Feature Archive

Mental Illness: Is 1 Drug Better Than 2?

Mixing mental illness drug 'cocktails' is still more art than science.

By Daniel DeNoon
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

They call them drug cocktails. They're becoming the vogue for mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But mixing drugs is still more art than science.

If you have a serious mental illness, it's becoming more likely that you'll be treated with multiple drugs. Doctors call this polypharmacy. Polypharmacy is common for conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and HIV infection. The basic idea is to attack the mental illness on multiple fronts, using different drugs with different actions.

That's the upside. It can offer mental illness patients tremendous benefits when doctors have a careful, rational plan for trying multiple drugs. But there's a downside, too, says Andrew C. Furman, MD, director of clinical services for psychiatry at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University.

"Unfortunately, in the majority of cases doctors are just throwing everything they possibly can at a mental illness in hopes that something will get better," Furman tells WebMD.

That happens too often, agrees Alan J. Gelenberg, MD, head of psychiatry at the University of Arizona and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.