Should psych drugs be avoided at ALL costs?

My brain isn’t functioning today quite honestly so my apologies if the following makes no sense whatsoever. It’s long and I ended up rambling.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about whether there are any benefits to using pharmaceutical drugs. I have blogger friends who are very much anti-pharmaceuticals anything, try to avoid drugs as much as possible but take them if necessary, or think pharmaceutical drugs are a Godsend.

I’m still trying to figure out where I stand.

Pharmaceutical companies are in the business of making money. It is not to their advantage to put out completely shoddy products that do not work. I’m sure many of them bury negative data and findings that do not shed a positive light on their drugs but if something works overall, they’ll put it out there. I don’t believe the doctors who are involved in these trials are all dirty, rotten sell-outs. Some of them are very well-meaning and honest who work to make these drugs as effective as possible. Call me naïve if you like but I just can’t bring myself to believe there are more greedy docs who skew results than there are those who are concerned with advancement.

I don’t think twice about popping Excedrin Migraine when I’ve got a painful, debilitating migraine; I have no problem taking naproxen (aka Aleve) when I’ve got menstrual cramps, and taking ibuprofen isn’t an issue if I have severe muscle pain. I don’t question the safety of these drugs. I’ve used them for so long, they’ve proven to be relatively safe for me (not everyone can tolerate those drugs) and efficacious. The safety risk of taking Excedrin Migraine sometimes outweighs the benefits of not taking it. (Note: I only speak of adults in terms of ingesting this kind of medication.I don’t believe developing bodies, such as youngsters, are able to handle medication that can significantly affect mood.)

When it comes to psych meds, I am not anti-medication. Psych meds should be taken on a case-by-case basis. There are some people who consider these meds to be a life-saver while others complain that it has made them miserable and worsened their lives. This is the gamble people take when choosing to ingest a psych med—most people don’t know that. Trouble is, most people don’t know when the stakes are high enough to take that risk.

I shouldn’t be in a position to judge anyone but when I hear people taking antidepressants based on circumstances—a job loss, failed relationship, loss of a life—I worry that it’s unnecessary. We are becoming a nation that is more reliant on “quick fixes” rather than developing coping mechanisms. It’s easier to pop a pill and dull your emotions than it is to face problems, tackle issues head on, and learn to work your way through it. Case in point: rising unemployment hasn’t slowed sales of antidepressants or sleeping pills.

  • I have an aunt who was a violent paranoid-schizophrenic. She was placed in a mental institution and drugged up the wazoo. Now, she’s basically existing; the lights are on but no one’s home. The drugs have killed her. She’s alive but not really.
  • My father was a non-violent paranoid-schizophrenic. It got to the point where we needed to medicate him to get him on track. The medication helped him to function “normally” but his thought processes and physical ability was significantly slowed. He once told me that he felt useless because my mother was busting her butt at work to pay for my college and he was basically an invalid because his mental illness had prevented him from being able to work. He died 4 months later. A few days after the funeral, my mom began to find his psych meds hidden all around the house. I often wonder if the drugs killed him.
  • Another aunt (this is all on the paternal side of the family) also became a paranoid-schizophrenic. She was a brilliant woman who was basically reduced to moving from place to place to the point where she eventually became homeless and could not hold down a job. She disappeared for a while but during one cold winter, was found and brought into a homeless shelter. She was placed on meds and her cognitive functions returned despite the fact that her speech was sometimes garbled. She traveled the world, went on cruises and various excursions. The change was remarkable. Psych meds improved her life and saved her—the benefits of the drugs outweighed the side effects.

As I withdraw from Lamictal, I am curious to see who I am without this drug. Will my creative juices flow freely once again or are they now somewhat hindered? Will my cognitive functioning correct itself or will I forever suffer from problems? Will my short-term memory loss issues smooth out or will I still suffer from intermittent forgetfulness? I have some side effects that may remain with me for a while or perhaps forever (though I hope not) but seeing others fully recover after taking drugs for 10 times longer than I have gives me hope.

I feel the majority of my progress has come from intensive counseling and being infused with the truths as laid out in the Bible. I’d say 90% of my progress has been due to counseling. I give the meds 10%. You can tell I don’t place much stock in them. But they’ve helped to cut down on the mixed episodes.

