3.10 Psychotherapeutic Agents (an overview)

What is their origin?

Psychotherapeutic agents each have unique origin stories, for the purpose of this text, we will focus on some of the more well-known substances.  When psychotherapeutic agents were being developed to treat a disease-specific illness, the focus on mental health was treatment from a biological perspective; “most commentators agree that, from the 1950s, there was an emphasis on biological theories and treatments”.[1]  Using substances to treat mental health disorders is a relatively new concept.  “When “antipsychotic” drugs were introduced into psychiatry in the 1950s, they were thought to work by inducing a state of neurological suppression, which reduced behavioral disturbance as well as psychotic symptoms”.[2]  As knowledge grew, researchers began to use “disease-specific” medication to treat illness, and substances were able to modify the underlying pathology of the condition.  Today, rather than the idea of a substance masking a symptom it is seen as treating the symptom itself.[3]


From antipsychotic medication to anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, substances like Risperidone, Haldol, Ativan and Valium can play a role in treating several mental health disorders and conditions and have been an important intervention in people’s lives in Canada.  Sussman[4] suggests “mental disorders are true medical conditions that can benefit from drug therapy in the same way that diabetes, asthma and hypothyroidism, and other chronic disorders are responsive to medication”[5]  Medication is an individual choice, and should be based on evidence.  There are interventions like counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) which can also be effective interventions.   Treating mental health disorders with medication in concert with therapy is common in Western treatment models.  Treatment may also include therapy, nutrition, exercise and other activities.  Choosing a treatment plan should be based on a person’s individual needs and medical situation and under a mental health professional’s care.

What is their effect on the brain and body

Depending on the type of medication and what it is prescribed for, the effects on the brain will vary.  These resources from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, will provide you with more information on psychotherapeutic agents.

3.10A Activities

  1. Brainstorm a list of agencies that can support your mental health in your community.  Are they community, business or government?
  2. Why is mental health support important?
  3. How are mental health and substance use disorders related?
  4. Find two evidence based articles about substance use and mental health.  Compare and contrast.
  5. Based on these two articles, create a poster that could be shared with youth ages 12-18

Food For Thought

  • Does taking a medication for a mental illness have stigma?  Why?
  • What is something you have heard about medication?

Chapter Credit


  1. Moncrieff, J. (2013) Magic bullets for mental disorders: The emergence of the concept of an “antipsychotic” drug. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 22(1), 30-46. https://doi-org.libproxy.stfx.ca/10.1080/0964704X.2012.664847
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sadock B. J., Sadock V. A., & Ruiz, P. (2009). Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry (9th ed.). Wolters, Kluwer, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins Publishing.
  5. Ibid, p. 2985.
  6. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2021a). Antipsychotic medicationhttps://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/antipsychotic-medication
  7. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2021b). Anti-anxiety medicationshttps://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/anti-anxiety-medications-benzodiazepines
  8. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2021c). Mood stabilizing medicationhttps://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/mood-stabilizing-medication
  9. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2021d). Anti-depressant medication. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/antidepressant-medications


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