06/24/15

Debating the Harm from Psychotropics

© iqoncept | 123RF.com

© iqoncept | 123RF.com

In mid-May of 2015, there was a public debate on whether the long-term use of psychiatric medications causes more harm than good. Before saying “Boring” and moving on to something else, realize that prescriptions for antidepressants are on the rise —increasing by 7.5% in Britain since 2013 and over 500% since 1992. Recent research has shown that more people are taking antidepressants for longer periods of time, “often because they become dependent upon them and cannot stop.” Yet there is no good research into the safe long-term use of these drugs.

It seems that the challenge for the debate grew out of several prominent British psychiatrists publically criticizing the launch of the Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry, an organization aimed at starting a dialogue about the use of psychiatric drugs and treatments. The two sides of the debate jointly published a paper in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).  The original BMJ press release, now removed from the site, inexplicably did not include a declaration of interests for one of the speakers against the motion, Alan H. Young. So what?

Young was initially in print as saying he had no interests to declare, while in fact he had several. This was important information to reveal, not only because it is a BMJ policy, but also because Young was planning to challenge the premise of whether long-term use of psychiatric medication causes more harm than good. In other words, his financial and professional ties to the pharmaceutical industry were initially not reported in a debate where he was defending the use of psychiatric medications. You can view the original press release here; the revised one here. Look at the bottom right column on page 2 for both.

This mistake was caught by one of the speakers for the motion, Peter Gøtzsche, who also reported a series of actions that appeared to be aimed at undercutting  Gøtzsche’s credibility and the information he presented. You can read his description of these “bizarre events” related to the Maudsley debate here. You can review the debate here. Gøtzsche opened his time to speak during the debate by estimating that psychiatric drugs were the 3rd leading cause of death among people aged 65 and over.

I have estimated, based on randomised trials and cohort studies, that psychiatric drugs kill more than half a million people every year among those aged 65 and above in the USA and Europe. This makes psychiatric drugs the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer. The drugs furthermore cripple tens of millions. There are no benefits that can justify so much harm.

Gøtzsche also described how clinical trials include patients already taking other psychiatric medications. These participants are then rapidly withdrawn for their medication. If they are randomly placed in a placebo group, they often experienced withdrawal symptoms. “This design exaggerates the benefits of treatment and increases the harms in the placebo group, and it has driven patients taking placebo to suicide in trials in schizophrenia.”

He called for the establishment of withdrawal clinics to help patients slowly and safely taper off of psychiatric drugs. He estimated that 98% of all psychotropic drugs could be stopped without causing harm. In the revised BMJ press release, it says “we could stop almost all psychotropic drugs without causing harm.” Gøtzsche said this replaced his original statement. This could be accomplished by dropping all antidepressants, ADHD medications, and dementia drugs. Only a small percentage of the antipsychotics and benzodiazepines currently used should be continued.

This would lead to healthier and more long-lived populations.  Because psychotropic drugs are immensely harmful when used long term, they should almost exclusively be used in acute situations and always with a firm plan for tapering off, which can be difficult for many patients.

The Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry (CEP) began on April 30th of 2014 with an event at the House of Lords and the release of a publication entitled: Unrecognized Facts about Modern Psychiatric Practice. This is linked on the CEP website. You can get a quick introduction to some of the CEP members and what they believe by viewing some short videos linked on their homepage. One of the innovative ways they have attempted to provide a bridge between the public, policy makers and legislators, and the research community that investigates the areas where psychiatry has caused harm, although the intention has been to help.

Unrecognized Facts is a nifty slide show that presents various facts about modern psychiatric practice, with links on each slide to further available information. Here are a few of examples of what you can find there.

Myth of the Chemical Imbalance

Psychiatric drugs have often been prescribed to patients on the basis that they cure a ‘chemical imbalance.’ However, no chemical imbalances have been proven to exist in relation to any mental health disorder. There is also no method available to test for the presence or absence of these chemical imbalances.