So far, I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts are behaviors that are out of the ordinary. (Thank GOD.) I’ve been dealing with a mild depression but that stems from basing my worth based off of my career rather than any biological imbalances. The last time I suffered a severe depression, I was on Lexapro (if that tells you anything).

I’ve gotten a lot of resistance and concern from family members who question my decision to come off of the medication. They’ve seen a miraculous change in me and attribute it to being on meds. Meds aren’t a cure-all. They don’t see the counseling and shifting of thought processes going on that has helped me to develop coping mechanisms. Meds may help people “cope” but they don’t develop the tools needed to cope.

I’ve decided that I’ll probably give that Christian psychiatrist a call. My counselor recommended him and she said that he’s very neutral on meds and doesn’t shove them on anyone. I mentioned that I wasn’t sure if anyone would accept me as a patient only to lose me in the end—she insisted he wouldn’t mind. The intake cost is hefty but since I was able to temp a few days for my job this week—I’m not permanently returning, I can swing it.

Which brings me back to my position on psych meds: I said it earlier but I think it’s a case-by-case basis. In my personal life, I’ve seen the benefits outweigh the side effects and I’ve seen the side effects outweigh the benefits. And I’ve seen benefits (not necessarily beneficial) as a result of side effects. Psychiatry is the biggest medical guessing game of all medical specialties. There are no certainties, and there’s no one medication that works best for everyone. Pharmaceutical companies make it a point to put the disclaimer on the patient information sheet that they’re not exactly sure HOW these drugs work. All that stuff about serotonin, dopamine, and neurotransmitters is pure speculation when it comes to depression. You’ll have me convinced about chemical imbalances once I can get a MRI and blood test done. Until then, it’s all trial-and-error.

So if I do suffer from relapses while withdrawing from this medication and it gets to the point where I may need to be hospitalized, I’m not averse to remaining on the drug. Better to be alive and on a psych drug than dead because I was determined not to use it at risk to my safety. If I end up having to stay on the drug, the future of giving birth to children will seem a bit more uncertain.

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Pharma's "me-too" drugs face skeptical docs and health insurers

As patents expire on a variety of drugmakers’ moneymakers, pharma companies have gone to great lengths to structurally reinvent the successful drugs then tout the benefits that differ from their predecessors.

InvegaCase in point — Johnson & Johnson’s Invega. Invega is the successor to the popular antipsychotic drug, Risperdal, and competitor to AstraZeneca’s widely used antipsychotic Seroquel. Scott Hensley at The Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog (WSJ) reports that Risperdal is going generic in June. Gianna at Beyond Meds recently said it will not. According to the Dow Jones Newswires (DJN), these “junior” drugs face skepticism from health insurers and doctors. California-based Kaiser Permanente and Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH) are example of companies that have somewhat discouraged use of the drug. Kaiser doesn’t cover Invega at all, and members of UNH are required to pay higher copays for the brand name. The wire reports New York-based psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman wasn’t “buying it” the difference between Invega and Risperdal.

Invega is “basically a me-too drug, and the company hasn’t done the studies that would be required to really distinguish it,” Lieberman, chairman of the psychiatry department at Columbia University’s medical school told Peter Loftus of Dow Jones Newswires.

Ouch.

The blog also quotes Daniel Carlat from the The Carlat Psychiatry Report.

Dan Carlat, a psychiatrist and a tough critic of Invega, wrote that J&J’s “marketing team apparently missed the fact that the word in the English language that sounds most like “Invega” is “inveigle,” meaning “to entice, lure, or ensnare by flattery or artful talk or inducements.’ ” He asked doctors: “Will you be doing your patients a favor by taking the plunge? Or will you simply be giving them the same wine in a fancier bottle?”

Even J&J’s Group Chairman of Pharmaceuticals, David Norton, admitted that Invega is a tough sell.

“We need to do a better job at drawing a differentiation in a difficult-to-treat population.

So far, Invega sales have been incredibly disappointing compared to the Risperdal blockbuster.

