Medication glossary

Here are some common phrases about mental health medication explained


Serotonin, a chemical in the brain that helps to prevent low mood.

AC (ante cibum)

An abbreviation used by doctors to mean 'before food' (from the Latin 'ante cibum') when they prescribe medicine. The medicine works best with as little food as possible in the stomach. You could take it one hour before a meal or two hours after a meal.


Acute is a term used to refer to something severe and often sudden. For example, you may have an acute reaction to a medication.


Addiction is not having control over doing, taking or using something harmful. As well as drugs and alcohol, a person can become addicted to sex or gambling.

Adverse effect

A side effect that may be caused by the medicine, and is not part of the good effect that it is supposed to have on your symptoms. An adverse effect could also come from taking too much.


An ‘overreaction’ by the body to a medicine, for reasons we do not really understand. It might affect some people but not others. For example, some people have an allergy to penicillin antibiotics. The symptoms can be very serious, such as breathing problems, and can even cause death if the person does not get help straight away.


Anti-Anxiety medication is a group of drugs which may be used to treat the symptoms of anxiety. It includes medications such as olanzapine.


A medicine to help lift mood by rebalancing chemicals in the brain. There are different groups of antidepressants, like SSRIs (like fluoxetine and citalopram) and tricyclics (like amitriptyline).


A medicine that can be used to treat allergies or hayfever. They sometimes cause drowsiness as a side effect.


Medicine used to treat psychosis.


Medicines used to treat anxiety, including diazepam, lorazepam and alprazolam. Sometimes antipsychotics or betablockers are also used to relieve the symptoms of anxiety.

Approved mental health professional assessment

An approved mental health worker is a mental health worker who has received special training to provide help and give assistance to people who are being treated under the Mental Health Act. They can help to assess whether a person needs to be compulsorily detained (sectioned) as part of their treatment.

Atypical antipsychotic

Newer medicines used to treat psychosis – including olanzapine, quetiapine, risperidone and aripiprazole. Sometimes called "second generation antipsychotics".

Autoimmune disease

An illness where the body's immune system is fighting against the person's own body to cause sickness. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis and type one diabetes.


Very old group of medicines no longer used for mental health conditions. They are sometimes used in the treatment of epilepsy.

BD (bis die)

Twice a day (from the Latin 'bis die'). Every 12 hours if possible, so an example might be 8am and 8pm.


A group of medicines used to treat anxiety and sleep problems. Examples are diazepam and lorazepam.

Branded medicine

A name that the company gives to its medicine. Not the actual medicine name. For example, Prozac® is one brand name for the medicine fluoxetine.

British National Formulary (BNF)

Reference book for health professionals about all medicines available in the UK.


Medicines that you take by mouth. Often oval shaped to help you swallow them. They may contain gelatin.

Care coordinator

A professional who makes sure that all the people involved in your care are working together. You should speak to your care coordinator if you are having any issues or questions about your treatment.

Care plan

This is a plan agreed by you, your family, and your doctor or the person working with you. It should look at what your needs are, and what is going to happen to meet those needs and help you.

Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT)

A talking therapy which helps you see how early relationships and experiences have affected the way you see yourself and other people, and how you behave. It usually takes about 16 weekly sessions and focuses on problems that are important for you.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

A talking therapy that involves working with people to help them change their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. It can be especially helpful for conditions like anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A course of CBT usually takes 6-12 sessions.


Pharmacist – health professionals working in community pharmacies and hospitals who are trained to give advice about medicines.


The term 'chronic' means long term and may refer to a mental health condition, e.g. a chronic case of depression.

Chronic Medication Service (Scotland)

A service offered by community pharmacists (chemists) in Scotland for NHS patients who have long-term conditions requiring medicines. It includes a repeat prescription service and review of your medicines by the pharmacist.

Community Pharmacy Urgent Supply Service (CPUS) (Scotland)

A service for NHS patients in Scotland. The community pharmacist can supply a small amount of medicines for long-term illnesses if the doctor is not available (for example at the weekend).


A term used to describe a patient with more than one mental health condition. It can also describe a patient who has a physical illness and a mental health condition.

Controlled drug

A medicine that is covered by special rules and laws regarding its supply on prescription. These medicines are normally stored in a locked cupboard in the pharmacy or on the hospital ward. Examples include temazepam and methylphenidate.

