Sunday, February 12, 2023

Does psychotropic medication work?

Horatio Clare and Femi Oyebode have made a valiant effort to provide a balanced perspective in the radio series ‘Is psychiatry working?’. In the fourth episode, they ventured into the controversial area of medication, and I just wanted to make a few comments. I hope the final two episodes may help to explain why psychiatric services have become too dysfunctional and fragmented, although that might be for another series.

Almost as a kind of disclaimer, the programme had to say that there is no doubt that psychotropic medication helps millions of people round the world. But what is meant by such a statement? Individual experience may be that psychotropic medication helps. For others it may not be of benefit. Clinical trials tend to show an advantage over placebo for eg. antidepressants, but maybe not as great as is commonly assumed and a good proportion of people do not respond to antidepressants, even in the clinical trials. The efficacy of antidepressants is in fact still an open issue in the scientific literature because of methodological problems with the clinical trials (see eg. previous post).

The dynamic of the doctor-patient relationship is important even when medication is used. It is difficult for people to accept that so-called antidepressant efficacy may merely be due to the placebo effect (see eg. another previous post). Even cognitive neuropsychological theories, as for example described by Catherine Harmer in the programme, tend to assume that medication works through brain effects. Of course a placebo effect, which is not a brain effect, in itself can make people think more positively and seem to help their depression.

Although Joanna Moncrieff said that antidepressants make people physiologically dependent, the programme did not really deal with this issue (see eg. previous post). The extent to which taking medication can be an identity-altering experience tends to be underestimated (see eg. another previous post). Of course psychotropic medication can have physiological effects. But the whole edifice of modern psychiatry has been built on psychotropic medication being more than placebo and the fear is that it will come crumbling down if this were not true. Not a very firm basis for practice in my view. Psychiatry, of course, existed before the modern psychopharmacological era and isn’t just about medication.

No comments: