Here are my initial reactions to the New Yorker’s The Challenge of Going Off Psychiatric Drugs:
Which populations are most likely to receive large numbers of psychiatric medications?
The woman described in the article comes from a family of money and privilege. These individuals (and families) have both the time and money to seek out psychiatrists who practice “precision psychopharmacology”. These psychiatrists then order complicated medication regimens that ostensibly address and “correct” neuroreceptors. As a consequence, people end up taking multiple medications.
There are also individuals who do not have money or privilege, but are subjected to psychiatric services due to the concerns of the public. They may be behaving in ways that endanger their own lives or the lives of others. As a consequence, they receive medications—sometimes willingly, sometimes through coercion—that aim to reduce certain behaviors. If one medication doesn’t reduce the behavior, then more are added.
What these two populations have in common are (a) the lack of clarity around diagnosis, which often stems from (b) missing information about the person and the context in which s/he lives.
I completely agree with Dr. Frances’s comment from the article:
[There is 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.”
The meanings of diagnosis and treatment, particularly medications.
Some people feel relief upon learning that their symptoms belong to a diagnosis, that what they have is “real”. Others don’t want the “label” of a psychiatric diagnosis; they are not damaged human beings.
For various reasons (e.g., the current primacy of biological psychiatry, insurance reimbursement, psychiatry’s seeming inferiority complex within medicine), treatment in psychiatry is often focused on medications. This is not ideal. Medications are a biological solution, though our understanding of the biology of the brain and mind remains limited.
In the meantime, doctors recommend that people take pills. Some people view pills as a necessary intervention to keep them healthy and well. Some people view pills as a shameful reminder that there is something wrong with them that will never improve. The more pills someone has to take, the more potent the reminder that they are beyond hope or repair. Some people view pills as an external validator of their pain and suffering: “Someone else believes and understands my pain and these pills remind them and me that my pain is real.”
The pills may not be treating what psychiatrists think they are treating.
The problems with psychiatric diagnosis.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) focuses only on the “what”, not the “why”.
It doesn’t matter why someone has a depressed mood, takes no pleasure in work or play, can’t sleep, won’t eat, and feels hopeless. The underlying reason could be the cardiologist’s realization that he should have pursued his dream of becoming an architect… or it could be the threat of eviction after losing one’s job.
This affects the way psychiatrists gather a history from people seeking care. Instead of learning the context behind one’s symptoms, psychiatrists now focus on whether certain symptoms are present or absent. What matters more is that she feels paranoid, not that the paranoia started when she learned that her father was molesting her sister.
To be clear, there are some instances in which the underlying “why” doesn’t matter. If someone is terrified of flying on a plane, there are treatments (e.g., exposure therapy) that can help people tolerate plane rides without getting into the reasons why this fear appeared in the first place.
In other instances, though, the “why” is often relevant. Since our understanding of the biology of the brain and mind are limited, we don’t know if the biological properties of Medication A are more useful in military veterans who have fought in combat or if those of Medication B are more useful in women who experience major depression after the birth of a baby. Even if evidence suggests that medications aren’t the best treatment for either population, it is often the easiest intervention to deliver. This is due to the context and underlying “whys” of the health care system.
All of the other psychiatrists.
It’s true that there is scant evidence about how to taper and stop medications. It is a shame that psychiatry, as a field, has nothing to say about deprescribing. The scientific literature has plenty to say about adding medications, but nothing that extols the virtues of taking them away. There are risks to stopping medications, yes, but why are psychiatrists unimpressed with the risks of starting them? In this way we have failed not only the people who receive care from us, but we also fail the people who step in to help in our absence: Other physicians, nurses, family members, friends.
When I consider the psychiatrists I have worked with with, many of them have helped people come off of medications. They work with their patients and go through the trial-and-error process together. While they may not work in ivory towers of acclaim, they are still doing the work of helping people make informed choices about their care so they can lead healthy and meaningful lives. These are the quiet anecdotes that will never make it into the New Yorker.
Psychiatry as an agent of social control.
This is not the first time I’ve written about psychiatry as an agent of social control.
What does it mean that “antidepressants are taken by one in five white American women”? Is this a reflection of white American women? Or a reflection of the society and systems that want to contain white American women?
What does it mean that African- and Latinx-Americans are more likely to receive diagnoses of psychotic disorders? Is this a reflection of these populations of color? Or a reflection of the society and systems that want to contain these populations?
Perhaps there needs to be a “Challenge of Going Off Psychiatric Drugs” for the field of psychiatry. To be clear, there is definitely a role for medications in the treatment of psychiatric disorders, though: first, do no harm. When The Royal We have more humility about what we do and do not know, and exercise more care in current pharmacological tools, then perhaps getting on or going off of psychiatric drugs won’t be a “challenge”.