Worse Long-Term Outcomes

There has been little research on the long-term outcomes of people taking psychiatric drugs. The available studies suggest that all the major classes of psychiatric drugs add little additional long-term benefit, and for some patients they may lead to significantly worse long-term outcomes.

 Long-Lasting Negative Effects

Psychiatric drugs can have long-lasting negative effects on the brain and central nervous system, particularly when taken long term, which can lead to physical, emotional and cognitive difficulties.

Negative Effects Are Often Misdiagnosed

Psychiatric drugs can have effects that include mental disturbance, including suicide, violence, and withdrawal syndromes. These can be misdiagnosed as new psychiatric presentations, for which additional drugs may be prescribed, sometimes leading to long-term use of multiple different psychiatric drugs in the same person.

10/29/14

Creating Chemical Imbalances

“Rather than fix chemical imbalances in the brain, the drugs create them.” (Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic)

One of the most enlightening books I’ve read recently was Anatomy of an Epidemic, by Robert Whitaker. In the foreword, Whitaker said he originally believed that psychiatric drugs were like “insulin for diabetes.” He believed that psychiatric researchers were discovering the biological causes of mental illnesses and that this led to the development of a new generation of psychiatric drugs that helped “balance” brain chemistry. Then he stumbled upon some research findings that challenged that belief, “and that set me off on an intellectual quest that ultimately grew into this book.”

What follows is a collection of quotes from Anatomy of an Epidemic and a chart containing data on psychiatric medications.  There is little additional commentary by me. The power of the quotes is underscored by the sales and prescription data in the chart.

Some of the quotes were handily gathered together for me on Goodreads. My chart is a combination of a listing of the top 25 prescribed psychiatric medications in 2013 found on PsychCentral and data for 2013 pharmaceutical sales on Drugs.com. It follows the rank order given by John Grohol on PsychCentral for the top 25 most prescribed psychiatric medications in 2013.  I then included the sales data found on Drugs.com from its list of the top 100 pharmaceutical drugs by gross retail sales for the listed drugs.

Drug

Prescriptions-2013

Use

Sales-2013

Xanax (alprazolam)

48,465,000

Anxiety

Zoloft (sertraline)

41,416,000

Depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, PMDD

Celexa (citalopram)

39,445,000

Depression, anxiety

Prozac (fluoxetine)

28,258,000

Depression, anxiety

Ativan (lorazepam)

27,948,000

Anxiety, panic disorder

Desyrel (trazodone)

26,242,000

Depression, anxiety

Lexapro (escitalopram)

24,920,000

Depression, anxiety

Cymbalta (duloxetine)

18,573,000

Depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy

5,083,111,000

Wellbutrin XL (bupropion)

16,053,000

Depression

Effexor (venafaxine)

15,796,000

Depression, anxiety, panic disorder

Valium (diazepam)

14,754,000

Anxiety, panic disorder

Paxil (paroxetine)

14,335,000

Depression, anxiety, panic disorder

Seroquel (quetiapine)

14,326,000

Bipolar disorder, depression

1,183,989,000

Amphetamine salts (Adderall)

12,785,000

ADHD

727,892,000

Risperdal (pisperidone)

12,320,000

Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, iirritability in autism

Vyvanse (lixdexamfetamine)

9,842,000

ADHD

1,689,091,000

Concerta ER (methylphenidate)

8,803,000

ADHD

Abilify (aripiprazole)

8,747,000

Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression

6,293,801,000

Wellbutrin SR-W (bupropion)

8,238,000

Depression

Buspar (buspirone)

8,065,000

Sleep, anxiety

Vistaril (hydroxyzine)

8,052,000

Anxiety

Amphetamine salts ER (Adderall)

7,925,000

ADHD

Zyprexa (olanzapine)

5,101,000

Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia

Concerta/Ritalin (methylphenidate)

5,335,000

ADHD

1,383,814,000

Pristiq (desvenlafaxine)

