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The Challenge of Going Off Psychiatric Drugs

3 minute read

When I was doing my counselling internship I once worked with a client that I couldn’t work with. That is to say, he was so distraught that he couldn’t focus enough to answer even simple questions. His thoughts were racing away from him such that his voice couldn’t keep up, and he’d sometimes end up grabbing his head and screaming in frustration. (I always wondered what my supervisor made of the howls coming from my room!) So I sent my client to a psychiatrist who put him on an anti-anxiety drug.

It worked like a charm. The next session we were able to talk: he was a university student, had set himself unattainable goals, was falling short and saw his dreams and his life collapsing as a result. He began to improve immediately, setting more reasonable goals, speaking to his parents about his disappointment and no longer trying to be Mr. Perfect to everyone. We got him off his drugs within a few weeks, and the anxiety never returned.

This was a textbook case of the way drugs can help us. Unfortunately, this is more the exception than the norm.

In previous articles I’ve talked about the limitations of the drugs that are used to alleviate emotional suffering: The limited effectiveness of antidepressants, the addictiveness of anti-anxiety medication and the side effects of ADHD drugs. I’ve described how the effectiveness of psychiatric drugs have been oversold and dangers minimized — not because of ‘evildoers’ in the system, but rather because of how good and decent people respond to warped incentives.

In my own practice, the misuse of psychiatric drugs is a relatively small problem. From time to time someone will have been prescribed benzodiazepines for their anxiety, only to find their anxiety escalate to full blown terror. Or someone will have been prescribed a “mood stabilizer” for their non-existent bipolar disorder, and find themselves sleeping 14 hours a day, impervious to the sound of multiple alarm clocks. Or very occasionally I’ll see someone with weight gain, diabetes and the beginnings of a nasty and irreversible involuntary twitching called tardive dyskinesia as a result of the anti-psychotics they’ve been taking.

Unfortunately, my practice isn’t representative of the rest of the western world, where something called ‘polypharmacy’ is rampant. That’s where a patient ends up taking multiple drugs which end up causing far more problems than they solve.

The New Yorker magazine published the riveting story of a young woman whose life was ruined for many years by the enthusiasm psychiatrists have for prescribing drugs. Laura Delano started off with an antidepressant. This made her so sleepy that she was given a second drug to help her stay awake. This worked so well that she couldn’t sleep, so she was given sleeping pills. The combination of these medications caused large fluctuations in her mood, which the psychiatrist diagnosed as bipolar disorder, for which she was prescribed an anticonvulsant and an antipsychotic — drugs which can have terrible side effects.

Laura was initially convinced that these medications were “precision instruments that could eliminate her suffering.” Instead, she ended up feeling so terrible she tried to kill herself. And after 19 different medications over 14 years, feeling no better, she decided to get off medication entirely. She has since started a website devoted to helping others taper off their psychiatric drugs.

Would Laura have done better had she never been prescribed drugs? It’s impossible to say, but it’s also hard to see how she could have done worse. So if you find yourself caring for a disturbed loved one (or being disturbed yourself) and hear psychiatrists prescribing drug after drug….well, you might want to read Laura’s story before saying yes.


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