The Medication Life Cycle – How Does Medication Management Work?

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If you’ve ever taken prescription medication before, you probably have some idea what to expect when you go to your doctor for a physical ailment and they prescribe medication. You know dosages sometimes need to be tweaked, tests need to be run, and you need to check in with your prescriber every so often for refills. 

Medication management for mental health is similar, but not exactly the same. While some people try one medication, love it, and never change medications or dosages, those are the (lucky) exception to the rule. For most people, it looks more like this:

Initial Checkup/Assessment

When you’re just starting the medication management process, you’ll meet with your prescriber and provide an overview of your symptoms. This includes a summary of your medical history, which will often include both your physical and psychiatric information to help your prescriber decide what medications are likely to be your best fit, avoid medication interactions, etc. 

Diagnosis and Developing a Treatment Plan

At this point, your prescriber will decide on a diagnosis and tell you whether medication is likely to be helpful for you. They’ll use this information to create a treatment plan tailored to your needs. 

Ultimately, it’s your decision whether you want to move forward with the treatment plan. You should feel empowered to speak up and weigh in. If you decide to move forward with the treatment plan, you and your prescriber will discuss possible medications, their potential benefits, their potential side effects, dosage information, and the time frame you’re working within.

It's very normal for people to feel apprehensive when they’re thinking of starting medication. You might feel nervous about the medications changing your personality, about experiencing side effects, or just about the uncertainty of trying something new. Bring these concerns up to your prescriber and talk through them. They can support you and help you make the best decision for yourself.

Medication Trial Period

This is when the meat of the “medication management” process begins. Your prescriber will prescribe a medication for a short period to see if it’s effective and whether it’s a good fit for you. This is generally a relatively short period of time – 1-3 months depending on the medication.

When you start taking the medication, monitor your symptoms to see if they start to improve. You’ll also want to monitor your side effects (if any) and gauge their severity. Sometimes side effects lessen over time, but not always. Keep in mind that you can cut the trial period short if you have side effects severe enough to get in the way of your daily functioning. Never stop taking your medication without discussing the best way to do that with your prescriber.

As you get to know how you feel on your new medication, it’s a good idea to jot down notes. That way, when you follow up after the trial period, you’ll be able to remember your experience and recount it to your prescriber.

Follow Up After the Trial Period

During your follow-up appointment, you’ll touch base with your prescriber about your experience on the medication. This conversation is a collaborative process, a back-and-forth conversation where you’ll decide whether to continue your medication, adjust the dosage, or switch to another medication.

Continue the Trial-and-Error Process

This phase continues until you find the right medication(s) and dosage(s) for your situation. Some people love the first medication they try, making this a rather short process. For others, it takes longer. Stay patient and optimistic. If you start to get discouraged, talk to your prescriber to decide together what to do.

Changing Your Dosage

Often, a prescriber will start you on a low dosage of a new medication to test out how it works in your system. This is because every medication affects each person differently.

When changing your dosage, follow your prescriber’s instructions carefully. If you have any questions or find the instructions unclear, clarify before your session ends.

Changing Your Medication

While some people love the first medication they try, it’s very common for people to have to change their medication at some point.

Your prescriber will most likely have you taper off your current medication, which means slowly reducing the amount of medication you’re taking until you eventually can stop taking it. This helps reduce the chances of experiencing side effects.

You’ll then start your new medication. Your prescriber might have you taper onto it slowly, starting at a lower dosage and working up to a higher one, or they might have you start at the dose they want you on long-term. Again, follow their instructions carefully. Don’t be afraid to ask them to clarify if their instructions are unclear or confusing.

Incorporate Other Treatments to Complement Your Medication

Medication is an effective aspect of mental health care for a lot of people. But for best results, you want to combine medication with other treatments to support your mental health. This can include:

  • Therapy
  • Dietary changes
  • Incorporating exercise into your routine
  • Coaching
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness techniques

Touch Base with Your Prescriber Periodically

After finding a medication that works for you, you’ll need to see your prescriber periodically for refills and to check in on your progress. Over time, your medications may need adjustments, at which point you’ll begin the process over again.

Try not to view medication management as a task that you can complete and never think about again. Just like your physical health, your mental health needs will change over your life, meaning you’ll likely need to adjust your medications and dosages every so often, even if they once worked well for you. 

Don’t consider it a personal failure if you still have symptoms while on medication, or if your symptoms suddenly change or worsen even after you’ve been on medication for a while. This is completely to be expected. Try to think of these adjustments as a chance to check in with yourself and your mental health care team.

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