Some patients are better off without antipsychotic drugs – psychiatrist

An excellent and most welcome piece in Washington Post Dec 9 by Psychiatrist Dr Sandra Steingard reflecting on her own struggle, wanting  to do the best for patients who struggle but also her own struggle with knowing what best to do.

LM-SandySiengardShe tells the story of the introduction of powerful tranquilizers that became rebranded “anti-psychotics”, bombarded by powerful messaging about powerful drugs that can have powerful beneficial effects but also create powerful long term problems bigger than the ones they treat – for many people who take the drugs the consequences are deadly serious.

Then along came new generations of drugs sold as more effective, without ill effects turning out to be just as problematic, oversold and perhaps under tested in the heat of one of the biggest marketing wars ion history.

Eventually, her own dissatisfaction and inquiry took her beyond the messaging and advertising and acceptable community of practice protocols to reading about the work of Robert Whitaker, and doubting herself – if he’s right then everything I’ve been doing for twenty years has been wrong”

After  rereading the original research herself she came to the same conclusion – some people do better with meds, some do better taking meds for a while then stopping, others do better with no meds at all.

The new problem we are now face with is that we just don’t know who fits into each of these groupings.

Sandra Steingard’s  shift of mind brought her to the place where Doctors can do their best work:  not  making decisions for patients but working closely with each person, taking into account not only  symptoms but the  whole person, their whole life; weighing up the difficulties they face, options, risks and benefits;  not pretending to have magical fixes but taking cautious steps -step by step- to figure out together what works best for each person, each life; and making difficult choices together – focussed not on eradicating symptoms but on helping patients find better quality of life – on their own terms.

Perhaps this is a “recovery story” of a different kind – in which a doctor recovers a real sense of what it means to practice as a doctor.

Thank you to Dr Sandra Steingard for showing that it can be done, and for sharing your experience of finding your own way…

For Docs everywhere – There you go Doc,what are you afraid of ?  you can recover too.

A psychiatrist thinks some patients are better off without antipsychotic drugs

Washington Post NavyYardShootingMattMcClain

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST – First responders converged on the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16 after Aaron Alexis, who had said that he was “hearing voices,” opened fire, killing 12 people.

By Sandra Steingard, Published: December 9 

What does it mean that the man who killed 12 people at the Washington Naval Yard had told people that he was “hearing voices”?

I have spent 30 years as a psychiatrist treating people who are psychotic. Almost every day I meet with individuals who hear voices that no one else hears, are sure the TV or radio is talking to them or have such confused thinking that it is hard to understand what they are trying to tell me.

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Sometimes these patients lead quiet lives. But not uncommonly these voices get them into trouble. I’ve had patients who call the police repeatedly, demanding that they stop bugging their phone. And others who stay up all night talking back at the voices. Some accuse family members of being involved in the torment.

In many cases, this is a frightening experience — for the people I see and those who love them. And the labels we use — “schizophrenia,” “bipolar disorder,” “psychosis” — only crudely capture these experiences.

About 60 years ago, a group of drugs was discovered that appeared to quiet the voices, improve the clarity of thought and lessen the preoccupation with delusion beliefs. Originally called major tranquilizers and later renamed antipsychotic drugs, these have been considered essential for the treatment of people with schizophrenia.

Once it was clear that these drugs were helpful in the short term, questions arose over how long people should remain on them. Studies done in the 1970s and 1980s looked at people who were stabilized after being treated with antipsychotic drugs for several months and then followed them for up to two years. Some continued on the drugs, while others stopped taking them. The relapse rate was much higher in the group that stopped the medications. Based on these studies, treatment guidelines now state that people should stay on anti-psychotics indefinitely.

The problem with “indefinitely” is that antipsychotic drugs have many troubling side effects. They can cause muscle stiffness, tremor and something called tardive dyskinesia, where muscles in the face or limbs move uncontrollably. But the belief — my belief — was that this was the unfortunate price paid to help people who were suffering.

Many people do not want to take these drugs because of the side effects or because they do not think of themselves as ill. After all, if the government is using telemetry to transmit messages into your brain, the solution is to turn off the source of the transmission, not to take a pill. I considered myself a successful psychiatrist when I was able to use my powers of persuasion to convince a reluctant patient to stay on the drugs.

Yet, over the past 15 years, my attitude has shifted. I have become deeply disturbed by the marketing practices that many pharmaceutical companies began to use in the 1990s to push their new medications.

Like many of my colleagues, I awaited the new drugs with enthusiasm, hoping that they would have fewer terrible side effects. Leading psychiatrists who had worked on the development of the drugs also said that they not only were less likely to cause neurological problems but also were more effective.

Quickly, though, I started to think that their benefits were being inflated and their side effects minimized. With one drug in particular, it was clear after a year that my patients were gaining weight at alarming rates: 20, 30, even 100 pounds in a matter of months, a real threat to their health.

Researchers test such new drugs on people for years before they reached the market, but little attention was focused on this issue and only then in the context of a product war — i.e., whether one drug caused more weight gain than others. Only a decade after they were released to the market was it widely acknowledged that severe weight gain was common with many of the newer anti-psychotics, increasing the risk of diabetes. Given that people may take these drugs for decades, the health consequences are serious.

But bigger may not be better. A study gives more reasons to be wary of parking kids in front of the tube.

Yet until 21 / 2 years ago, I still thought that prescribing antipsychotic drugs was necessary. After all, a good number of my patients ended up in the hospital or, worse, the police station, when they stopped taking their medications. I did not think I had any other option than to continue to employ my now well-honed powers of persuasion to convince them to stay on their drugs.