Controlled release

A medicine which is absorbed by the body slowly when it is taken. An example is a controlled-release tablet which is taken once every 24 hours (compared to the normal release tablet which is taken two or three times daily).

Care Plan Approach (CPA)

Health providers and social services work together to provide care and treatment to people with mental illnesses who are not in hospital. It is made up of four parts – Assessment, Care Plan, Key Worker and Regular reviews.

Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN)

Psychiatric nurses who work mostly outside of a hospital, through GPs’ surgeries, community mental health teams, mental health centres or psychiatric units

Community Treatment Order (CTO)

An order given to a patient when they leave hospital to make sure that they continue treatment. This might involve agreeing to take your medication so you don’t get ill again.

Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)

A talking therapy for people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). It is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and helps you manage your emotions.

Dependence (drug dependence)

Being dependent (on drugs or alcohol for example) means you don’t feel you can function without them. If you have a high level of dependence you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them

Depot injection

An injection of medicine which is given into the muscle of the arm, leg or buttock. It allows medicine to be released into the body very slowly over weeks or months. Usually depot injections of antipsychotics are given weekly, fortnightly or monthly.


A medicine or substance which can bring on a low mood. Alcohol can act as a depressant in some people.


The label given by doctors to a particular set of signs and symptoms. Examples of diagnosis types in the area of mental health include depression, schizophrenia or bipolar affective disorder.

Discontinuation symptoms

Uncomfortable effects that you may experience if you stop taking a medicine quickly or suddenly.


A chemical which is made by the brain. It affects mood, emotions and movement. People with Parkinson’s disease have too little dopamine in the brain. Levels of dopamine can be affected by some medicines for schizophrenia.


The number of tablets or capsules or spoonfuls that you have to take at one time, and how often you have to take it. An example may be ‘one tablet twice a day’.


An American book that lists mental health issues and their symptoms to help doctors make a diagnosis. The DSM is not used in the UK where we use the ICD-10 instead.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

A medical test which records the electrical activity of the heart. You might have an ECG if you are having chest pains or an abnormal heart rate. It is a painless procedure that can be carried out by your GP or at a hospital.

Electronic Care Plan Approach (eCPA)

A Care Plan that is stored online. See CPA.

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

ECT is a treatment for severe depression. It involves a small electric current being passed through your brain. It is very rarely used on children and young people.

Electroencephalogram (EEG)

A medical test which records the electrical activity of the brain. It can be used to diagnose and manage a range of conditions including epilepsy and insomnia as well as brain injuries. An EEG is painless, takes 30-45 minutes and rarely causes any side effects.

Early Intervention In Psychosis (EIIP)

A service which works with people after their first experience of psychosis. Services usually work with people aged 14-35 and provide a range of support and treatments which may include medication. See Anti-Psychotics.

Emergency supply

A method where a community pharmacist can give a small amount of prescription-only medicine without a doctor’s prescription if the doctors' surgery is closed. Usually only used at weekends or evenings for medicines that should be taken continuously. The pharmacist can only supply medicines that the patient has been prescribed before by their doctor.

First generation antipsychotic

Sometimes known as typical antipsychotic. The first group of antipsychotics to be available for patients. They have a different set of side effects to the newer second generation antipsychotics.

Generic medicine

A medicine that is an exact copy of an original brand of a medicine. It works in the same way as the original but may be cheaper as the manufacturer does not have to pay for the cost of research of the new medicine.


General Practitioner. A doctor who works in a surgery in the local community. Can treat a wide range of illnesses. Will refer people to hospital doctors or outpatient clinics if the illness cannot be treated quickly in the community.

Home Treatment Team

The Home Treatment Team (sometimes called Crisis Resolution Services) help people at home rather than in hospital when they are having a crisis or struggling with a severe mental health issue.

International Classification of Diseases (ICD)

The World Health Organization (WHO) system for classifying physical and mental disorders of which ICD-10 is the most recent (1992).

Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

A ward in a hospital which provides intensive treatment or therapy e.g. Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

Intramuscular (IM)

Some medicines and vaccines are given IM, which means they are injected into the muscle by a nurse or doctor. Usually the top of the arm, side of the leg or the buttock area is used.


Someone who stays in hospital to receive care and treatment. People who get treatment outside of hospital are known as outpatients.


Insomnia is difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning. Insomnia is often treated with medication.

Intravenous (IV)

Some medicines are given IV. This means they are injected directly into a vein. IV medicines act very quickly so they are useful in emergency situations or in a hospital. Some illicit drugs are also taken this way.

