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Medication for mental illness

Medications that are used to treat mental illness are called psychotropics. These are drugs that act on the brain and nervous system.

You might already take medication for a physical condition like asthma or heart disease. In the same way, medications are used to treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychosis. Medication can make you feel better and help you to get on with your life.

You need a prescription for all psychotropic medications.

Talk to your doctor about medication

This website does not replace talking to your doctor.

Your GP or psychiatrist is your best source of information on medications for mental illness.

They will tell you what the medication is expected to do, and let you know about potential side effects.

Your doctor should:

  • provide you with written information
  • answer any questions you may have
  • check that you understand. 

Who can prescribe medications for mental illness?

Your psychiatrist or GP (family doctor) can prescribe medications for mental illness.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are experts in mental health. They have special training in prescribing medication and providing other treatments to help people with mental illness.

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How do medications treat mental illness?

Medications work by rebalancing the chemicals in the brain. Different types of medication act on different chemical pathways.

Why are medications prescribed?

Some people with a mental illness need medication to get better.

Medication can be used to treat immediate symptoms. In other cases, it’s used long-term to stop an illness from returning (often called ‘relapse’).

Medication is only one part of treatment for mental illness. It is usually offered together with psychological treatment (talking therapy), education and lifestyle advice.

Your doctor will review your situation, current diagnosis and physical health. 

Together you will consider all options for treatment, including no medication if that’s best for you.

You get a say in the medication your doctor prescribes for you, but your doctor doesn’t have to prescribe the medication you ask for.

Medication names

Each medication has a few names: a generic name and one or more brand names (also called proprietary or trade names). Each company that makes the medication has its own brand name.

For example:

Generic name Brand names
Fluoxetine Prozac®, Fluotex®, Lovan®, Zactin®

Paying for medication


Most medications used to treat mental illness are listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in Australia.

The PBS reduces the cost of medications to Australian residents. If you have a Health Care Card you will get a further discount.

New Zealand

Many medications are government subsidised in New Zealand so that you pay only NZ$5 per prescription. Prescriptions for children aged under 13 are free. Once you've paid for 20 prescriptions in a calendar year, other prescriptions in that year will be free.

Generic brand medication

Generic brands are often cheaper than brand name medication. They have the same active ingredients and work just as well.

Generic brands are just as safe as brand name medications. All approved medications go through a rigorous testing and approval process.

Off-label prescriptions

Your doctor may recommend a medication that is provided ‘off-label’.

This is where a medication is used for a condition or for an age group (for example children) that is not listed on the product information.

If this is the case, your doctor should explain why they recommend this treatment.  You will have to pay the full amount for the medication, which can make it expensive.

Buying medication on the internet

You are putting your health at risk by using medication purchased online.

There is no way of knowing exactly what is in any tablet or capsule you buy on the internet.

Handling medication safely

  • Do keep medication out of reach of children.
  • Do dispose of left over medication by returning it to your pharmacy.
  • Don’t take medication that's past its expiry date.
  • Don’t give your medication to others.
  • Don’t take other people’s medication.

More information

  • Your psychiatrist
  • Your GP
  • Your pharmacist

If you are concerned about a missed dose or if you have taken too much of your medication, call

Australian Poisons Information Centre                   13 11 26
New Zealand National Poisons Centre                    0800 764 766


  • Medication can work well to treat mental illness.
  • Some medications will relieve symptoms, others you need to keep taking long-term to stay well.
  • Talk to your psychiatrist, GP or pharmacist if you have any questions.
Page last reviewed Feb 2017 | C1020V1

This is a general guide only, and does not replace individual medical advice. Please speak to your doctor for advice about your situation. The RANZCP is not liable for any consequences arising from relying on this information. Subject matter experts, people with lived experience of mental illness and carers all contributed to this fact sheet.