And then I read Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” in which he wondered why, if these new drugs were so great, we were seeing increasing numbers of people on disability for psychiatric conditions. He looked at the studies of long-term outcomes, and what he found surprised me and many of my colleagues: Although it is very hard to do a definitive study that follows people for many years, the research suggested that, over time, the people who remain on these drugs do worse than those who stop using them.

Those who remained on the drug were less likely to return to work or develop meaningful relationships. Of equal concern, it appeared that brain shrinkage — thought initially to be due to the illness itself — was in fact caused by the drugs. Even when monkeys took these drugs for a period of months, their brains shrank.

If Whitaker was right, everything I had been doing for 20 years was wrong. Many psychiatrists have accused him of cherry-picking the data or distorting the findings of the studies. I have spent much of my time rereading the articles and studies he cites, looking for others, talking to colleagues and reading as much criticism of his work as I can find.

And what I concluded is that Whitaker is probably right.

The dilemma

This created a dilemma for me: If the drugs that are helpful in the short run may be harmful over time, what do I do for the person who is unable to have a conversation because the voices in his head are so loud?

If the medications stop the voices, do I suggest he come off the drugs and risk relapse? Or do I suggest he stay on them and reduce his chances for a full recovery? If I suggest that he stop the drugs and then something bad happens, I may be blamed for his relapse, while I am unlikely to be blamed 30 years from now when he has diabetes.

Doctors are held to a standard of “accepted community practice.” What if my own research has led me to a conclusion that is at odds with accepted community practice? What if accepted community practice is so distorted by pharmaceutical advertising in favor of these drugs that it is suspect and unreliable?

A psychiatrist thinks some patients are better off without antipsychotic drugs

Two years ago, I decided to invite my patients into this conversation. I explain to them what I have read and what conclusions I have drawn, as well as the conflicting views of other psychiatrists.

I have been monitoring those who have chosen to wean themselves from the antipsychotic drugs they have been taking, in some cases for 20 years or more. What has been most striking is that my patients make careful and deliberate decisions. Many psychiatrists fear that having this conversation will lead to massive dropping of the drugs, but this has not been my experience. Some do — most often, the ones who have stopped them multiple times in the past — but most are cautious. Of the 64 people I have tracked, 40 decided to try a dose reduction, 22 chose to remain in their current dose and only four abruptly stopped taking their medications.

Some might think my approach cavalier. When we read about Aaron Alexis, who heard voices and shot 12 people before being killed at the Washington Navy Yard, it raises our fears. However, it is important to keep in mind that the problems I describe are common and that the vast majority of people who experience psychosis are not likely to be violent toward others. One study found an increased risk of violence only among those with mental illness who also abuse drugs or are young men. Such risk factors and an individual’s history would, of course, be a part of any decision about whether to wean someone off medication.

In this context, a blog post by Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, received much attention this year. Insel described a Dutch studyinvolving 103 people treated for schizophrenia and related disorders. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: Half remained on drugs continuously; the others stopped taking drugs when they became well but restarted them if symptoms emerged. After seven years, the researchers found that those who were not continuously on drugs had a much greater likelihood of getting a job and resuming their regular life activities than those who remained on medications. Remember that people who stop drugs have a higher rate of relapse? It turns out that over the seven years, those who remained on the drugs relapsed as often as the others.

“For some people, remaining on medication long-term might impede a full return to wellness,” Insel wrote. “For others, discontinuing medication can be disastrous.”

The problem is that we do not know who is in which group.

A slow reduction

A man I have known for many years has had some serious bouts with psychosis. He has been hospitalized multiple times, and his thoughts have put him — though not others — at personal risk. However, the medications have also put him at risk. He is now overweight and has diabetes and his kidneys are not working well. He spends a good part of his day sleeping and the rest watching TV.

We have tried in the past to reduce his dose, but these efforts have never gone well. Within days he would be hallucinating and delusional. However, recently we found that with a very slight reduction in dose, he would relapse for about a month but then improve. Perhaps it was his age or greater experience, but he was able to get through the bad days without getting into trouble, and once things quieted down in his mind he felt better. We have agreed to slowly proceed.

His family supports his choice. We all understand the risk of dose reduction, but we see it in the context of all of the risks. Maintaining his current dose is not without consequence. I have known him for a long time, but the problems of schizophrenia tend to start early and he is still a young man. Even if it takes five years to get him on a significantly lower dose, we have the opportunity to improve the long-term quality of his life.

The Dutch study shifted the focus away from the belief that we need to eradicate all symptoms of schizophrenia to a focus on improving the quality of patients’ lives and health, the relationships they have, the work they do. Some people can learn to live with voices. Some people find that the voices have a significant meaning for them and that communicating with them is what is most important. Some people can learn to talk themselves down from delusional thoughts. And some people might choose hearing voices over being 30 pounds overweight and tired all of the time. The point is that this is not a choice I should be making for my patients; it is a choice I need to make with them.

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3 Responses to Some patients are better off without antipsychotic drugs – psychiatrist

  1. Reblogged this on both sides of the wall and commented:
    I’m thinking this may need to be printed out and shown to everyone that insists I should be on meds to be in treatment… I think pharmaceutical companies have WAY TOO much power (as evidenced by the increasing use of Clozaril to “help quiet suicidal thinking” in people who are not otherwise considered psychotic. When I worked with that drug, it was instilled in us how dangerous the drug can be, and that it should only be used as a last resort medication… It causes so many physical problems, yet they prescribe it to so many people…
    But I digress, yeah. I really like this article. Take a read and see what you think.


  2. I think I need to print this out and carry it with me… thanks for sharing 🙂


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