[Article of Interest] A Call for Caution on Antipsychotic Drugs
By Richard A. Friedman, M. D.
[Excerpts] You will never guess what the fifth and sixth best-selling prescription drugs are in the United States, so I’ll just tell you: Abilify and Seroquel, two powerful antipsychotics. In 2011 alone, they and other antipsychotic drugs were prescribed to 3.1 million Americans at a cost of $18.2 billion, a 13 percent increase over the previous year, according to the market research firm IMS Health.
Those drugs are used to treat such serious psychiatric disorders as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe major depression. But the rates of these disorders have been stable in the adult population for years. So how did these and other antipsychotics get to be so popular?
It was also soon discovered that the second-generation antipsychotic drugs had serious side effects of their own, namely a risk of increased blood sugar, elevated lipids and cholesterol, and weight gain. They can also cause a potentially irreversible movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia, though the risk is thought to be significantly lower than with the older antipsychotic drugs.
The original target population for these drugs, patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, is actually quite small: The lifetime prevalence of schizophrenia is 1 percent, and that of bipolar disorder is around 1.5 percent. Drug companies have had a powerful economic incentive to explore other psychiatric uses and target populations for the newer antipsychotic drugs.
There is little in these alluring advertisements to indicate that these are not simple antidepressants but powerful antipsychotics. A depressed female cartoon character says that before she starting taking Abilify, she was taking an antidepressant but still feeling down. Then, she says, her doctor suggested adding Abilify to her antidepressant, and, voilà, the gloom lifted.
The ad omits critical facts about depression that consumers would surely want to know. If a patient has not gotten better on an antidepressant, for instance, just taking it for a longer time or taking a higher dose could be very effective. There is also very strong evidence that adding a second antidepressant from a different chemical class is an effective and cheaper strategy — without having to resort to antipsychotic medication.
Atypical antipsychotics can be lifesaving for people who have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression. But patients should think twice — and then some — before using these drugs to deal with the low-grade unhappiness, anxiety and insomnia that comes with modern life.