By Marvin Ross and Dr David Laing Dawson
As a medical writer and as someone who works in the daily trenches of serious mental illness in my own family, I find people like Robert Whitaker dangerous. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he is a medical journalist from Boston who is highly critical of the long term use of medication for schizophrenia even though he is neither a scientific researcher nor clinician.
My earlier criticisms of his work appeared in the Huffington Post as Journalists are not medical experts and Leave the schizophrenia diagnosis to the experts please.
One of Whitaker’s key criticisms is that the long term use of antipsychotics in the treatment of schizophrenia makes people worse not better. A group of researchers in New York set out to see if they could replicate what they called his “troubling interpretation” and published their results in a recent issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
Their hypothesis was what Whitaker contended that the long term use of antipsychotics resulted in worse outcomes than people who are not treated. They wondered if a systematic appraisal of all the literature would produce the same results as claimed by Whitaker. They looked at 18 studies which included the four that Whitaker used. They pointed out that Whitaker used an additional 6 studies to come to his conclusion but they did not include them because they were review articles that did not report separated data on the exposure groups or were ecological studies which did not report on individual level data.
Of the 18 studies they looked at, only 3 supported the hypothesis that long term treatment with medication causes harm to patients. 8 studies found the opposite and 7 were mixed. These researchers, however, also did not find that long term treatment resulted in greater benefits than harm which is, frankly, not surprising. Some recent studies show that some people with schizophrenia can manage well without long term drug use which Whitaker likes to cite. But there is also no way to predict who can actually achieve that. That is a caveat in all those studies and a fact that Whitaker seems to ignore. (see my post on leave the diagnosis to experts).
Lumping all people with schizophrenia together for a study is bound to have problems since schizophrenia is very likely more than one disease. When Bleuler first coined the term schizophrenia in 1908, he called it the schizophrenias to indicate that it was more like a spectrum than a single entity. Unfortunately, science has not reached the point where the different forms can be identified. An editorial in the January 1, 2016 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry makes that very point. Current treatment algorithms, it says, do not take into account the substantial interindividual variability in response to antipsychotic drugs.
And, a recent study of first episode patients published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found a greater relapse for those who went off medication after they were stabilized. Decisions to try to reduce doses and to go off are best left to the individual patients working with their psychiatrist. Going off or staying on medication is described by my blogging colleague Dr Dawson who has close to 50 years clinical experience treating patients in a variety of situations. Here is what he has to say:
We doctors over treat at times and under treat at other times. And occasionally we get it just right.
Studies show that family doctors are much more likely to under treat than over treat (pain, depression, arthritis), with specialists erring in the other direction. This is as one would expect, for specialists receive their patients after a family doctor has deemed the case too complex, too resistant to a first line of treatment, or simply beyond her zone of knowledge, skill and comfort.
I have been guilty of both under treating and over treating, probably more often the former. These are type 1 and type 2 errors. If we work to totally eliminate one type of error we will increase the incidence of the other.
We need to be vigilant catching both types of error and correct or ask for help, without letting our egos get in the way.
My patient tells me she is feeling much better now that she has stopped taking those pills I prescribed for her. And at that moment I must allow my feeling of relief and pleasure seeing her look and sound better over-ride this small insult to my ego. Unless I know for sure this is a relapsing illness that will re-emerge within a few weeks, perhaps worse than before.
I also know that it may take a relapse or two or three before we are both sure it is better to suffer the minor discomforts caused by these pharmaceutical agents than the blackness of severe depression, the torture of obsessions, the horrors of psychosis, or the social destruction of mania.
It is really a very small percentage of people who have suffered these severe illnesses who would willingly give up the medication that treats and prevents them. I am usually the one to suggest it may be time for a cautious reduction.
And those that quit them and return to a state of depression, obsession, psychosis, or mania do so for a variety of reasons. Occasionally the side effects were much too severe, or the drug was not helping much. The financial cost too much to bear. The very fact of needing these medications to keep sane can be, for some, an intolerable thought. A manic may remember the ecstasy and not the night in a jail cell, for which he can blame others. Another may find that the drugs he can buy on the street give him, at least temporarily, total relief. Still another may quit simply because there is no one near to remind him, to support him, occasionally to insist. And then a few who prefer to believe their true nature consists of special powers, a supreme intelligence, a grand future, clear reason to be, to be loved by a movie star, to be a hero, to have a unique relationship with God, to have a clear and present or distant antagonist – who prefer to live with this sense of self no matter the earthly consequences – which can always be explained away – than to accept the earth-bound but often meager existence provided by faithfully taking one’s medication.
But most people, when sane, prefer to remain sane, even if it means a dry mouth, a little dizziness upon arising too quickly, blood tests more frequently, a harder time keeping weight under control.
As one patient recently said to me: “Thank God for these big pharmaceutical companies.”
To which I responded, “Not everyone would share that sentiment.”
And he then said, “Why not? Without them you and I would be having this conversation in the asylum.”