Monday, October 12, 2020

Fear of stopping antidepressants

In a trial of withdrawing antidepressants in patients who no longer needed the medication, Eveleigh et al (2017) found that half of the patients in the intervention group did not comply with advice to stop antidepressants. Only a few of the patients who were willing to follow the advice actually managed to stop, which was about the same number as in the control group who stopped their medication in the year of the study without the specific intervention. The patients in the intervention group also reported a higher rate of relapse than the control group.

To investigate further why so many people were unwilling to even try stopping their antidepressant medication despite it not being indicated, Eveleigh at al (2019) interviewed some of the participants in the trial. They found that fear (of recurrence, relapse, or to disturb the equilibrium) was the most prominent barrier, and prior attempts fuelled these anticipations (see eg. previous post). Another important barrier was the notion that antidepressants are necessary to correct deficient serotonin levels (see previous post). As Verbeek-Heida & Mathot (2006) found, the fear and uncertainty about stopping were stronger than the fear and uncertainty about continuing. Users of antidepressants tend to think they are better off 'safe than sorry' by continuing medication (see another previous post). Patients are uncertain and fearful about what they will be like without medication (Leydon et al, 2007).

The evidence for what it is worth is that continuing antidepressant treatment reduces the risk of relapse. Relapse rates in discontinuation trials can be substantial. Although fear of relapse may be biasing the results of such studies through unblinding, doctors have to be realistic that discontinuing antidepressants may not be easy. Patients tend to think doctors should take responsibility for initiating contact about discontinuation (Bosman et al, 2016), but in practice this tends not to happen. A good proportion of the increase in antidepressant prescribing over recent years is because of long-term repeat prescribing (see previous post). 

Taking antidepressants can be identity altering (see previous post). Patient's preferences and concerns affect their decisions about medication (Malpass et al, 2009). These sort of factors should have been obvious to doctors (see my book chapter). As I keep emphasising, psychological factors cannot be denied in causing antidepressant discontinuation problems (see eg. previous post). The question is whether they are a sufficient explanation or whether underlying clinically significant brain changes also contribute (see last post).

(With thanks to a MIA blog post by Peter Simons)

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