What Psychoanalysis Can Tell Us About the Symbolic Meanings of Psychiatric Drugs

Psychoanalytic researchers examine the different symbolic meanings that individuals can attach to psychotropic drugs.


A recent article published in Psychoanalytic Psychology explores the symbolic meanings that are sometimes attached to psychotropic drugs. Italian psychologists Arianna Palmieri, Silvia Zidarich, and Johann Roland Kleinbub argue that psychiatric medications should not be understood exclusively as having physiological effects but as being mediated by symbolic meanings as well. These meanings range from more universal and “iconic” effects to idiosyncratic “personification” effects. According to the authors, paying greater attention to the symbolic aspects of taking psychotropic drugs can help prescribers and service users work better together toward psychological healing.

“In general terms, we are persuaded that the influence of any PD [psychotropic drug] on a patient’s mind is mediated by its symbolic meaning, which affects many aspects of the therapeutic relationship,” the researchers write, adding:
“In the words of Wieder and Kaplan, ‘Symbolic importance is attached not only to the (chemical) agent itself, which may represent an object or part object” but also to “the act of using it and also to the physiological concomitants, which stimulate fantasies, or are secondarily incorporated into them.’”

Service users and those critical of psychiatry continue to question the medical model of mental illness, particularly its over-reliance on psychotropic medications.

As part of the medical model’s “worldview,” it is understood that psychiatric drugs have consistent physiological effects. Recently, research on the “symbolic” effects of psychiatric drugs—placebo, for example—has become more central, in addition to “natural” or “basic” physiological effects.

Psychologist Irving Kirsch has pointed to the significance of what he calls “response expectancy,” which states that what people believe about a medication they will receive can affect the course of the treatment.

The current article more closely examines the “symbolic” effects of psychotropic drugs or their “psychological meaning.” The authors describe two different levels of symbolic meaning: “iconic” (stereotypic) and “personification,” or personal. They suggest a “semiotic” and “relational” perspective of their own, focusing on the relationship between a prescriber and someone who is prescribed psychotropic drugs as an essential part of the symbolic meaning of taking medication.

According to the authors, “symbolic meaning” can be understood, from a psychoanalytic and psychodynamic perspective, as a comparison between two terms. A classic example here is Freud’s belief that phallic-shaped objects in dreams (such as a tall building) can represent an actual phallus.

Freud believed that there were two different levels of symbolic meaning: meanings that are more “universal” and originate from a culture or folklore, and meanings that are more personal and unique to an individual’s psychological history.

More recently, the terms “personification” and “iconic” have been suggested.

“Iconic” meanings are exemplified by a sense of being “nourished” or literally fed, in Freud’s original view. The authors state that people with “dependent personalities” can come to rely heavily on psychotropic drugs, for this reason, attaching a “vital nourishment” meaning to them. This “dependence” can end up being desirable because it provides a way of dealing with the person’s concerns without having to make any decisions or life changes.

As another example, some individuals who experience “paranoia” may resist psychotropic drugs because of attached meanings related to being invaded or controlled from the outside.

For those with “narcissistic traits,” adhering to psychotropic treatment can be experienced as a “capitulation” to the therapist or psychiatrist, losing the “arm-wrestling match” of the psychotherapy situation.

“Personification” meanings related to psychotropic drugs have to do with the psychotropic drug coming to symbolically represent a person, such as a caregiver, the psychiatrist, or even the person themselves. This has different implications for different kinds of people.

According to the authors, for example, individuals can feel like a psychotropic drug is a “transitional object” which takes on symbolic characteristics of a parental caregiver without needing the actual person to always be available.

Alternatively, an individual can understand a psychotropic drug as symbolic of an intrusion by the therapist.

Providing a clinical case study of a “personification” meaning, the authors explain:

“Thomas was a successful professional who grew up as an orphan because his parents abandoned him at a very early age. During therapy for severe depression, he refused to take any medication. The therapist interpreted his firm rejection of any PDs as a transference of the pharmacotherapy to his lost parents. Just like the antidepressants that he should have taken, his parents were powerful allies whose help he had always wanted, even though he had never been able to rely on them.

The therapist interpreted this as Thomas actively rejecting his parents—personified in the PDs—and asserting his autonomy. By refusing pharmacological support, Thomas was finally turning his lifelong passivity into activity. In other words, he could now choose to be alone instead of submitting to enforced loneliness imposed by the parents who abandoned him. Once Thomas understood the symbolic meaning he had attributed to the antidepressants, the therapist endorsed Thomas’s decision to do without them, as it represented a turning point in his inner life.”