Wyeth (antidepressant Effexor XR cum Pristiq) and Shire (ADHD drug Adderall XR cum Vyvanse) face the same uphill battle. Wyeth’s Effexor faces generic competition from Teva Pharmaceuticals despite efforts to halt generic sales of the drug and the patent on Shire’s Adderall is set to expire next year.

Hensley, in his analysis, raises a question in which the answer remains to be seen:

Cheap generics abound to treat a broad assortment of illnesses these days. What’s the point, the critics ask, of paying more for drugs that are at best only slight improvements over tried and true medicines available at bargain prices?

It’s something that I’ve questioned myself.

In an attempt to have the “me-too” drugs compete with its derivative, both Wyeth and Shire are slashing their prices, or as the DJN reported, “emphasizing improved dosing for the newer drugs.” Although Pristiq’s efficacy comes at higher doses, it’s being priced 20 percent lower than Effexor.

[Deutsche Bank pharmaceutical analyst Barbara Ryan] thinks the odds of
Pristiq’s success are slim because it appears to offer few benefits
beyond those of Effexor.

That remains to be seen. So far, a few patients have commented on my blog that Pristiq has already begun to help them. I haven’t seen any DTC ads for Pristiq so I can only assume that drug reps are doing a fine marketing job at selling the different benefits of the drug to doctors.

Vyvanse, on the other hand, is looking promising for Shire, already having 7 percent of U.S. ADHD drug prescriptions. Chief Executive Matthew Emmens says the drug is chemically different from Adderall (aren’t they all?) and has better pricing. Shire expects to beat Adderall’s 26 percent peak market share. Seems like a lofty goal to me.

As for Invega, J&J is currently seeking FDA approval to use the drug for bipolar disorder and not just treatment for schizophrenia. It is also l0oking to get approval for an injectable Invega XR.

(Invega logo from Janssen.com)

Physician ratings work for patients; work against some doctors

Thanks to Kevin M.D.'s post, I decided to look up the ratings on a psychiatrist I plan on trying out. She had a poor rating of 1.5 out of 5. Here's the lone comment:

This woman does not believe in medication and that there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance.

I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I'm curious to see what she has to say.

Besides, It's not as if she's Dr. Mark Lipschutz. Oof. A rating of 1.7 from 30 people is NOT a good sign.

I know some doctors are nervous about having patients rate them on their care but I don't see what the big deal is. If the overall care from a doctor is good, doctors should be relishing the opportunity to have free word-of-mouth (so to speak) advertising. For example, this rating works to Dr. Ottenberg's advantage. Naturally, a few patients are going to go out there and ramble on about mistakes that were made, tardiness, mean staff, and the like — nobody's perfect — but ratings from a variety of people can give prospective patients a sense of the bigger picture. It'll help keep the good docs in business and (hopefully) knock some of the bad weeds out.

Analysis of "Depression: Out of the Shadows"


The show is essentially Depression 101 – for those new to learning
about the illness.
As someone who struggles with depression (within
bipolar disorder), I found a lot of the two hours pretty boring (90
minutes on personal stories and about 22 minutes for "candid
conversation"). The "a lot" comes from the stuff that I've either heard before or flies over my head, eg, how depression affects the brain, prefrontal cortex, neurotransmitters, synapses, etc. The personal stories were powerful: depressingly heartwarming. (Yes, I mean that.)

My heart sank as I heard the stories of Emma and Hart, teenagers who were diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, respectively. Both were such extreme cases that they needed to be sent away for special psychiatric care. They are on medications for their disorders; the specific drugs are never mentioned.

While watching Deana's story of treatment-resistant depression, I instantly thought of Herb of VNSDepression.com whose wife suffers from the same malady.

I tried to listen attentively for the antidepressant that Ellie, who suffered from PPD after the birth of her first child, would be taking during her next pregnancy. It was never mentioned.

My jaw nearly dropped to the carpet as Andrew Solomon, carefully plucked brightly colored pills from his pillbox that he takes every morning for his unipolar depression: Remeron, Zoloft, Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, Namenda, Ranitidine, and two kinds of fish oil. He might have even mentioned Prozac. He takes Namenda, an Alzheimer's drug to combat the effects of an adverse interaction between Wellbutrin and one of the other drugs that I can't remember. Solomon says he's happy. I'm happy for him and I'm happy that his drug cocktail works for him but I couldn't help but sit there and wonder, "Isn't there a better way?"

