Do I have to stay on medication?

Medication treatment duration is a multi-threaded rug.

Some ask about the effect “wisdom and growth” has on their need for ongoing medication versus growing out of the need for medication therapy. It is normal logic to think that we should behave better and feel better when we know better. This leads many to wonder if it’s time to come off of medication therapy.

Let’s work on this by considering these variables.

  1. Coping skills. 

Coping skills are how we deal with stressors. When something happens to us, like getting yelled at, honked at when driving, or suffering a loss like a break up – our automatic thoughts and actions may be kind or unkind to ourselves. They may serve us well or may not. Coping skills can be intentionally grown, such as through dialectical behavioral therapy, and/or may require medical treatment. Coping skills regress with mental illness. But there are therapies that will improve them, helping our resilience, and helping us choose to continue vs. taper down medications.

  1. Recurrence.

Has the patient had multiple episodes. Multiple episodes of mental illness will signal differently, as compared to a single episode, in regards to risk of relapse.

  1. Genetic loading. 

What’s the family history of mental illness? Genetic loading. Genetic loading. Genetic loading. It tells the story of our biological risks. 

  1. Risks and Benefits.

Weighing the disabling impact the disease processes have on a patient’s life against the risks of medications. Consider the psychic suffering. We suffer and the suffering is real. Compare this to what we don’t like about taking medication. Weigh it and find your balance. Medication may be too “costly” to continue.

  1. Impact of disease process on future brain health. 

Mental illnesses in general are progressive, and the medication therapies not only treat the current symptoms but also are prophylactic (preventative and protective) against further brain insult. The brain now, if mental illness goes on, will be a different brain in ten years. We are fighting for that person too when we fight mental illness. Our future selves.

  1. Full treatment response.

Even though the patient has been on medication for a long time, what is the current condition of the diseases and the treatment response? Is the patient fully treated? Symptom free? Or does the patient have ongoing symptomatology even if improved from prior to treatment? For example, if the patient’s depression has resolved but they still have symptoms of anxiety then they are at a higher overall risk if medications are stopped. Being better may not be good enough. Or it might.

Self-Care Tip: Staying on medication can be discomfiting but take a turn with your treatment provider to consider.

Question: What is being on medication like for you? Tell us your story if you stopped it or if you chose to stay on it.

Involuntary Movement and Medications

Tardive Dyskinesia Awareness Week was May 1-7, 2022.”

This comes at a good time for me as well. Last week I was just working with a patient, “Joe”, who was suffering with an “involuntary movement.” Joe had taken an antipsychotic as an augmenting agent for his treatment resistant depression and had a brilliant response… as far as his depression-disease went. Within one week of treatment, his jaw-breaker-depression started to dissolve small pieces away. He was astounded. 

Truth be told, I get astounded too, when my patients show these kinds of “Whaaat?!” responses. Although it is less than before, still too often (20-60%), patients work hard on getting treatment responses that remain elusive. Too often, I watch someone’s life step down from one loss to another due to their disease process, like a slinky. They start taking days off from work, then weeks off. Their most beloved relationships plunk, plunk, less and less connected. They stop getting out of bed much. And so forth. These are not just words. Brain disease is real. Whether it is depression or psychosis, anxiety or dementia, and more, it’s not any less medical than a deadly cancer. 

But when patients like this, with whom we have determinedly worked toward healing, all the while, together, watching their life losses… well it is grievous.  And miracles, such as Joe experienced, astounds us. 

About a month later, I started to notice that his mouth was moving without his conscious intention. His lips jerked together, like a “purse string” pulled on them. This is one of many early symptoms of dopamine blockade that might happen with antipsychotics. For Joe, it resolved easily by decreasing the dosage of his medication. He was reluctant to do this, considering the benefits he enjoyed with the medication. Thankfully, however, his benefits remained even with the lower dose.

Joe had been experiencing “acute dyskinesia.” If Joe had stayed on his antipsychotic agent over time, or one could say “tardive,” and at the higher dosage, the involuntary movement might have worsened and become more difficult to get rid of. Involuntary movements are also more often experienced in the elderly population and from older classes of antipsychotics, but they still can happen in the newer ones. 

These secondary movement disorders are grouped under the name “extrapyramidal side effects,” (or EPS,) of which tardive dyskinesia is one. And in case you were wondering more about its cause, it is described in PubMed: “The mechanism of EPS is thought to be due to the antagonistic binding of dopaminergic D2 receptors within the mesolimbic and mesocortical pathways of the brain. However, the antidopaminergic action in the caudate nucleus and other basal ganglia may also contribute significantly to the occurrence of EPS.”

For reference, NAMI also has a clean, well described, web-page on tardive dyskinesia worth reading for more details. It doesn’t include all the names of the newer agents which can be hard to keep up with. These “second generation antipsychotics” are frequently increasing in number as our medication options through research increase.

Understand that TD is a movement disorder. Not all movement disorders are caused by medication and deserve a medical work-up. It may or may not be reversible and the risks and benefits of treatment need to be evaluated progressively, over time.

Keep noisy. Keep talking. Keep asking. Keep on!

Questions: Would you please tell us about your involuntary movements if you’ve experienced them? Or seen someone with them?