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Drugs have been the mainstay of psychiatric treatment since the 1950s. Nowadays, most people who receive specialist psychiatric services are prescribed one sort of psychiatric drug, and often several. General practitioners prescribe such drugs to millions of other people.

Before the 1950s, drugs, especially sedatives, were used extensively in psychiatric hospitals and prescribed to outpatients. However, they received little attention because they were generally regarded simply as a means of chemical restraint.1,2 However, during the 1950s and 1960s new ranges of drugs were introduced into psychiatry. Views about how they worked gradually transformed: they came to be seen not simply as inducing useful but crude states of sedation and passivity, like the older style drugs, but as acting to reverse underlying psychiatric diseases.

The naming of psychiatric drugs reflects this assumption; so ‘antipsychotics’ are thought to act on the biological abnormality that produces symptoms of psychosis or ‘schizophrenia’, ‘antidepressants’ are thought to reverse the basis of depressive symptoms, ‘mood stabilisers’ are thought to help rectify the process that gives rise to abnormal fluctuations of mood and ‘anxiolytics’ are thought to address the biological mechanism that creates anxiety.

1. Moncrieff, J. (1999). An investigation into the precedents of modern drug treatment in psychiatry. History of Psychiatry 10(40 Pt 4), 475–90.
2. Braslow, J. (1997). Mental ills and bodily cures. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

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