changes to be made with how a person functions – this takes time, self reflection and sometimes a great deal of effort (old, unhealthy habits must be broken).
We also have to think about what “medication” means for different people. It might mean a prescription that a doctor writes or it might also include natural vitamins and supplements. Other factors to take into account include the person’s age or the stage of brain development that they are in (medications can impact natural brain growth/development, especially in teens); and what other forms of treatment they have tried, when addressing their mental health issue. We have to be aware of what other substances a person might also be taking – other medications, alcohol, marijuana, etc all impact the effectiveness of both prescription treatment option as well as the success one might have in therapy. And we have to bear in mind the influences in a person’s life that will impact their ability to manage their mental health issue – parental role modelling, job pressures, the support network a person feels they can turn to, etc.
One of the analogies I often encourage clients to consider is this – if you put your hand on a hot stove and it starts to burn, you might want to ask for some medication to help numb the pain. Until you actually move your hand off of the hot element, the pain will continue – the medications you are given, if they work, can only treat the symptoms (and not for forever) – you will have to increase your dose, the longer you keep your hand on that hot stove. But by removing your hand from the stove, you are addressing the root cause of the problem – you create real change and the healing can begin. In my opinion, mental health issues are often like this hot stove analogy. Sometimes we need medication to help in the moment – or to help for the rest of our life, if the mental health issue creates a chemical imbalance in our brain/body that is permanent. But if we use therapy to help make even more changes in our brain/body (through changing our lifestyle/addressing the root triggers/causes), then we can often find ourselves no longer needing the medication (or never needing it in the first place). Medication and therapy do not have to be rivals – they compliment one another beautifully. And for anyone dealing with a mental health issue, getting the best kind of support, for long lasting change is really the solution they are looking for.
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