Licensed medicine

A medicine that has been approved by the health authority of a particular country for use to treat certain illnesses.

Lithium toxicity

Lithium is a medicine commonly prescribed to treat bipolar affective disorder. If the dose of lithium is too high the patient can get lithium toxicity, which causes side effects such as nausea, tremor and kidney problems. The doctor will usually reduce the lithium dose or may stop lithium treatment. People who are prescribed lithium will have regular blood tests to look for early signs of lithium toxicity.


A form of medicine that you swallow from a spoon instead of taken as a tablet or capsule.

Long-acting injection

An intramuscular (IM) injection that is given weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The medicine is slowly released into the body to avoid the need for daily doses. Some antipsychotics are available as long-acting injections.

Major tranquiliser

The old name for antipsychotics.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

A type of antidepressant. This group of antidepressants can interact with some foods that contain tyramine. People that are prescribed them have to follow a careful diet.

Microgram (mcg)

A measure of weight. Some medicines are prescribed in doses of micrograms. There are 1000mcg in one milligram.

Medicines Use Review (MUR) (England and Wales)

A free service offered by community pharmacists. The pharmacist will discuss your medicines with you in private. They will help you with any problems with your medicines, answer questions you may have and help you to get the best from your medicines. Any pharmacist can do this for you but there is a formal scheme for this in England and Wales.

Medium secure unit (MSU)

Medium secure units provide hospital care for people with complex mental health problems who may have become involved in the criminal justice system.

Mental Health Act

The Mental Health Act 1983 is the main Act of Parliament setting out the rights of people receiving mental health services. It allows the hospital to either compel you to be admitted to hospital, or prevent you from leaving hospital. Health workers use the law when they believe that it will be a risk to you or to others if you are not in hospital.

Milligram (mg)

A measure of weight. Some medicines are prescribed in doses of milligrams. There are 1000mg in one gram.

Minor tranquiliser

The old name for anxiety treatments.

Millilitre (ml)

A measure of volume. Some liquid medicines are prescribed in millilitres. There are 1000 ml in one litre.

Mood stabiliser

A group of medicines used to treat bipolar affective disorder. They help to balance moods to avoid periods of mania or depression. They are usually taken long-term (for several months or years).


This is the old name for the group of medicines called antipsychotics.

New Medicines Service (NMS)

This is a service provided by community pharmacies, which provides advice and support to people with long-term conditions that have been prescribed a medicine for the first time. It is initially focused on particular patient groups and conditions.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)

provides national guidance and advice to improve health and social care.


Not Otherwise Specified. Some people’s symptoms may fit part of but not all of the criteria for a mental health disorder, for example you may have some of the symptoms of anorexia but not all of them and would be diagnosed with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified).

OD (once a day)

OD is an abbreviation used by doctors to mean once a day when they prescribe medicines.

Off label

When medicines are made, the drug manufacturer applies for a license that means the medicine has been approved for a specific condition and group of people. ‘Off-label’ use means that the medicine is being used in a way that is different to that described in the licence. Doctors may have found that the medicine works very well for another condition, and the use may be supported by expert groups, but the drug manufacturer has not extended the licence.

Over the Counter (OTC)

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy without a prescription from a shop e.g. paracetamol


If you get mental health treatment in the community without having to stay in hospital, you are known as an outpatient.


An overdose is when a drug is taken in quantities that are larger than recommended, either on purpose or by accident. It can result in serious illness or death. If you have taken an overdose on purpose or by accident call 999 immediately.

PC (post cibum)

An abbreviation used by doctors to mean 'after a meal' (from the Latin word ‘post cibum’) when they prescribe medicines. Some medicines are affected by food and so should be taken at meal times.


A healthcare professional who is an expert on medicines and focuses on safe and effective medication use. They can work in a high-street pharmacy or in a hospital. See Pharmacy.


The study of how medicines act on living organisms. This can lead to new drug discoveries, as well as a better understanding of the way in which the human body works.


Pharmacy is the science and technique of preparing and dispensing medicines. A place where pharmacy is practised is called a pharmacy, a chemist's or a dispensary.

Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU)

A specialist place in a hospital that provides intensive treatment to people with mental health problems for a short period of time.

PO (per os)

An abbreviation used by doctors to mean 'by mouth' (from the Latin word ‘per os’) when they prescribe medicines.

