We propose a ‘drug-centred’ framework for understanding the nature of drug treatment in psychiatry. In contrast to the prevailing ‘disease-centred’ model, which suggests that drugs work by targeting underlying abnormalities, the drug-centred model maintains that drugs exert their effects through their psychoactive properties. According to this view, distinctive drug-induced alterations to normal cognition, emotion and behaviour can modify the manifestations of mental disorders independent of diagnosis or aetiological theory. The drug-centred approach already forms the basis of some current practice, particularly off-label prescribing. Within this framework, the matching of drug-induced effects to symptoms or difficulties, taking into account the unwanted aspects of the drug-induced state, becomes the focus of a collaborative endeavour between doctor and patient, consistent with the principles of the recovery model. More research into the full range of effects that psychiatric drugs produce is required to ground a judicious drug-centred practice and inform psychiatric training.