During my sophomore year at Penn, I tried to kill myself by swallowing a bottle of Wellbutrin. I spent 4 days in the hospital.A parent recently described calling the emergency student support services when she was worried about her son's emotional state during his first semester at college. After a five minute conversation, she was told by the person who responded to her call, " We can make an appointment with the psychiatrist to see if he needs medication."
Penn’s response? – Sending some administrator to see me in the hospital (HUP). The first and only thing that she said was, “Are we going to make this an annual pattern?” because I had been hospitalized the year before. I said “No” and she gave me her business card.
After suicides, everyone laments, “Why didn’t they talk?” Often, we did. People just didn’t want to listen, because in the moment it was easier for everyone if you put on a smile and pretended to be okay.
I thought about these two stories when a study, a survey of 1,829 people being prescribed antidepressants, was released showing a much higher than expected rate of serious psychological side effects:
Over half of people aged 18 to 25 in the study reported suicidal feelings and in the total sample there were large percentages of people suffering from 'sexual difficulties' (62%) and 'feeling emotionally numb' (60%). Percentages for other effects included: 'feeling not like myself' (52%), 'reduction in positive feelings' (42%), 'caring less about others' (39%) and 'withdrawal effects' (55%). However, 82% reported that the drugs had helped alleviate their depression.
Professor Read concluded: "While the biological side-effects of antidepressants, such as weight gain and nausea, are well documented, psychological and interpersonal issues have been largely ignored or denied. They appear to be alarmingly common."Psychiatric medication side effects are a double-edged sword. The first, that receives the most, though as indicated by this study insufficient, attention is from the medication itself. But the second, and equally if not more serious, is the way prescribing of psychiatric medication becomes a replacement for listening.
What makes us human is our ability to empathize. Drawing from both Buddhism and psychoanalysis, the "presence of mind" of another person is responsible for therapeutic healing. "Being with," "bearing witness," are other phrases that describe this phenomenon. When we jump to a pill we run the risk of skipping this step. If the medication itself also has psychological side effects, it is not surprising that, in combination with feeling alone and unrecognized, a person might attempt suicide.
Psychiatric medication may be necessary when an individual is unable to function without it. Ideally such a determination is made in the setting of both psychotherapy and other self-regulating activities such as yoga or meditation. But that is not the way these medications are used. Because they can be so effective at eliminating distress in the short term, our fast-paced, quick-fix culture makes them very appealing, almost irresistible.
I decided to include the topic of legalization of marijuana in this post as a kind of cautionary tale. In California cannabis is commonly prescribed to treat anxiety. Psychiatric diagnoses and drug prescribing are often based on symptoms alone, as is well captured in this amusing though disturbing anecdote from a Psychology Today post by psychologist Jonathan Shendler:
During my first week as a psychiatry department faculty member, a fourth-year psychiatry resident—I will call her Gabrielle—staffed a case with me. She gave me some demographic information about her patient (38, White, female) and then proceeded to list the medications she was prescribing. The rest of our conversation went something like this:“What are we treating her for?” "Anxiety." "How do we understand her anxiety?"Gabrielle cocked her head to the side with a blank, non-comprehending look, as though I had spoken a foreign language. I rephrased the question.“What do you think is making your patient anxious?”She cocked her head to the other side. I rephrased again.“What is causing her anxiety?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment and then brightened. “She has Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”“Generalized anxiety disorder is not the cause of her anxiety,” I said. “That is the term we use to describe her anxiety. I am asking you to think about what is making your patient anxious.”She cocked her head again.“What is going on psychologically?”“Psychologically?”
“Yes, psychologically.”There was a pause while Gabrielle processed the question. Finally she said, “I don’t think it’s psychological, I think it’s biological.”
As we are on the cusp of general legalization of marijuana (that I do not oppose) it becomes imperative that psychiatric medications not replace listening. It is essential that we protect time and space for being present, for curiosity, for empathy. Otherwise we are simply offering another way, and one that is not without side effects itself, to devalue the role of human relationships in healing.