All medicines are designed and prescribed in order to help patients overcome the symptoms of illness, or to prevent symptoms coming back. They are intended to help. It is true, however, that medicines can also cause unwanted effects, which we also call “side-effects”.
No-one can promise, or be promised, that a treatment will not cause side-effects. This is not realistic or honest. A great deal can be done to share information about how small or large a problem or side-effect might be, whether it will lessen over time and what else can be done to reduce a particular side-effect. Do remember that information about side-effects is based on averages. Even a common side-effect doesn’t affect everyone who takes the medicine.
Understanding which side-effects a medicine might cause can make them feel more manageable and less worrying. This is clearly very important for patients. It is also important for healthcare professionals. Having honest and open conversations about side-effects helps patients to get the best out of medicines. Ignoring the issue can often result in someone not taking their medicines and becoming unwell again.
Sometimes the symptoms of your illness and the side-effects of medication might be difficult to tell apart. Don’t worry about this, but do explain to your healthcare professional what is worrying you so there can be a productive discussion about how things can be improved.
Here we will suggest sources of information that might be of help in understanding medicines used to help in mental health conditions. All of the websites we mention will show you useful, unbiased information to help when making decisions. None is better or worse than the others, but each has its own style that you might find more or less helpful.
Choice and Medication
Choice and Medication is a website created by specialist mental health pharmacists that also provides a range of information on mental health conditions and the medicines used to help people to recover and stay well. Leaflets about individual medicines will tell you about the side-effects that each one can cause, how common they are and how they can be managed. The “Handy Charts” which compare several medicines for a single condition will also compare side-effect likelihood.
The mental health charity MIND also provides helpful advice about side-effects. The website provides written information as well as some videos where people discuss what it is actually like to take some of these medicines. The website also helpfully explains some of the medical jargon used to describe side-effects, so that they are easier to understand on your own terms.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists
The Royal College of Psychiatrists produces a range of easy-to-read information about different mental health conditions and the available support and treatments. Information is written by doctors in collaboration with patients and carers. Some of the information talks about the side-effects that some people experience when they take medicines for their mental health.
The NHS website
The NHS website itself offers advice on mental and physical health conditions and some information about the medicines we use to help people. The website includes detailed information about some medicines for mental health, including side-effects, but doesn’t currently include all mental health medicines.
There might be times when your medicine has been defective, or has caused a side-effect that was not expected. You should let your healthcare professional know about this and they or you can report the problem to the Medicines and Healthcare products Authority using their “Yellow Card” website.
If you feel that you are experiencing side-effects it is helpful to keep a record of them to discuss at your next appointment. How to do this will depend on you and the side-effect. Providing more and better information to healthcare professionals will help them to work more effectively with you to agree the best treatment plan.
The following list is something you could use if thinking about the side-effects of antipsychotic medication:
- Slowness, stiffness or difficulty moving
- Trembling or shaking muscles
- Body movements you can’t control (for example, sticking your tongue out or looking like you are rolling something between your fingers)
- Feeling restless, as if you need to keep moving all of the time
- Putting on weight
- Feeling sleepy during the day (“like a zombie”)
- Feeling faint or dizzy (such as when you get up out of a chair)
- Mouth feeling dry
- Drinking a lot more liquid than usual
- Finding it difficult to concentrate (for example, when watching TV or reading)
- Forgetting more things than usual
- Feeling constipated (hard to “poo”)
- Finding it difficult to go for a wee, or going more often than usual
- Problems with sex
- Sore, swollen or tenderness in the breast or nipples, or discharge from the nipples
- WOMEN ONLY: periods have stopped or become less regular
If you are very worried about a side-effect, then you can seek advice from your usual healthcare professionals including your community pharmacist.