Psychiatric medications work by giving a person relief from the most severe psychiatric symptoms associated with their disorder. Just as a pain reliever won’t necessarily cure the source of a headache, a psychiatric drug doesn’t “cure” a person of the disorder, but rather provides needed symptom relief.

Psychiatric medications do not cure mental illness, but in many cases, they can help a person function despite some continuing mental pain and difficulty coping with problems. For example, atypical antipsychotic drugs can turn off the “voices” heard by some people with psychosis and help them to see reality more clearly. And antidepressants can lift the dark, heavy moods of depression.

Different people respond differently to different medications. It’s the frustrating reality of modern medicine that we still don’t know exactly who will respond best to any given medication. There are dozens of antidepressants to choose from, for instance, but doctors will often prescribe the one they are most familiar with. They will move on to having the patient try a different one only after the first one hasn’t succeeded in relieving symptoms.

Unfortunately, there’s no tried and true formula for symptom relief with any medication. Each person is different and will have to go through a trial and error process to find the right medication — and the right dose — that works best for them, in close conjunction with their doctor or psychiatrist.

How long someone must take a psychiatric medication depends on the individual, the disorder, and the severity of the symptoms. Many people with depression or an anxiety disorder may need medication for a short period of time in their life — perhaps for 6 to 12 months. Some anxiety disorders respond well to medications on an as-needed basis.

People with conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression), on the other hand, or those whose depression or anxiety that is more chronic or recurrent, may have to take medication indefinitely or for much of their lives.

Like any medication, psychiatric medications do not produce the same effect in everyone. Some people may respond better to one medication than another. Some may need larger dosages than others do. Age, sex, body size, body chemistry, physical illnesses and their treatments, diet, and habits such as smoking are some of the factors that can influence a medication’s effect.

Most people who take a medication will experience side effects. However, the side effects are usually entirely manageable and of lesser severity than the symptoms of the disorder itself.

A person should always consult and talk to their doctor about any questions they have about their medication, how and when best to take it, or concerns about dosage or the medication no longer providing the symptom relief it once did. Never change your medication or dose without first talking to your doctor.