The medical and mental health community speak out about the dangers of “antipsychotic” drugs and proven, non-drug alternatives

The medical and mental health community speak out about the dangers of “antipsychotic” drugs and proven, non-drug alternatives

A couple of decades ago, big pharma promised to revolutionize the treatment of serious mental health concerns with a new class of atypical antipsychotic drugs such as Abilify and Seroquel. In terms of financial success, those two drugs were “revolutionary.” They are now the 5th and 6th most commonly prescribed drugs in America — despite mounting evidence that questions the efficacy and safety of these drugs (e.g. the huge CATIE and CUtLASS trials). Prominent members of the psychological and psychiatric communities are sounding the alarm about the overuse of these drugs and the erosion of other forms of treatment, particularly evidence-based psychosocial approaches.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Richard Friedman, M.D., expresses concern over increasing use of these drugs for unproven conditions, calling the use of “antipsychotic” drugs to treat everything from anxiety to insomnia as “unbelievable.” Studies on the use of antipsychotics to treat anxiety have failed to show that they are effective and there is no FDA approval for any atypical antipsychotic for the treatment of any anxiety disorder. Despite this lack of evidence, a recent study showed that prescribing of antipsychotics by psychiatrists for anxiety almost doubled between 1996 and 2007.  In this study, 21% of individuals who sought treatment from a psychiatrist for an anxiety disorder in 2007 were prescribed an antipsychotic drug versus  11% in 1996. Moreover, as Dr. Friedman points out, antipsychotics, including  newer “atypical” drugs, frequently have serious side effects such as increased blood lipids and cholesterol, irreversible movement disorders, and weight gain. If these statistics are correct, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the US alone who are taking antipsychotic medications for conditions they have been shown to not work with and suffering under the serious side effects of these medications.

Dr. Friedman is not alone in sounding the alarm. Just this year, the editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP), probably the most influential psychiatry journal in Britain, called for an “end to the psychopharmacological revolution.” In this piece in BJP, he stated that the prescription of antipsychotic medications needs to be drastically reduced. He stated that the side effects of antipsychotic drugs are too extreme to justify their limited benefit, even in the treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, for which there exists the largest evidence base supporting the use of these drugs. He stressed that non-drug therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, are proven, effective, and affordable alternatives that need to be used much more frequently. This statement comes from someone who is a prominent member of the medical and psychiatric communities, where drug treatments are usually preferred over psychosocial interventions.

Psychological treatments for schizophrenia, anxiety, and other mental health conditions continue to advance and are becoming more readily available. Based on the current state of the evidence on the use of antipsychotics and the rapidly growing evidence for the use of psychological versus pharmacological treatments, consumers of mental health services need to understand that there are effective alternatives to medications. While it is our opinion that there can be a role for medication in the treatment of mental health difficulties, we want consumers to be informed about the limited effectiveness of antipsychotics, the large potential downsides of using this kind of medication, and the availability of effective psychological treatments. Big pharma is not going to send this message, and people need to be able to make informed choices about their mental health care.

Many in the scientific community are sounding the alarm about the rapidly growing use of antipsychotic medications. But is that alarm loud enough to be heard above the incredibly well-funded big pharma marketing campaigns? We hope so.

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