A Dozen Tips for the Safe Use of Psychiatric Medications

Many individuals receiving care for mental illness or addiction are prescribed psychiatric medications as an important part of an overall treatment plan which often includes psychotherapy, other therapies and suggested lifestyle changes. In the treatment settings where I’ve worked, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many highly experienced prescribers, including psychiatrists and nurse practitioners. I’ve also benefited from the wisdom of several terrific pharmacists.

From these professional experiences, I learned first-hand just how important it is to take psychiatric medications (and all other medications) in a safe manner. Even the US Food and Drug Administration acknowledges that “no medicine is completely safe.” There are many serious and sometimes potentially life-threatening consequences if medications aren’t taken appropriately or managed safely.

Here’s a round-up of one dozen important tips and strategies to help insure the safe use of psychiatric medications.

1) Know the names of your medications

It’s important to know the names of each medication you take and to understand the difference between “brand” names and “generic”names. New medicines under an exclusive patent are marketed by a drug company under a specific brand name. After the patent expires, additional companies can then sell equivalent forms of the medicine under the “generic” or chemical name of the medicine. For example, “Prozac” was the brand name for the well-known antidepressant when it was first introduced, but it is now sold under the generic name “fluoxetine” by multiple companies. If you notice a change in the name, size, color, or shape of a medication when it is refilled, be sure to find out if it’s an equivalent for the prior medicine you were receiving.

2) Know what your medications are for

At a minimum, learn the main potential benefits of each medication you are taking. Many of the psychiatric medications target the reduction of symptoms including depression, anxiety, mania or psychosis (such as paranoid thoughts or hearing voices).

3) Take your medications as prescribed

All medications come with important instructions including how much to take, how often to take them, and what to do if you miss a dose. Other special considerations outline whether or not you need to take the medicine with food, if it will make you drowsy, certain foods to avoid, and so on. Also, be aware of potentially serious interactions between your medication and other medicines you may be taking. Read the medication labels carefully and review any educational material provided about the medication.

4) Know what to expect from your medications

Most psychiatric medications take days or even weeks to achieve their full effect. Also, your prescriber may need to adjust the dosage several times and/or try different medications to find what works best for you. Learn about common side effects and let your prescriber know immediately if something doesn’t seem right or you begin experiencing uncomfortable reactions of any kind. Also be sure to talk about any past negative reactions to specific medications, any drug allergies you have, and if you are pregnant or breast feeding.

5) Store and dispose of medications appropriately

Most medicines need to be stored out of direct sunlight and at a temperature that is free of extreme heat or cold. Medications also need to be secured in in child-proof containers and in a place that children can’t reach. Outdated medications should be disposed of through authorized community “medication take-back” programs or by flushing them down the toilet.

6) Don’t share your medications with others

While it may be tempting to share your medicines with friends or family members who may be experiencing similar symptoms or concerns, this is never a good idea. Your medications have been prescribed specifically for you and are not intended for use by anyone else. Also, you can’t anticipate the effects that your medicines will have on someone else, which could be very harmful.

7) Have a system for organizing your medications

Particularly if you take several medications each day, it’s very helpful to organize them in a pill organizer or similar system. Some will have several slots per day, for morning, mid-day and evening medications. This makes it easier to remember when to take each medicine and helps insure that you don’t forget some of them. If you have difficulty setting up such a system, ask your prescriber or a friend to help you.

8) Keep an accurate list of your medications

It’s very important to keep a complete and accurate list of all of your medications, including both prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Keep the list electronically in your phone, or put a hard copy in your wallet or purse so it’s always with you in case of an emergency. Also make sure that at least a couple of close friends or family members know where you keep the list or give them a copy.

9) Don’t stop taking your medications without professional consultation

Stopping your medications suddenly can sometimes cause very unpleasant physical reactions or other medical complications. Always consult with your prescriber before stopping or decreasing your medication for guidance about how to safely make any adjustments to your overall medication regimen.

10) Don’t run out of medication

Keep track of your medications and arrange for refills in a timely fashion before you run out of your medications. Some insurance plans offer options to have medication refilled mailed to you, which can be very convenient. If you do accidentally run out, call your prescriber immediately so they can call in a refill to your local pharmacy.

11) Address barriers that make taking your medications difficult

There can be a number of barriers or challenges which can make staying on your medications difficult. Medicine can be very expensive, to the point that the cost becomes prohibitive. If this occurs, ask your prescriber about the possibility of obtaining a small supply of free samples of medication or explore medication assistance programs offered by many drug companies. If transportation is a barrier keeping you from seeing your prescriber or from getting to the pharmacy, check with family or friends to arrange a ride. Often, the negative stigma associated with taking psychiatric medications may influence you to stop taking your medicine. Just remember that you don’t have to publicly reveal what medicines you take and that the potential benefits to your overall health far outweigh someone’s negative perception of your medication usage.

12) Above all else, ask questions about your medications

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider and to keep track of for the the safe and appropriate use of psychiatric medications. Also, much of the educational information about dosage, administration, side effects, etc. can be very complicated and hard to understand due to the complicated technical language in which it is written. To best understand how to use your medications the right way, ask your prescriber and your pharmacist to explain these medication-related issues to you in simple terms.

To learn more about safe use of medications, visit the US Food and Drug Administration or the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Here’s a question: What steps can you take to use your psychiatric medications more safely and effectively? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!


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