Beyond “iconic” and “personification” meanings, the authors describe their own position as turning toward symbolic meanings within the therapeutic process itself, as a relationship—something they call a “relational and semiotic” understanding.

They state that psychotropic drugs’ symbolic meaning should be understood as a “negotiation of healing significance between patient and therapist,” rather than referring exclusively to associations that individuals make inside their own minds.

They suggest, as a result, moving from talking about medication “compliance” or “adherence” to talking about medication “concordance.” By concordance, they want to emphasize the relational component of prescribing medications—as a negotiation of and “agreement on” healing, encouraging flexibility and interactivity from the prescriber.

As an example of the “co-constructed” nature of symbolic meanings around psychotropic drugs, the authors discuss a clinical case with a woman named Scarlett. Scarlett was taking high doses of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and antianxiety medications. She understood these medications to be “taking care of her.” Through discussions with her therapist, she came to see the medications as a replacement for the care of her father, who had died years prior.

Scarlett and her therapist worked to help Scarlett process the grief of her father and to feel safe without him, which led to her eventually “feeling good” on lower doses of psychotropic drugs. The symbolic meaning of the medications was used by both individuals to identify clinical progress, as she came to rely less on them as a symbolic substitution for her father’s care.

In conclusion, the authors state:

“It is crucial for psychotherapists to bear in mind the symbolic meaning of PDs, which can help them in several dimensions of the treatment such as ensuring pharmacological treatment concordance between patient and therapist or maintaining the therapeutic alliance. Furthermore, this awareness can help dealing with patients requesting the prescription of specific drugs (and the frustration associated with the rejection of such requests) which may represent a hidden desire to avoid facing one’s problems, as in the case of the dependent personality.”



Palmieri, A., Zidarich, S., & Kleinbub, J. R. (2020). Symbolic meaning of drugs in psychotherapy: A psychodynamic perspective. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 37(4), 294–304. (Link)

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Micah Ingle, PhD
Micah is part-time faculty in psychology at Point Park University. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology: Consciousness and Society from the University of West Georgia. His interests include humanistic, critical, and liberation psychologies. He has published work on empathy, individualism, group therapy, and critical masculinities. Micah has served on the executive boards of Division 32 of the American Psychological Association (Society for Humanistic Psychology) as well as Division 24 (Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology). His current research focuses on critiques of the western individualizing medical model, as well as cultivating alternatives via humanities-oriented group and community work.


  1. This all sounds like a way for the mental health industry to absolve itself for deceiving and forcing people into taking psychiatric drugs. I know when I started antidepressants, I thought there was real science and medicine behind it, and that I had a biochemical imbalance in my brain.

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      • Are we sure placebos can’t do long damage? Of course in the short term they help but I think we are all aware that short term “benefits” can reverse and become negative in the long term. I can imagine long term harm if someone attributes their success, ability, and happiness to a placebo instead of their own effort and strength.

        All else equal which person is happier: the one who thinks they are happy because of a placebo or the one who thinks they are happy because of their own effort?

        All else equal which person will be more functional, the one who think they can function if they take a placebo or the one who thinks they can accomplish their goals themselves?

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  2. I do agree the tranquilizing psychiatric drugs “can help” the psychotherapists. I do not agree, however, the psychiatric drugs are likely to help their clients in the long run (or even in the short run, as in my personal case).

    But my psychotherapist’s goal was to cover up the abuse of my child, for her pastor, and his pedophile buddies, according to her medical records. I know “the truth will set you free,” however. So it was actually helpful for me, when I was weaned off those drugs, and the medical evidence of the abuse of my child was finally handed over. Sad as that is to say, but at least I knew the truth.

    And it is sad that the primary actual societal function of both the psychological and psychiatric industries, historically and today, is covering up child abuse.


    I am curious what the ratio of “patients requesting the prescription of specific drugs” is to the number of people who are being forced and coerced into taking these drugs against their will. No doubt, as in my case, for nefarious reasons.

    It is rather a shame that these medically untrained psychological authors – who it sounds like have never tried the psych drugs – think all those who aren’t benefitted by, or don’t want to take the psych drugs, or don’t want to live a lie, are all “mentally ill” (“paranoid,” “narcissistic,” et al).

    I will also state that anyone who believes in the God of the Holy Bible, should know that the “psychotropic drugs’ symbolic meaning” should be viewed as evil. Since the Holy Bible does speak out against the use of “Pharmakia.”

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  3. Well, Gol-ly! I almost died from so much symbolism! Someone Else is correct. If you believe in the God of the Holy Bible, these “drugs” are a sin. However, being that the “psych industry” lacks any soul at all, they would not be interested in any real religion, unless you look to them as “god”; especially Christianity. Thank you.

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