In 2006, Joanna Moncrieff asked why it was so difficult to stop psychiatric drug treatment? Received wisdom had answered that the difficulty arises from the underlying illness manifesting itself as the therapeutic effects of the medication becomes weaker. This presumes that the medications have disease-specific actions; that there is a disease-centered model of psychotropic drug action. But what if it had nothing to do with the original problem? Moncrieff suggested that problems experienced after psychiatric drug withdrawal were often related to the withdrawal process rather than the underlying condition. “If this is the case, then the recurrent nature of psychiatric disorders may be partially attributable to the iatrogenic effects of psychiatric drugs.”
She reviewed several case study examples to illustrate this concern and then indicated there were two possible mechanisms for withdrawal related disorders from this evidence. First, there were pharmacodynamic adaptations that took place. Long-term use of drugs that suppresses particular neurotransmitters (like serotonin in SSRIs) seems to cause an increase in number or a supersensitivity of the relevant receptors. When the receptors are no longer influenced by the drug, there is an over-activation of the neurotransmitter system—a rebound effect.
This may result in the characteristic discontinuation syndromes, may cause rapid onset psychosis and may act a source of ‘‘pharmacodynamic stress,’’ which increases vulnerability to relapse.
A psychological reaction to the medication withdrawal, either by others or the patient, can also trigger symptoms or increase the patient’s vulnerability to relapse. Moncrieff said: “In my experience, psychological reactions by patients, staff and carers are important determinants of the success or failure of drug discontinuation, a proposition that is open to empirical testing.”
Moncrieff seems to be suggesting two things here. First, the importance of recognizing that post withdrawal symptoms will occur when a drug is tapered or stopped. Second, the importance of a system of support to the person seeking to successfully taper or stop their medications. Both of these factors are well known to anyone attempting to establish and maintain abstinence from addictive substances.
Along with David Cohen, Jonna Moncrieff suggested that we rethink our models of psychotropic drug action in their 2005 article. They noted the predominant “disease-centered model” of drug action that presumed psychiatric medications worked by acting on a specific disease process. In contrast, they suggested a “drug-centered model” that focused on the physiological, behavioral and subjective effects of the drug. Here, the therapeutic value of a drug stemmed from the usefulness of its effects in clinical situations. There is no presumption that it corrects some biological abnormality.
Moncrieff has also presented the differences between the disease-centered and the drug-centered models of drug action in her book, The Myth of the Chemical Cure. Moncrieff and Cohen used the distinction in a 2006 article, “Do Antidepressants Cure or Create Abnormal Brain States?” Applying the disease-centered model to antidepressants, they said:
Modelled on paradigmatic situations in general medicine—such as the use of insulin in diabetes, antibiotics in infectious disease, chemotherapy in cancer—the disease-centred model suggests that antidepressants help restore normal functioning by acting on the neuropathology of depression or of depressive symptoms.
Instead they proposed the drug-centered model was a better explanation for the observed drug effects in psychiatric conditions. “Instead of relieving a hypothetical biochemical abnormality, drugs themselves cause abnormal states, which may coincidentally relieve psychiatric symptoms.” After completing their analysis, they suggested that the term “antidepressant” should be abandoned, as the drugs were not treating a specific disease state.
Our analysis indicates that there are no specific antidepressant drugs, that most of the short-term effects of antidepressants are shared by many other drugs, and that long-term drug treatment with antidepressants or any other drugs has not been shown to lead to long-term elevation of mood.
This then brings us to “the elephant in the room”: a frank discussion on “The Psychoactive Effects of Psychiatric Medication” by Moncrieff, Cohen and Porter. They said when viewing the influence of psychiatric medications through the disease-centered model of action, their psychoactive effects have been obscured. “Despite six decades of intensive research in neuropharmacology … there is a lack of evidence that psychiatric drugs have a disease-specific action independent of their demonstrable psychoactive effects.” Approaching psychotropics as drugs that produce immediate and delayed psychoactive effects, with tolerance and dependence suggests that a radical change of thinking is needed.
Lessons from the use and misuse of other psychoactive substances can help to enlighten us about the broad range of behavioral effects that different psychiatric medications are likely to exert, and how these effects might interact with the psychological, behavioral, and other problems we call mental disorders.
Individuals who are prescribed psychiatric medications in this manner should be treated as consumers, “rather than passive recipients of diagnosis-driven prescribing.” The subjective experience of the individual would guide the use of psychiatric medications in a “collaborative dialogue” with the prescriber—rather than changes in symptoms or clusters of symptoms. “Only when we appreciate the nature of psychiatric drugs as psychoactive substances can we start to accumulate the knowledge necessary to enable prescribers and consumers to use these drugs safely and effectively.”
I heartily agree that we need to promote a drug-centered model of psychiatric drug action. However, additional changes will need to be made. Otherwise, the consumer-driven marketing model—“Ask your doctor if “X” is right for you”—will continue largely unchanged. Direct to the consumer advertising by Pharma will have to stop. Changes in how pharmaceuticals are approved though the FDA will have to occur. Better methodologies need to be developed for the approval process.
Transparency in pharmaceutical research needs to become the norm. Closer scrutiny into the potential harm and negative side effects has to occur, including long-term negative side effects. The psychoactive effect of drugs and its potential as negative side effect in all pharmacological products has to be weighed equally with the potential therapeutic benefit.