PR (per rectum)

An abbreviation used by doctors to mean 'by rectum' (from the Latin word ‘per rectum’) when they prescribe medicines.

Prepayment certificate

If you usually pay for your prescriptions in England and are prescribed more than three medicines a month, it will work out cheaper to get a prepayment certificate from the NHS. You can buy three- or 12-month certificates.


An instruction written by a medical practitioner (usually a doctor) that authorises a patient to be issued with a medicine or treatment. Prescriptions are then taken to a pharmacy to get the medicines dispensed. 

PRN (pro re nata)

An abbreviation used by doctors to mean 'when required' (from the Latin word ‘pro re nata’) when they prescribe medicines.


A medical doctor who is trained in and specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. You may be seen by a Psychiatrist at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or Adult Mental Health Services.

Q [x]h

Q [x]h is an abbreviation used by doctors to mean every x number of hours when they prescribe medicines. The x will be replaced by a number and this is how frequent they want the medicine to be used.

QDS or QID (4x a day)

QDS and QID are abbreviations used by doctors to mean 'four times a day' when they prescribe medicines.

QQH (every 4 hrs)

An abbreviation used by doctors to mean 'every four hours' when they prescribe medicines.


A period in which symptoms are absent or under control. The illness may be said to be 'in remission'.

Royal College of Psychiatrists

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is the main professional organisation of psychiatrists in the United Kingdom. See Psychiatrists.

Second-generation antipsychotic

These are the newer types of antipsychotics, also called atypical antipsychotics. Examples include risperidone, quetiapine and aripiprazole.


Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another. Imbalances of serotonin are involved in depression.

Serotonin syndrome

Serotonin syndrome is a group of symptoms that are associated with too much serotonin in the body. This can occur from a combination of medicines that increase levels of serotonin e.g. antidepressants, or too much of a medicine that increases levels of serotonin e.g. overdose.

Short-acting injection

Short-acting injections work quickly and are used by doctors when they need the medication to start working very quickly — like during a crisis episode or hospitalisation. They commonly include lorazepam (a benzodiazepine) and haloperidol (an antipsychotic).

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is used to describe all of the day-to-day things you can do which may help you sleep better e.g. having a good bedtime routine.

Serotonin Noradrenaline Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

A type of antidepressant which works on two chemicals (serotonin and noradrenaline) in the brain. An example is venlafaxine.

(N.B. Noradrenaline is sometimes known as norepinephrine.)

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

A type of antidepressant which works on serotonin in the brain. Examples include citalopram and fluoxetine.


Stimulants can be used as legal substances, prescription medicines or illicit drugs. Stimulants include caffeine, nicotine, amphetamine and cocaine. On-prescription amphetamines are used for the treatment of ADHD.

Suicidal ideation

A medical term for thoughts about or an unusual preoccupation with suicide.


This is a formulation of medicines in a liquid form.

Sustained release

Sustained-release tablets release the active ingredient over an extended period of time, meaning more constant drug levels, fewer side effects and less frequent dosing.


This is a formulation of medicines which are taken by mouth.

Talking therapies

Therapies such as counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), group therapies and psychotherapy in which change is achieved by talking to one or more other people in a controlled environment.

Tardive dyskinesia

This is a side effect of long-term use of typical antipsychotics which results in abnormal movements.

TDS (3x a day)

An abbreviation used by doctors to mean 'three times a day' when they prescribe medicines.


This is a type of antidepressant used to treat depression. Examples includes lofepramine, imipramine and clomipramine.

Typical antipsychotics

Also known as first-generation antipsychotics, these are the original or older type of antipsychotics.


When medicines are made, the drug manufacturer applies for a license that means the medicine has been approved for a specific condition and group of people. Unlicensed medicines are ones that are do not have a license in the UK. They may be imported from another country where they are licensed, or specially made liquid formulations of a medicine. Unlicensed medicines are only prescribed after careful consideration of other options.

World Health Organisation (WHO)

A part of the United Nations that is concerned with international public health.

Withdrawal symptoms

Uncomfortable effects that you may experience if you stop a medicine quickly or suddenly.

'Yellow Card’ system

A system for the public and health professionals to report side effects from medicines.

Z drugs

This is a class of medicines that are used for insomnia, if people are having problems sleeping. They should only be used for a short time as they can lead to dependence, and should be used alongside sleep hygiene. Examples include zopiclone and zolpidem.

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