Can Mental Illness Be Treated Without Medication?

Phi Atratus
  • Apr 18, 2022
  • 7 min read
woman suffering with mental health issues

Like any other health issue, there are many types of treatments for mental illnesses. But after years of studies and research, the mental health field has figured out that certain treatments are more effective for certain mental illnesses. This helps professionals give their clients the optimal support and relief for their specific issues. 

This makes the most effective mental health treatment depend directly on the mental illness in question and the results of research done on treating it. 

There are two main treatments for mental illnesses: psychotherapy and medication. But there are nearly 300 officially recognized mental disorders. That’s why there’s been a lot of research done in order to find out which treatment has better results for each mental illness. 

This gave birth to a third type of treatment, which is the combined treatment – using both psychotherapy and medication for specific diagnoses and clients.  

But which is the most effective mental health treatment? That will depend on many factors, such as the severity of the symptoms, how compromised is the client's safety and well-being, whether there’s an actual neurological and biological basis for the illness, and of course – the type of mental disorder in question. 

In some cases, such as psychotic disorders, there is a need to modify the neurological processes, regulate the severity of the symptoms, and guarantee the client's well-being in the shortest time possible. 

In mood disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder, on the other hand, a more psychological and emotional basis may be needed, which would make therapy the best treatment to overcome and cope with them. 

What’s the Issue With Psychiatric Medication?

Most medication treatments are drugs and substances that, after ingested, modify neurological and biological processes to minimize the symptoms and help the person cope with their mental illness. But mental illnesses are not similar to most physical medical conditions, especially because of their emotional and psychological characteristics. 

How does psychiatric medication work? 

Medication consists of using specific types of drugs that affect both the nervous system and the entire body. Those drugs are also known as psychiatric or mental health medications, and their job is to influence the brain chemicals to regulate its processes. 

Those biological processes are responsible for the mental processes, so the main symptoms of the mental illness can be minimized and bring mental wellness to the client. 

This means the medication has the purpose of correcting or helping correct the biological abnormalities that produce the symptoms that characterize the specific mental illness. That is what makes it an effective and fast treatment. 

Psychiatric drugs consequently affect behavior, mood, thoughts, feelings, and perception. But the actual effect of psychiatric medication depends on the drug itself. Because they work by adjusting levels of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which directly depend on the symptoms of each mental illness. 

In this sense, the most common way to classify psychiatric drugs is based on the mental illness they treat. This groups them into five main categories: 

  • Antidepressants: Mostly used to treat depression, but according to research, they can also be used for other mental illnesses, such as anxiety or insomnia. Some of the most commonly used antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. 
  • Anti-anxiety medications: Used to treat anxiety disorders. Some of the most commonly used are benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. 
  • Stimulants: Used to increase alertness, attention, and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Mostly used to treat children, adolescents, or adults with ADHD. Some of the most commonly used are methylphenidate, dextroamphetamine, and amphetamine. 
  • Antipsychotics: Used to regulate psychosis, usually involving hallucinations and delusions. Mostly used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and psychotic depression, among others. They can be divided into two types: neuroleptics and atypical antipsychotics. 
  • Mood stabilizers: Used mostly to regulate mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, depression, schizoaffective disorder, and certain mental illnesses in children. 

The issues with psychiatric medication

As with any other medical treatment, psychiatric medication has pros and cons. These drugs affect the client both physically and psychologically, and those effects don’t stop at treating the symptoms but also involve many other areas of the person's life. 

Although every specific drug can have different cons, there is quite a bit of overlap in that area.

  • As with many other medications, it takes time and testing to find the proper drug for each person. Some people may not feel better with the first medicine they try and may need to try several others to find the one that works for them. 
  • Some people might also have stronger side effects with some medications compared to others, and those may last longer compared to others. That’s why it takes a lot of medical control, guidance, and time to find the right treatment for each person. 
  • Some psychiatric medications might lead to dependence on the drug, necessitating an increase in dosage, or a different, stronger drug, to achieve the same results. 
  • It might be an expensive treatment. Most legal drugs and medications are really expensive. That means that not many people can afford this type of treatment, which compromises the person's mental wellness. 

