The Challenge of Going Off Psychiatric Drugs | The New Yorker
Laura had always assumed that depression was caused by a precisely defined chemical imbalance, which her medications were designed to recalibrate. She began reading about the history of psychiatry and realized that this theory, promoted heavily by pharmaceutical companies, is not clearly supported by evidence. Genetics plays a role in mental disorder, as do environmental influences, but the drugs do not have the specificity to target the causes of an illness. Wayne Goodman, a former chair of the F.D.A.’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee, has called the idea that pills fix chemical imbalances a “useful metaphor” that he would never use with his patients. Ronald Pies, a former editor of Psychiatric Times, has said, “My impression is that most psychiatrists who use this expression”—that the pills fix chemical imbalances—“feel uncomfortable and a little embarrassed when they do so. It’s kind of a bumper-sticker phrase that saves time.”
Dorian Deshauer, a psychiatrist and historian at the University of Toronto, has written that the chemical-imbalance theory, popularized in the eighties and nineties, “created the perception that the long term, even life-long use of psychiatric drugs made sense as a logical step.” But psychiatric drugs are brought to market in clinical trials that typically last less than twelve weeks. Few studies follow patients who take the medications for more than a year. Allen Frances, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke, who chaired the task force for the fourth edition of the DSM, in 1994, told me that the field has neglected questions about how to take patients off drugs—a practice known as “de-prescribing.” He said that “de-prescribing requires a great deal more skill, time, commitment, and knowledge of the patient than prescribing does.” He emphasizes what he called a “cruel paradox: there’s a large population on the severe end of the spectrum who really need the medicine” and either don’t have access to treatment or avoid it because it is stigmatized in their community. At the same time, many others are “being overprescribed and then stay on the medications for years.” There are almost no studies on how or when to go off psychiatric medications, a situation that has created what he calls a “national public-health experiment.”
Roland Kuhn, a Swiss psychiatrist credited with discovering one of the first antidepressants, imipramine, in 1956, later warned that many doctors would be incapable of using antidepressants properly, “because they largely or entirely neglect the patient’s own experiences.” The drugs could only work, he wrote, if a doctor is “fully aware of the fact that he is not dealing with a self-contained, rigid object, but with an individual who is involved in constant movement and change.”
A decade after the invention of antidepressants, randomized clinical studies emerged as the most trusted form of medical knowledge, supplanting the authority of individual case studies. By necessity, clinical studies cannot capture fluctuations in mood that may be meaningful to the patient but do not fit into the study’s categories. This methodology has led to a far more reliable body of evidence, but it also subtly changed our conception of mental health, which has become synonymous with the absence of symptoms, rather than with a return to a patient’s baseline of functioning, her mood or personality before and between episodes of illness.
Antidepressants are now taken by roughly one in eight adults and adolescents in the U.S., and a quarter of them have been doing so for more than ten years. Industry money often determines the questions posed by pharmacological studies, and research about stopping drugs has never been a priority.
Barbiturates, a class of sedatives that helped hundreds of thousands of people to feel calmer, were among the first popular psychiatric drugs. Although leading medical journals asserted that barbiturate addiction was rare, within a few years it was evident that people withdrawing from barbiturates could become more anxious than they were before they began taking the drugs. (They could also hallucinate, have convulsions, and even die.)
Valium and other benzodiazepines were introduced in the early sixties, as a safer option. By the seventies, one in ten Americans was taking Valium. The chief of clinical pharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital declared, in 1976, “I have never seen a case of benzodiazepine dependence” and described it as “an astonishingly unusual event.” Later, though, the F.D.A. acknowledged that people can become dependent on benzodiazepines, experiencing intense agitation when they stop taking them.
In the fifth edition of the DSM, published in 2013, the editors added an entry for “antidepressant discontinuation syndrome”—a condition also mentioned on drug labels—but the description is vague and speculative, noting that “longitudinal studies are lacking” and that little is known about the course of the syndrome. “Symptoms appear to abate over time,” the manual explains, while noting that “some individuals may prefer to resume medication indefinitely.”
Audrey Bahrick, a psychologist at the University of Iowa Counseling Service, who has published papers on the way that S.S.R.I.s affect sexuality, told me that, a decade ago, after someone close to her lost sexual function on S.S.R.I.s, “I became pretty obsessive about researching the issue, but the actual qualitative experience of patients was never documented. There was this assumption that the symptoms would resolve once you stop the medication. I just kept thinking, Where is the data? Where is the data?” In her role as a counsellor, Bahrick sees hundreds of college students each year, many of whom have been taking S.S.R.I.s since adolescence. She told me, “I seem to have the expectation that young people would be quite distressed about the sexual side effects, but my observation clinically is that these young people don’t yet know what sexuality really means, or why it is such a driving force.”