Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/6/2022
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or any other mental health disorder, you may have looked into treatment options such as therapy and the use of medication.
Many mental disorders improve with talk therapy. Many also improve with medication. Based on your specific mental health condition and personal needs, your provider may suggest using one or both forms of treatment to manage your symptoms and help you make progress.
Below, we’ve looked at the research on psychotherapy and medication for several mental health issues, including major depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and others.
We’ve also explained why your mental health professional may recommend combining therapy and medication to treat your symptoms, rather than using one form of treatment alone.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a form of treatment that involves working with a mental health provider to identify and change certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Therapy can take place in a one-on-one setting or as part of a group. Forms of therapy are used to treat a diverse range of mental health issues, from specific disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders to common problems such as chronic stress or dissatisfaction with life.
You can participate in therapy in person or remotely. We offer online individual therapy, allowing you to talk to a mental health expert from the privacy and comfort of your home.
Several different types of therapy are used to treat mental health issues. Common approaches to psychotherapy includecognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), supportive counseling, exposure therapy and interpersonal therapy (IPT).
Therapy offers real benefits, including improvements in many mental health symptoms and the development of new skills, thought processes and resilience. Therapy takes time, but it’s often an effective way to overcome your issues and become a stronger, more effective person.
Many mental health conditions are treated using medication. Common psychiatric medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotic medications, mood stabilizers and stimulants.
Depending on your specific symptoms and needs, your mental health provider may recommend using medication alone or in combination with one of the methods of therapy listed above.
Antidepressants are medications used to treat depression. Many antidepressants are also used to treat anxiety, chronic pain and sleep disorders. Most antidepressants work by modifying the levels of natural chemicals called neurotransmitters in your brain and body.
Using an antidepressant can help to stabilize your mood and reduce the severity of depression and anxiety symptoms.
Common types of antidepressants include:
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
Our guide to depression medications explains how antidepressants work. Currently, SSRIs and SNRIs are preferred first-line treatments for depression due to their effectiveness and lower risk of side effects compared to older antidepressants.
Anti-anxiety medications, or anxiolytics, help to reduce the severity of anxiety symptoms. These medications are generally used to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and other anxiety disorders.
Common types of anti-anxiety medications include:
Anxiety medications differ in their mechanism of action and effects. Some are generally used to treat short-term anxiety symptoms, while others are used as long-term treatments. Our guide to medications for anxiety provides more information about how they work and their effects.
Antipsychotic medications are used to treat psychosis — a condition whose symptoms include delusions and hallucinations. Psychosis can develop as a result of severe depression (referred to as psychotic depression), bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Some antipsychotics may be used in combination with other types of medication to treat eating disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Mood stabilizers work by controlling mood swings and preventing extreme highs (referred to as mania) and lows (depression). Medications of this type are used to treat bipolar disorder and, in combination with other medications, certain types of depression.
Stimulants work by increasing energy levels, attention and alertness. Stimulants are commonly used to treat ADHD in children, adolescents and adults. In some cases, stimulants are used to treat depression.
One of the most common questions about mental health treatment is whether it’s better to take part in therapy or use medication to control your symptoms and work towards recovery.
People’s mental health needs can vary dramatically, meaning there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. For some people, therapy might be the best solution, while for others, a form of medication treatment might be essential for achieving a good outcome.
Currently, research shows that both therapy and medication are effective at helping people with mental health issues.
For problems related to relationships, adjustment or parenting, most mental health providers opt for psychotherapy rather than medication.
For issues such as depression and anxiety disorders, research is mixed on whether medication, therapy or a combination of approaches is most effective. Many mental health providers use a mix of therapy and medication to treat anxiety, depending on the specific disorder.
For depression, both therapy and medication can be effective. Some research suggests that the combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants is more effective at treating depression than antidepressants alone.
For bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, medication-assisted treatment — a combined approach involving medication and therapy — is usually necessary.
Ultimately, the answer to the therapy vs. medication question depends on your unique needs as an individual. You’ll work with your mental health provider to find what works for you, whether it’s psychotherapy, medication or a combined approach that uses both forms of treatment.
Whether your mental health provider recommends therapy, prescribes medication or suggests a combination of both, there are several things that you should know before you start your mental health treatment plan:
Both therapy and medication require time to work well. With the exception of some fast-acting medications, both psychotherapy and medication will usually require several weeks to produce noticeable improvements in your thoughts and feelings.
For example, it’s normal for antidepressant medication to take two to four weeks to start working. Make sure to keep going to therapy and/or using your medication, even if you don’t notice any improvements right away.
Some mental health medications can cause side effects. You might experience side effects while using some mental health medications. Make sure to inform your provider if your medication side effects are severe or persistent.
The best treatment is often the one that you feel comfortable with. Compliance is an important aspect of effective treatment for many mental health issues. When a treatment is a good fit for your lifestyle, you’ll be more likely to stick with it for the long term.
Make sure to let your mental health provider know if you feel particularly comfortable or uncomfortable with a certain form of treatment.
If you feel like a treatment isn’t working, tell your mental health provider. It’s very normal to try several forms of therapy or types or medication before finding one that’s a good fit for your symptoms and personal needs.
If you feel like a certain form of therapy or medication isn’t working well for you, it’s okay to talk to your mental health provider about making changes.
Don’t stop using medication without talking to your mental health provider. Some medications, such as antidepressants, can cause withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop using them. If you want to stop taking medication, talk to your provider first.
Mental health needs can vary hugely from one person to another, meaning there’s no one form of treatment that helps everyone think and feel better.
Depending on your needs, your mental health provider may recommend therapy, medication or a combination of both. They may also tailor your specific form of therapy and medication to give you the best response to treatment.
If you think you have a mental health disorder, you can seek expert assistance using our online psychiatry service. You’ll receive a personalized treatment plan that may combine therapy and medication to help you achieve your treatment goals.
You can also learn more about successfully overcoming depression, anxiety and other common mental health issues using our free online mental health resources and content.