What Is Psychopharmacology?

Psychopharmacology is the study of medications used to treat mental disorders affecting mood, attention, behavior, and thought processes. Though these drugs vary widely in their composition and efficacy, many of them work by targeting neurotransmitters in the brain—usually by stimulating or inhibiting their release or blocking their reuptake in the nervous system.

Though it was once rarely spoken of outside of medical settings, in the past few decades, the use of drugs to alleviate the symptoms of mental disorders—particularly depression or attention deficit disorder—has become more socially acceptable. This cultural shift has resulted in these psychoactive agents being among the most widely prescribed pharmaceuticals today, as well as increased competition amongst pharmaceutical companies to create new formulations or corner a new psychiatric market.

Despite their ubiquity, however, there continues to be much debate around the use of medications to treat mental health challenges—particularly whether it's safe to use powerful stimulants to manage attention-deficit problems in children, or whether the potential side effects of antidepressant medications outweigh any possible benefits of the treatment. In addition, the general effectiveness of antidepressants when measured against a placebo remains controversial—although many large studies have concluded that the treatments that prove most effective combine antidepressant medications with psychotherapy.

The Role of Psychopharmacology

Though few people question the use of medications to treat physical ailments, many are wary of taking drugs that are designed to treat mental, emotional, or developmental challenges. They worry that these brain-based medications will make them feel or act differently, stifle their creativity, or turn them into a “zombie.” In some instances, these fears are not unfounded, as incorrect dosages or incompatible medication types can lead to undesirable side effects. In other cases—and particularly in the case of severe mental illness—medications can be vital for improved functioning and a more fulfilling life. Anyone prescribed a psychiatric medication should feel empowered to discuss any concerns with their clinician, and carefully weigh the pros and cons before embarking on a medication regimen.

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