More and more people are affected by psychological problems: According to a recent study by the Robert Koch Institute, one third of adults suffer from a mental disorder every year. The treatment options are manifold and depend, among other things, on the type of mental illness, its duration and its severity. These include, first and foremost, psychotherapy, which helps those affected to actively overcome difficulties and learn new behavioural possibilities. Self-help groups and social therapy measures also have similar goals.
On the other hand, psychotropic drugs are often used to reduce symptoms and alleviate psychological suffering. In many cases it makes sense to combine psychotherapeutic and drug treatment measures. Often the medication is the basis which enables the affected person to build up relationships with other people again and to actively tackle problems. Substances that affect the psyche – i.e. our mood, our thinking, our perception and our behaviour – have basically been used for thousands of years, for example in the form of alcohol or tobacco.
However, drugs that specifically influence mental processes and are used to treat mental illness have only been available for about 60 years. For many people affected, such drugs can be helpful – for others, the side effects are so stressful that they stop using them or generally reject psychotropic drugs.
Definition: Psychotropic drugs are substances that affect the control of processes in the central nervous system and thus have an influence on various psychological functions. Most substances are used to treat mental illnesses, but some are also used in other areas, such as pain therapy or anaesthesia.
Some people are also afraid of becoming addicted to a drug, of changing their personality or of being “sedated” without the actual disease improving. The benefits of psychotropic drugs are therefore often discussed controversially and sometimes very emotionally.
It is therefore important that patients who are taking psychotropic drugs seek the advice of a specialist doctor, who will also provide them with close care during the course of their treatment. Doctors specialising in psychiatry can be identified by the terms “specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy”, “specialist in psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy” and “specialist in paediatric psychiatry and psychotherapy”. An expert practitioner will try to select the most suitable medication for the patient’s symptoms and life situation from the wide range of medications available. Depending on the efficacy and side effects, it may be necessary to adjust the dosage and sometimes change the medication during the course of treatment. In many cases, psychotropic drugs can help to alleviate stressful symptoms and significantly improve the quality of life.
Biological mechanism of action of psychotropic drugs
Psychopharmaceuticals influence the metabolism of the so-called neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are messenger substances that make it possible to transmit information from one nerve cell to another at chemical synapses. The information reaches the “transmitter cell” – the so-called presynaptic nerve cell – first in the form of electrical impulses to the synaptic cleft, the point of contact between the nerve cells. This leads to the release of biochemical messenger substances, which transmit the information via the synaptic cleft to the “recipient cell” – the so-called postsynaptic nerve cell. The neurotransmitters are then degraded in the synaptic cleft at different speeds.
Today it is assumed that many mental illnesses are caused by disturbances in the neurotransmitter household. At the same time, the density and sensitivity of the receptors – the receiving sites for the neurotransmitters in the nerve cells – can also be altered. Psychotropic drugs are used with the aim of normalizing the neurotransmitter household as much as possible. This happens, for example, by increasing or decreasing the amount of neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft. However, psychotropic drugs can also influence the number and / or sensitivity of the receptors at the postsynaptic nerve cell.