While I thought the stories covered the gamut, in retrospect, I'm surprised they didn't interview a veteran or U.S. soldier to discuss PTSD. If the producers were able to fit in dysthymia, I'm sure they might have been able to throw in a story about a soldier who struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts stemming out of PTSD. Considering all the stories coming out of the VA, it's rather relevant. It would have been more interesting than the Jane Pauley segment. But I'll get to that in a minute.

As I listened to the narrator, I couldn't help but wonder what alternate perspectives could have popped up. For what it was, I fear none. This was a Depression 101 show — a program designed to either get people to fight against fear and stigma and get help or to open the eyes of loved ones to this debilitating disorder. I'm not sure how to slip in an opposing view on medication from a doctor without confusing or scaring people away. What would Healy or Breggin say that would encourage people to seek appropriate care?

Holistic or natural treatment was not mentioned. It's not mainstream and it's not recommended by most doctors as first-line therapy. I would have been surprised had something been said about it.

The depression portion of bipolar disorder was briefly discussed in Hart's story then Pauley added commentary about her personal experience in the remaining 22 minutes of the program.

Pauley appears at the end of the show promising a "candid conversation" on the topic. The three experts: Drs. Charney, Duckworth, and Primm sit and smile politely as Pauley rattles on occasionally about herself. Some people might find her exchange endearing and personal. After the first 3 minutes, I found it annoying. As a journalist, I wish she would have taken the impartial observer approach rather than the "intimate discussion" approach. In my opinion, she seemed to have dominated the "discussion."

It ended up being a Q&A with each doctor. Her questions were focused and direct. I expected a little bit of an exchange between doctors, talking not only about the pros of medication and treatment like ECT and VNS but also the cons. (Should I apologize for being optimistic?) Charney interjected into the conversation maybe once or twice but was only to offer an assenting opinion. Primm spoke least of everyone on the panel. I think she was placed on the show solely to represent diversity.

There were no "a recent study said…" or "critics say such-and-such, how do you address that?" It was a straightforward emphasis on encouraging people to get help or for those suffering to get treatment. Pauley's segment didn't discuss any negatives (not with the medical director of NAMI there!). The closest the entire 2 hours gets to any cons is with ECT shock treatment and giving medication to growing children. The childhood medication thing isn't dwelt on. The basic gist is: Doctors don't understand how medication works in children but are working on trying to understand it and improve its efficacy.

Forgive me for being negative. The point of the program was designed to give hope to those suffering. Instead, it just made me feel even worse. Thoughts raced through my head: "Well, if this doesn't work, then it's on to that. And if that medication doesn't work then I'll probably be prescribed this therapy, and if that doesn't work, then I'm treatment-resistant at which point, I'll have to do…"

I hope the program does what it's designed to do and that's to get those suffering with depression to seek appropriate care. The one upside is that talk therapy was stressed. I'm a huge proponent of talk therapy myself. Let me know what you thought of the show if you were able to catch it.

In the meantime, this depressed girl is going to cure herself for the night by going to bed.

P.S. Is it really fact that depression is a disease?

Loose Screws Mental Health News

Call me old-fashioned (I am 26 after all; that's 62 in technology years) but I don't like the idea of putting my personal health records online. Google Health has just launched in an attempt to rival Microsoft's Revolution Health. GH's site appears way more personalized than RH and the idea of uploading medical records doesn't thrill me. GH has features where you can put in the "general" information people don't mind giving out (ie, height, weight) and personalize the diseases, disorders, or conditions you might suffer from (somewhat like WebMD). This is about as far as I would go in using the site. No way would I upload a PDF from my doctor with my name, address, social security number, and health insurance information on the a site — I don't care HOW secure. Medical identity theft is a reality now and the last thing I need to worry about is some idiot hacker stealing people's medical records online. We already have enough problems with people stealing VA SSNs.

