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Taking Medication: 16 Ways to Become a Smart Self-Advocate

When we walk into the doctor’s office, for many of us, the scenario looks like this: We list off our symptoms, the doctor asks a few questions, writes out a prescription and we go on our way.

From her work in primary care settings, Risa Weisberg, Ph.D, assistant professor (research) and co-director of the Brown University Program for Anxiety Research at Alpert Medical School, has seen “firsthand how a great many patients accept a prescription from their provider without asking many questions about it, or often, without even knowing for what symptoms/disorder it is being prescribed.”

Such a scenario can stall or sabotage your treatment. Confused, you’re likely left with tons of questions, unaware of what you’re taking and how it’s supposed to help. You may be feeling helpless — a spectator in your own recovery — and hopeless, if the medication doesn’t seem to work or has bad side effects. Your doctor likely is clueless about your real concerns, not having all the information to guide his or her decision-making process.

But you don’t have to feel like a powerless bystander, on the outskirts of your own treatment. In order to become a sharp self-advocate, you just need some information. Here’s some hints for for taking medication safely and effectively. At the end, you’ll also find a basic glossary of common medication-related terms.

1. Haven’t picked a physician yet? Do your homework and conduct an interview. Before you decide on a doctor, whether it’s a primary care physician or a psychiatrist, ask some questions about qualifications and see if he or she is a good fit for you. Questions to get you started: Where did you go to school and do your training? Do you specialize in a specific mental illness? Do you have hospital privileges? Here’s a list of excellent questions to ask a psychiatrist during and after your first appointment. They focus on bipolar disorder, but you can easily adapt them to any disorder.

2. Ask the doctor about your diagnosis. You have the right to know precisely what you’re diagnosed with and how the doctor came to that conclusion. Making a diagnosis doesn’t happen in a 5-minute interview. You want to make sure that the doctor conducted a thorough evaluation. Did the doctor get your medical and mental health history? Did you complete a standardized test? Did the doctor ask about your symptoms and recent experiences?

3. Seek out psychotherapy. Medication isn’t your only option. Depending on the disorder, you may only need psychotherapy or you may take medication and see a therapist. Psychotherapy provides lasting benefits, whereas a medication’s effects stop as soon as you stop taking it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy effectively treats depression, anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder. To find a therapist, you can ask your doctor for a recommendation, browse the Web or check with universities and medical schools. Be sure the therapist specializes in your mental illness. For advice on finding a good therapist, check out this eBook.

Some Web sources for finding a therapist:

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Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

4. Before taking the medication, ask specifics. Peter Roy-Byrne, M.D., professor and chief of psychiatry at the University of Washington at Harborview Medical Center, and Michael R. Liebowitz, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and managing director of The Medical Research Network, suggest asking:

  • How will I know if this medication is working?
  • What are the side effects, and what do I do if I experience them?
  • When will the medication start to work?
  • How long will I have to take it?
  • If I take it for X amount of time, what’s the likelihood of reducing symptoms?
  • What are the dose requirements?
  • Will you be monitoring me throughout the course of this medication?
  • When will you talk to me next?

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has a basic handout with more questions. There is a thorough list if your child is taking medication, which you can easily revise for your situation.

5. Unsure about medication? Explore why. Are you on the fence because of potential side effects, the stigma of having a disorder or taking medication, a bad past experience, fears of addiction or uncertainty about the validity of your diagnosis? Talk to the doctor about your concerns before making the decision to take or refuse the medication.

Taking Medication: 16 Ways to Become a Smart Self-Advocate

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). Taking Medication: 16 Ways to Become a Smart Self-Advocate. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Mar 2019 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Mar 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.