3,217,000

Depression

Of the top 25 prescribed psychiatric drugs in 2013, 13 were to “treat” anxiety; 13 were to “treat” depression; 4 were to “treat” panic disorder; 4 were to “treat” bipolar disorder; and five were to “treat” ADHD. As the chart indicates, some of the medications are used for two or more disorders. In fact, 11 of the top 13 prescribed medications in 2013 could be used for anxiety; 10 of the top 13 could be used for depression.  Three of those were benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan and Valium); nine were antidepressants of some type (Zoloft, Celexa, Prozac, Desvrel, Lexapro, Cymbalta, Wellbutrin, Effexor and Paxil); and one, Seroquel, was an antipsychotic.

In addition to causing emotional distress, long-term benzodiazepines usage also leads to cognitive impairment (137). Although it was thirty years ago that governmental review panels in the United States and the United Kingdom concluded that the benzodiazepines shouldn’t be prescribed long-term … the prescribing of benzodiazepines for continual use goes on (147). Antidepressant drugs in depression might be beneficial in the short term, but worsen the progression of the disease in the long term, by increasing the biochemical vulnerability to depression. . . . Use of antidepressant drugs may propel the illness to a more malignant and treatment unresponsive course (160). In a recent survey of members of the Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association, 60 percent of those with a bipolar diagnosis said they had initially fallen ill with major depression and had turned bipolar after exposure to an antidepressant (181). Given that the biology of ADHD remains unknown, it is fair to say that Ritalin and other ADHD drugs ‘work’ by perturbing neurotransmitter systems. . . . Cocaine acts on the brain in the same way (227).

Disturbing, huh?

Only six of the most widely prescribed medications were among the 100 best sellers. The six best selling psychiatric medications in the order of their sales were: 1) Abilify ($6.294 billion); 2) Cymbalta ($5.083 billion); 3) Vyvanse ($1.689 billion); 4) Concerta/Ritalin ($ 1.384 billion); 5) Seroquel ($1.184 billion); 6) Amphetamine salts (found in Adderall, $727.9 million). Part of the explanation for the difference is that the majority of the prescribed psychiatric medications are now off patent and available as generic drugs. So they typically don’t make as much money for pharmaceutical companies. An example would be how Abilify was the top grossing prescription for all medications in 2013, but only the 18th most prescribed medication.

With the exception of VyVanse, I’d expect most of the six to also drop out of the top 100 selling drugs of the next few years. Abilify’s patent expires in October of 2014. Cymbalta’s patent expired in December of 2013. Vyvanse’s patent will expire in 2023. Concerta’s patent expired in 2011. Seroquel’s patent expired in 2012.

If you expand the boundaries of mental illness, which is clearly what has happened in this country during the past twenty-five years, and you treat the people so diagnosed with psychiatric medications, do you run the risk of turning an anger-ridden teenager into a lifelong mental patient? (p. 30) We have been focusing on the role that psychiatry and its medications may be playing in this epidemic, and the evidence is quite clear. First, by greatly expanding diagnostic boundaries, psychiatry is inviting and ever-greater number of children and adults into the mental illness camp. Second, those so diagnosed are then treated with psychiatric medications that increase the likelihood they will become chronically ill. Many treated with psychotropics end up with new and more severe psychiatric symptoms, physically unwell, and cognitively impaired. This is the tragic story writ large in five decades of scientific literature (209). Twenty years ago, our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, and now one out of every fifteen Americans enters adulthood with a “serious mental illness.” That is proof of the most tragic sort that our drug-based paradigm of care is doing a great deal more harm than good. The medicating of children and youth became commonplace only a short time ago, and already it has put millions onto a path of lifelong illness (246). For the past twenty-five years, the psychiatric establishment has told us false story. It told us that schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar illness are known to be brain diseases, even though … it can’t direct us to any scientific studies that document this claim. . . . Most important of all, the psychiatric establishment failed to tell us that the drugs worsen long-term outcomes (358).