On the topic of health, the AP is reporting that an estimated 300 to 400 doctors commit suicide every year — a rate that rivals that of the general population. (Hat tip: GP Essentials)

As for the VA, the news keeps on getting better and better. The Washington Post reports that psychologists at VA facilities are being told to keep their PTSD diagnoses to a minimum so the VA can stem the tide of veterans seeking disability payments for the condition. Depending on the severity of the disorder, veterans can receive up to a little more than $2500 per month. Norma Perez, PTSD coordinator for a Texas VA facility, sent an internal e-mail to mental health and social workers saying:

Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out."

Instead, she recommended that they "consider a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder."

VA staff members "really don't . . . have time to do the extensive testing that should be done to determine PTSD," Perez wrote.

The Post quotes psychiatrist Dr. Anthony T. Ng who says that "adjustment disorder is a less severe reaction to stress than PTSD and has a shorter duration, usually no longer than six months." This means less payout for the VA.

After the e-mail went public, VA Secretary Jim Peake issued a statement saying that Perez "has been counseled" and "is extremely apologetic." Of course. She has to be. She still has a job. (Credit to Kevin M.D.)

Thoughts on Bipolar Overawareness Week: Part III

In all seriousness, I have wondered about the BPD diagnosis but in my mind, have somewhat fallen short. I don’t think my symptoms are strong enough to be plastered with a BPD label.

To conclude my several-post rambling, I should answer the question that I initially posed. Do I think bipolar disorder is overdiagnosed?

No.

Many of my fellow bloggers will likely disagree with me. Zimmerman’s study at Rhode Island Hospital took into account whether those “diagnosed” with bipolar disorder had a family history of the diagnosis in the family. Maybe I’ve turned to the dark side. Just because I don’t have a family history of bipolar doesn’t mean that I can’t suffer
from the disorder. However, I have a family history of schizophrenia: one father and two aunts. Does this put me at a higher risk for schizophrenia? Definitely. Does this mean I could suffer from bp and have the schizo gene pass me by? You bet. I don’t think that I need a first-degree relative to suffer from bp to make me a classic diagnosis for bp.

For instance, when it comes to my physical appearance, I’m the only one on both sides of the family who suffers from severe eczema to the point where my dermatologist suggested a punch biopsy. Does that mean that I need to have a family history of eczema to obtain the malady? Not necessarily. Why is bipolar disorder any different?

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Great editorial in NYTimes

The New York Times published a great editorial supporting a ban on much of the lavish treatment that doctors get from drug reps. If adopted by medical schools, restrictions would include:

  • Ban on personal gifts, industry-supplied foods and meals, free travel (not reimbursed for services), and payment for attending industry-sponsored meetings
  • Ban on ghostwriting, the practice of drug companies drafting an article and then getting a doc to slap his or her name on it making it look at though the doc actually wrote it
  • Drug samples would have to be submitted to a central pharmacy not individual doctors

The restrictions, however, end there. The editorial says the proposal goes far but not far enough.

Patients need to be assured that their doctors are prescribing what’s best for them, not what’s best for companies.

Can someone get a doctor to read this?

Ghostwriting

According to the International Herald Tribune (IHT), the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has published an article about Merck’s practice of writing research studies and then asking doctors to slap their names on them. This practice has called into question Merck’s marketing of Vioxx, a profitable cardiovascular drug that was pulled off the shelves due to its link to heart attacks.

Merck acknowledged Tuesday that it sometimes hired outside medical writers to draft research reports before handing them over to the doctors whose names eventually appear on the publication. But the company disputed the article’s conclusion that the authors do little of the actual research or analysis.

Continue reading:

One paper involved a study of Vioxx as a possible deterrent to Alzheimer’s progression.

The draft of the paper, dated August 2003, identified the lead writer as "External author?" But when it was published in 2005 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the lead author was listed as Dr. Leon Thal, a well-known Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of California, San Diego.

The second author listed on the published Alzheimer’s paper, whose name had not been on the draft, was Ferris, the New York University professor. Ferris, reached by telephone Tuesday, said he had played an active role in the research and he was substantially involved in helping shape the final draft.
"It’s simply false that we didn’t contribute to the final publication," Ferris said.