The common side effects of each of the five categories include:

  • Antidepressants: Nausea and vomiting, weight gain, sleepiness, sexual problems, panic attacks, insomnia, anxiety, and irritability. 
  • Anti-anxiety medications: Nausea, blurred vision, nightmares, tiredness, problems with coordination, weakness, difficulty thinking or remembering, and trouble sleeping.  
  • Stimulants: Stomach pain, headaches, motoric or verbal tics, loss of appetite, and personality changes. 
  • Antipsychotics: Nausea, dry mouth, weight gain, low blood pressure, constipation, and restlessness. 
  • Stabilizers: Excessive thirst, frequent urination, changes in vision, hair loss, weight changes, loss of coordination, abnormal thinking, constipation, slurred speech, and hallucinations.

Even so, medication is a commonly-used treatment for some specific mental illnesses. Being both the most effective mental health treatment for mental illness and also the fastest to have results for those specific cases. 

Also, the pharmaceutical industry is developing clinical advantages offered by new drugs over older ones to minimize the side effects while also developing more comprehensive policies and recommendations for the use of these drugs. This brings more modern treatments for mental illness. 

Mental Disorders That Can Be Treated Without Medication

Something really important to point out when it comes to talking about therapy as a treatment for mental illness is the fact that medication might be known as the most common and oldest treatment for mental disorders. That’s why the question of “can mental illness be cured without medication?” is always raised. 

The answer to it is: It depends on many factors. Those factors include: 

  1. The type of mental illness and the diagnosis itself. 
  2. The severity of the symptoms and how compromised the client's safety and wellness are. 
  3. The basis of the mental illness, meaning whether there’s an actual neurological and biological basis for the illness or an emotional and psychological one. 

So, depending on each individual case, the answer to “can mental illness be cured without medication?” can be either yes or no. Some disorders, such as schizophrenia, in which a biological basis is either certain or suspected, would require medication to treat effectively.

Others, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD, often have a more psychological and emotional basis, which makes therapy the best treatment to overcome and cope with them in many cases. 

How to Treat Mental Illness Without Medication

It is possible to treat certain mental illnesses without drugs by using another type of treatment – psychotherapy. 

Psychotherapy is a treatment that involves the process of working on the issues or illnesses from their psychological basis. Through psychotherapy, the client speaks to a mental health provider about everything they feel and think. 

While the mental health provider guides them towards finding the base of the situation, they help them understand and learn about their condition and all that it involves – and learn strategies and healthy coping skills to face their problems. 

Through psychotherapy, the client can work on the root of their illness, and at the same time, learn ways to cope with both the cause of the illness and its symptoms. 

By modifying patterns of thoughts, responses, and behavior patterns, as well as emotional control, the client starts functioning better, and their mental wellness heals over time without medication. 

Nowadays, one of the most common ways to conduct therapy is online therapy, which makes it even easier to get that support for everyone. Also, psychotherapy does not have side effects and is not a physically intrusive treatment. 

Here are some of the ways a psychotherapeutic treatment differs from a pharmaceutical one:

  • It involves the active participation of the client. Through psychotherapy, the client has to work, learn, express, and discover not only what’s going on with them but also better ways to cope with their symptoms. That’s why psychotherapy is an excellent anxiety treatment without medication for some cases in which there’s no neurological or biological basis for the mental illness. 
  • It’s not biologically invasive. Even when psychotherapy involves a deep internal process that moves many emotions and scars, it doesn't modify the body's internal processes, and therefore, there are no side effects. 
  • There’s no risk of developing any dependence, abuse, or withdrawal since it doesn't involve any substances. Therapy has an end in mind, making it a great depression treatment without medication

Bottom Line

If you're wondering if you can overcome mental illness without medication, the answer is that it depends on which mental illness you’re talking about and whether it has a biological or psychological basis, among other factors.  

In many cases, though, the short answer is yes, and the long answer is yes, with the help of psychotherapy. All you have to do is find a mental health professional to guide you and give you proper assistance. 

However, keep in mind that although medications do have side effects, they are by no means a bad thing and should be considered when dealing with mental illness. In many cases, a combination of therapy and medication is the best solution.

If you’re interested in giving therapy a try, DoMental is a safe and welcoming online therapy platform where you can get the help you need. This online counseling platform allows you to access highly qualified licensed professionals and start the amazing process of taking care of your mental health one step at a time. 

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