Workplace Wellbeing

Mental Health and Medication: What You Need to Know

Precision Mental Healthcare is designed to take the guesswork out of prescribing medications for mental health treatments.

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Spring Health
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A physician prescribing medicine to his patient in his office

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    Anyone who shops for a new outfit knows that there’s a big difference between the marked size of the clothes and the actual fit. Sometimes a turtleneck is marked as being in your size, but when you put it on, it is too tight in the shoulders and too loose everywhere else. One pair of size eight pants might be too small, another pair too large.

    This trial-and-error process of clothes shopping is similar to how most people find the right mental health medication or medications for them today. Each individual requires a very particular fit. Much as a popular sweatshirt may not fit you very well, just because one medication is commonly prescribed for a particular mental health condition doesn’t mean it will work perfectly for you.

    So how do you find the right mental health medication without spending lots of time trying out different prescriptions?

    Common medications used for mental health treatment

    Before we start discussing how to find the right medication, it’s a good idea to understand just how commonly mental health medication is prescribed in the United States.

    According to the CDC, nearly 50% of U.S. adults used some form of prescription drugs in the previous 30 days. From 2015 to 2018, over 13.2% of U.S. adults were using antidepressant medications. Several antidepressants and anxiety-reducing medications, including Setraline (a.k.a. Zoloft), Alprazolam (a.k.a. Xanax), and Escitalopram (a.k.a. Lexapro) are among the top 50 prescribed medications in the country.

    Mental health treatment drugs are separated into categories, depending on the specific condition they usually are prescribed to treat. Mood-stabilizing medications are generally used to help treat bipolar disorder, although occasionally they can be used in combination with antidepressants to treat depression.

    Antidepressants, as the name suggests, are primarily used to help treat depression, although they can also be taken by patients suffering from anxiety disorders.

    Anti-psychotic medications traditionally are employed to treat conditions such as schizophrenia, although again, they can occasionally be used to treat bipolar disorder or be prescribed in combination with antidepressants.

    Meanwhile, sleep aids are used to help people combat insomnia or anxiety that prevents them from sleeping, while psychedelics, such as MDMA, are currently being explored as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

    The debate over medication for mental health conditions

    Although medications for mental health treatments are commonly prescribed, there is some debate about the relative benefits and potential downsides of their use.

    Part of this debate stems from what is known as “overprescribed” medications. While these medications have a long track record of helping patients with particular conditions, some physicians and insurance companies can be too quick to provide a patient with a prescription when they would in fact benefit from counseling or another form of treatment.

    According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research, antidepressants, specifically those designed to treat major depressive disorder (MDD), are among some of the most commonly overprescribed medications in existence.

    This study details how physicians frequently prescribe antidepressants to patients who have not had symptoms for as long as traditional diagnostic guides recommend. In other words, a patient may be suffering from symptoms of MDD for only a week as opposed to two weeks or more before they start taking the medication. They may also be suffering from fewer than five of the nine symptoms of MDD and still receive a prescription.

    This type of overprescription can be dangerous because medications have side effects. A patient who isn’t actually suffering from MDD who receives the wrong medication over a long period of time can experience unnecessary weight gain, hypertension, and other unpleasant side effects.

    Unfortunately, some insurance companies attempt to cut corners in terms of expense for their patients. Instead of providing both talk therapy and a course of medication, a few insurance companies will only cover the costs of medication or therapy sessions, not both. This can place a patient in a terrible limbo; while they are receiving some of the care they need, their treatment is incomplete.

    Luckily, there is a substantial body of evidence that indicates that most people benefit from prescribed psychiatric medications for mental health treatment. The trick is tailoring both the specific medication(s) and treatment plan to a patient’s needs.

    Why medication management often employs a trial-and-error method

    To return to the notion of finding the perfect outfit, in our contemporary medical climate it’s not uncommon for many patients to first “try on” different medications to see how they interact with their body and with each other. Depending on a person’s medical history, as well as their specific physiology, the same medication will have very different effects on different people.

    Some people respond very well to the first medication they are prescribed, while others start feeling worse or simply report no noticeable change. For a patient who has never taken medication for their mental health before, a doctor may employ a trial-and-error method to attempt to gauge the patient’s likely response to different medications. Dosages of the medication can also vary during this period: a patient may begin with the right medication, but need to adjust the dosage up or down depending on their reaction to the prescription.  

    This trial-and-error method doesn’t mean that the prescribing doctor is inexperienced or untrustworthy—it simply reflects the data that is available to them. As the amount of research and data on patient responses to medication increases, doctors are becoming increasingly savvy about what medications will work for certain conditions.

    Luckily, there is a much faster and more data-rich method available.

    Improving medication management for mental health conditions

    Doctors who are limited to a trial-and-error method are usually drawing off the information they have received from their patient, previous patients of theirs, and perhaps a few medical studies in journals. While a doctor will learn a great deal over the course of their career, their individual access to information is not nearly as comprehensive as a database that is able to simultaneously compare hundreds of thousands of data points across innumerable patient records.

    Precision Mental Healthcare is designed to take the guesswork out of prescribing medications for mental health treatments by accessing a much larger and more thoroughly cross-indexed trove of information. Instead of simply focusing on one or two symptoms, Precision Mental Healthcare creates a much fuller, more comprehensive portrait of the patient and their symptoms.

    By compiling not only specific symptom information but also socio-demographic information, medical history, and other crucial details, the system is able to zero in on a specific treatment plan from among over 200 that are currently offered.

    The more data a physician has, the more accurately they can prescribe the ideal medication. Using the recommendations of the precision mental healthcare system, a physician can either reduce or eliminate the trial-and-error approach. This not only saves time for each patient, but also reduces costs across the board.

    For organizations, being able to shorten the time it takes to find the right mental health treatment plan and medication for their workforce is invaluable. Not only are the employees happier and healthier, but the company’s unnecessary health care costs are significantly smaller.

    Related: 16 statistics on the hidden costs of mental illness for employers

    At Spring Health, we offer Precision Mental Healthcare to our members. We understand that the trial-and-error approach can be unnecessarily taxing on patients and costly for organizations. Years of experience have convinced us of the need not only for greater understanding and research into how medications can aid in mental health treatment, but also in how we can better apply that knowledge to benefit more people. Find out more about what Spring Health can offer your organization by contacting us today.

    About the Author
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    Spring Health

    Spring Health is a comprehensive mental health solution for employers and health plans. Unlike any other solution, we use clinically validated technology called Precision Mental Healthcare to pinpoint and deliver exactly what will work for each person—whether that’s meditation, coaching, therapy, medication, and beyond. Today, Spring Health supports over 4,500 organizations, from startups to multinational Fortune 500 corporations, and is a preferred mental health provider to companies like General Mills, Bain, and DocuSign.

    About the clinical reviewer
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