A third author, also not named on the initial draft, was Dr. Louis Kirby, currently the medical director for the company Provista Life Sciences. In an e-mail message on Tuesday, Kirby said that as a clinical investigator for the study he had enrolled more patients, 109, than any of the other researchers. He also said he made revisions to the final document.

"The fact that the draft was written by a Merck employee for later discussion by all the authors does not in and of itself constitute ghostwriting," Kirby’s e-mail message said.

Uh, yeah it does.

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Article Analysis – “Breaking it down: Mental health and the African community”

Liz Spikol linked to this article back in December and as a Black American with West Indian heritage (and by default, African and French), I couldn’t resist commenting.

Author Morenike Fasuyi blasts the United Kingdom’s mental health system as being less than inadequate for Africans. I don’t doubt it.

I do wonder about Fasuyi’s seemingly sheer hatred for anyone of European descent (in America, we’d refer to them as “white” or “Caucasian”). The article seethes with anger.

“The general consensus suggests that African people have to work twice as hard as their european counterparts in every aspect of our social, cultural and economical existence in order to make ends meet.”

This also is the case for Black Americans.

Fasuyi explains how she’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but says her disorder is mainly triggered by things related to Africa: “slavery, politics, oppression.” Her turning point was on May 1, 2004 when “it was as if [her] ancestors called” upon her and “removed the scales from her eyes.” She refers to Karl Marx when speaking about “groups” – Africans – who are oppressed and eventually rise up and lead a revolution. In addition, she believes the numbers 7 and 9 relate to the African people and that 2007 could be the year when “division within the African community” would be “homogenized[d]… to effect change.”

As a Black American, I know that African people truly value their ancestors and even practice ancestry worship. This is where I believe she is coming from. To any other nationality, Fasuyi is crazy (no pun intended). It wouldn’t surprise me if her mental health status file read, “bipolar disorder with psychosis.” Not knowing about African ancestry worship can make any doctor of non-African nationality misdiagnose Fasuyi. To be able to accurately help her, she must be accurately understood.

She asked for an African psychiatrist who might have a cultural understanding of where she was coming from. She mentions this was a slow process since “there [were] hardly any.” She also asked for an African social worker but was given “an insensitive male european (sic) social worker who adversely affected my health with his actions, racist remarks and incompetence.”

She takes a nice jab at Big Pharma and pharma reps, too:

“Maintaining you within the system keeps consultants in their jobs and increases the profit of the pharmaceutical industry, which has a turnover of billions.”

Zyprexa; Cymbalta, anyone?

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Patient Responsibility

“An article on brain shocks from about.com linked to a statement at socialaudit.org.uk on venlafaxine withdrawal. It seems that when coming off of venlafaxine, it is best to use fluoxetine (Prozac) in conjunction with it. Somehow, Prozac’s effects can minimize or negate the side effects of Effexor allowing for an uneventful withdrawal. I’m seeing my psychiatrist later today and I might bring up the idea with him. He might think one of two things: a) I’m crazy (pun not intended) or b) I don’t know what I’m talking about. My guess is he’ll choose the latter of the two.

Unlike most patients, I know more about meds than ‘the average bear.’”

UPDATE: I asked my doctor about going on fluoxetine to offset the effect of venlafaxine withdrawal. He looked up, somewhat shocked, and said, “Yeah.” So then I pushed and said, “Well, I’d like 10 mg then.” lol. He wrote out a prescription for 10 mg of Prozac in addition to bumping me up from 150 mg to 200 mg of Lamictal. I took the fluoxetine (Prozac is now a generic drug) last night and it has offset the intensity of the brain shocks. I experience them but they are much more mild compared to yesterday when they were moderate to severe. Yesterday, I was barely able to drive; today, I drove nearly an hour to work on a somewhat urban road with good reflexes and almost normal cognitive functioning. I can only hope that the Prozac continues to aid my withdrawal issues. And I was happy to wake up this morning without wondering why I dreamt that I was in a department store with parrots singing Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up” and swinging like moneys instead of flying.

You get the idea: Effexor causes some strange dreams.

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