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treatment of mental disorders
Extraordinary advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness. Understanding what causes some mental health disorders helps doctors tailor treatment to those disorders. As a result, many mental health disorders can now be treated nearly as successfully as physical disorders.

Most treatment methods for mental health disorders can be categorized as either somatic or psychotherapeutic. Somatic treatments include drug therapy and electroconvulsive therapy. Psychotherapeutic treatments include individual, group, or family and marital psychotherapy; behavior therapy techniques (such as relaxation training or exposure therapy); and hypnotherapy. Most studies suggest that for major mental health disorders, a treatment approach involving both drugs and psychotherapy is more effective than either treatment method used alone.

Psychiatrists are not the only mental health care practitioners trained to treat mental illness. Others include clinical psychologists, social workers, nurses, and some pastoral counselors. However, psychiatrists (and psychiatric nurse practitioners in some states) are the only mental health care practitioners licensed to prescribe drugs. Other mental health care practitioners practice psychotherapy primarily. Many primary care doctors and other non-mental health care doctors also prescribe drugs to treat mental health disorders.

Types of Mental Health Care Practitioners


Medical doctor with 4 or more years of psychiatric training after graduation from medical school
Can prescribe drugs, perform electroconvulsive therapy, and admit people to the hospital

May only practice psychotherapy, only prescribe drugs, or do both

Practitioner who has a master's or doctoral degree but not a medical degree

Many have postdoctoral training and most have training to administer psychologic tests that are helpful in diagnosis
May conduct psychotherapy but cannot perform physical examinations, prescribe drugs (in most states), or admit people to the hospital

Psychiatric social worker
A practitioner with specialized training in certain aspects of psychotherapy, such as family and marital therapy or individual psychotherapy

Often trained to interface with the social service systems in the state

May have a master's degree and sometimes a doctorate as well
Cannot perform physical examinations or prescribe drugs

Advanced practice psychiatric nurse
Registered nurse with a master's degree or higher, and training in behavioral health
May practice psychotherapy independently in some states and may prescribe drugs under the supervision of a doctor

May be a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker who has many years of training in the practice of psychoanalysis (a type of intensive psychotherapy involving several sessions a week and designed to explore unconscious patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior)
Conducts psychoanalysis and, if also a psychiatrist, may prescribe drugs and admit people to hospitals

Drug Therapy

A number of psychoactive drugs are highly effective and widely used by psychiatrists and other medical doctors. These drugs are often categorized according to the disorder for which they are primarily prescribed. For example, antidepressants are used to treat depression.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine
, sertraline

, and
, are the newest and most widely used class of antidepressants. Other classes of
antidepressants include the serotonin-norepinephrine
reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), such as
or duloxetine

, and the norepinephrine

/dopamine drugs, such as bupropion


Antipsychotic drugs, such as chlorpromazine, haloperidol
, and thiothixene

, are helpful in
treating psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Newer antipsychotic drugs (commonly called atypicals), such as risperidone
, olanzapine

, quetiapine

, ziprasidone

, and
, are now commonly used as first-line therapy. For patients who do not respond
to traditional and atypical antipsychotics, clozapine
is increasingly used.

SSRIs and antianxiety drugs, such as clonazepam
, lorazepam

, and diazepam

, as well
as antidepressants, are used to treat anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and phobias. Mood stabilizers, such as lithium
, carbamazepine

, and valproate

, have been used to
treat manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder).

Electroconvulsive Therapy

With electroconvulsive therapy, electrodes are attached to the head, and while the person is sedated, a series of electrical shocks are delivered to the brain to induce a brief seizure. This therapy has consistently been shown to be the most effective treatment for severe depression. Many people treated with electroconvulsive therapy experience temporary memory loss. However, contrary to its portrayal in the media, electroconvulsive therapy is safe and rarely causes any other complications. The modern use of anesthetics and muscle relaxants has greatly reduced any risk. Other forms of brain stimulation, such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and vagal nerve stimulation, are under study and may be beneficial for people with severe depression that does not respond to drugs or psychotherapy.


In recent years, significant advances have been made in the field of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, sometimes referred to as “talk therapy,” works on the assumption that the cure for a person's suffering lies within that person and that this cure can be facilitated through a trusting, supportive relationship with a psychotherapist. By creating an empathetic and accepting atmosphere, the therapist often is able to help the person identify the source of the problems and consider alternatives for dealing with them. The emotional awareness and insight that the person gains through psychotherapy often results in a change in attitude and behavior that allows the person to live a fuller and more satisfying life.

Psychotherapy is appropriate in a wide range of conditions. Even people who do not have a mental health disorder may find psychotherapy helpful in coping with such problems as employment difficulties, bereavement, or chronic illness in the family. Group psychotherapy, couples therapy, and family therapy are also widely used.

Most mental health practitioners practice one of six types of psychotherapy: supportive psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, or interpersonal therapy.

Supportive psychotherapy, which is most commonly used, relies on the empathetic and supportive relationship between the person and the therapist. It encourages expression of feelings, and the therapist provides help with problem solving. Problem-focused psychotherapy, a form of supportive therapy, may be conducted successfully by primary care doctors.

Psychoanalysis is the oldest form of psychotherapy and was developed by Sigmund Freud in the first part of the 20th century. The person typically lies on a couch in the therapist's office 4 or 5 times a week and attempts to say whatever comes to mind, a practice called free association. Much of the focus is on understanding how past patterns of relationships repeat themselves in the present. The relationship between the person and the therapist is a key part of this focus. An understanding of how the past affects the present helps the person develop new and more adaptive ways of functioning in relationships and in work settings.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy, like psychoanalysis, emphasizes the identification of unconscious patterns in current thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, the person is usually sitting instead of lying on a couch and attends only 1 to 3 sessions per week. In addition, less emphasis is placed on the relationship between the person and therapist.

Cognitive therapy helps people identify distortions in thinking and understand how these distortions lead to problems in their lives. The premise is that how people feel and behave is determined by how they interpret experiences. Through the identification of core beliefs and assumptions, people learn to think in different ways about their experiences, reducing symptoms and resulting in improvement in behavior and feelings.

Behavioral therapy is related to cognitive therapy. Sometimes a combination of the two, known as cognitive-behavior therapy, is used. The theoretical basis of behavioral therapy is learning theory, which holds that abnormal behaviors are due to faulty learning. Behavioral therapy involves a number of interventions that are designed to help the person unlearn maladaptive behaviors while learning adaptive behaviors. Exposure therapy, often used to treat phobias, is one example of a behavioral therapy (see see Anxiety Disorders: Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder).

Interpersonal therapy was initially conceived as a brief psychologic treatment for depression and is designed to improve the quality of a depressed person's relationships. It focuses on unresolved grief, conflicts that arise when people fill roles that differ from their expectations (such as when a woman enters a relationship expecting to be a stay-at-home mother and finds that she must also be the major provider for the family), social role transitions (such as going from being an active worker to being retired), and difficulty communicating with others. The therapist teaches the person to improve aspects of interpersonal relationships, such as overcoming social isolation and responding in a less habitual way to others.

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