The morals of medication

Is taking medication for depression the ‘easy option?’ I come across this viewpoint regularly on social media. Usually there is a suggestion alongside that therapy, which I completely agree is hard work, is somehow a purer way to recover. The right way.

The history of psychiatry is rich in references to morality. Is a person ‘mad’ or ‘bad’? Is there really something wrong in the brains of those society labels as bad? Is addiction an illness or simply a behaviour choice? Are we excusing bad behaviour by medicalising it?

Many people who consider medication for depression will find themselves wondering whether it is a ‘good’ thing to take it. When you are depressed it can be very difficult to decide what is the best thing to do, and decisions are taken not only on the basis of discussion with health professionals- moral judgments also play an important part.

  • How does taking antidepressants affect how I feel about me? Does it mean that I am weak?
  • Is it the easy option?
  • Shouldn’t I be able to sort myself out without them?
  • What will other people think- my family- my friends…will it change how they see me?

Alice Malpass and her colleagues identified two parallel journeys that the depressed person embarks on. The ‘medical’ journey goes something like this:

  • I have a duty to be well. Other people need me to be well.
  • If I recover then there won’t be any risk of being seen as ‘mentally ill’.
  • I can get back to my old self and be in charge of my life again.

I’m sure I’ve used some of these arguments in conversation with patients. Any doctor who says they haven’t is not telling the truth- but to consider these are the only things of concern about medication is inherently simplistic and paternal, and reminds me of the cartoon of a couple walking along a beach, smiling and carefree, who say they feel so good they must be in a pharma advert.

In parallel the person is perhaps also on another journey- the ‘moral’ one.

  • I feel awful because I have to ask for help.
  • I feel even worse because I need to take tablets.
  • Is this person the real, authentic me? Am I now my old self or someone else? Or am I only this person because I am on tablets?
  • Am I hooked on these now?

Damien Ridge, who has analysed many interviews with people who are depressed talks not only about the lack of legitimacy for tablets, but also for what they are being prescribed for.

  • Is ‘depression’ real?
  • Shouldn’t I just ‘pull myself together’? Isn’t that what everyone else thinks?

There is a great deal of literature on whether ‘depression’ is ‘real’ or simply no more than unhappiness. And if it isn’t real, then the treatment for it cannot be legitimate either, little better than using street drugs- as one person in Ridge’s paper calls his tablets: ‘My dirty little habit’. I’ve spent my career arguing that to use the term depression is not simply medicalising misery but giving a name to a particular experience and quality of suffering which is not just unhappiness but a deep, dark, hopeless, despair. It has many causes, and it isn’t a single ‘phenomenon’ whatever DSM tells us. But it’s a state of mind that many people with different stories share in common. I experience it too. I have asked all of these questions of myself. I have watched colleagues who work in mental health look a little embarrassed when I get out the tablets at breakfast. Perhaps I do that simply to show I am not ashamed- but I do wish I could have lived my life without them.

All of the above supposes that antidepressants do actually work. Many people think they don’t, and others think they can do harm. You can find my views on these points elsewhere on this blog. I take them myself and they keep me reasonably well, but I have friends and colleagues for whom they have not worked- the medical journey is inherently optimistic- just like the pharma ads, but in reality life is far more complicated. And they are never sufficient on their own.

If doctors, and sometimes friends and family, try and influence you to focus on the ‘medical journey’ then others will try to steer your moral journey. It is really hard to focus on what is right for you when you cannot think clearly. When you are depressed, you are already struggling with guilt and shame and sometimes that can tragically end with the decision that the world is better off without you- that this is the right thing to do.

So I would only ask those who make even subtle comparisons between the easy way to ‘block out the pain’ with meds and the hard way of suffering through therapy to think before they write. It is only human to want to alleviate pain, and sometimes the tablets are the only thing that will do it. To infer that a person needs to suffer in order to be blessed is one of the ultimate moral judgments- and can be found in most religions.

Depressed or not, clinician or service user, expert or lay person-none of us have the right to sit in judgment over others.

My memoir: The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression is available now.

 

 

 

 

Two units under

According to my other half, I am one of those people who are permanently short of two units of alcohol. I’m undoubtedly better company when slightly I’m under the influence- I’m more sociable and relaxed. I can engage in conversation without feeling self-conscious when I’m with people I don’t know well, or haven’t seen for a while. Life just flows more easily. Two units a day, you say, that isn’t very much, its 14 a week, that’s just on the ‘safe limit’ for women. So why have I been trying to reduce the amount that I drink?

Since my early 20s I’ve been aware that I have an ambivalent relationship with alcohol. Most of the time we remain on reasonably good terms, but when my mood is low, or I’m under stress the booze likes to get one up on me. Like many people, when I was working full-time, I began to rely a little too much on my liquid friend. Days began to be measured on a new scale of severity- the number of bottles of Stella Artois I needed to feel relaxed after a weekday in the real world. One bottle (330ml 2 units) was a normal dosage, two bottles (4 units) for a tough day and 3 bottles (6 units- thankfully not very often) for a bloody awful day, plus a very strong Martini on Friday night to decompress and sometimes again on a Saturday, and wine (3-4 glasses) over the weekend. Mostly I drank just about up to the limit. Sometimes, and increasingly so as time went by, I exceeded it.

Okay, I can hear you saying, ‘what are you worried about, I know loads of people who drink a lot more than that!’ You may even do so yourself. I’m not asking you to consider it that is of course your choice. But it’s not only the amount you consume (although most diseases related to alcohol haven’t been informed there are ‘safe’ limits, the risk just gets greater the more you drink) it’s the nature of the relationship you have with booze. It’s addressing why you sometimes feel the need to rely on a friend whose apparent affability, social and legal acceptability masks the risk it poses for those of us who have the potential to depend on it, not just emotionally but physically too if we drink long and hard enough. Earlier this year, when I was experiencing, for a while, the most severe physical symptoms of anxiety I have ever known, when my chest was permanently tight and my hands shaking, there was only one substance easily accessible that took those symptoms away, and it usually took one of my husband’s martinis which is a fairly lethal combination of gin and vodka (plus Lillet Blanc and a twist of lemon if you are interested) to help me feel anything like calm. Mindfulness exercises didn’t touch it. Exercise was difficult as I felt exhausted most of the time and too anxious to venture out much. I’m quite sure diazepam would have worked too, but I’ve spent so many years trying to help people withdraw from it I wouldn’t wish to take it. I remember one of my patients who was depressed and couldn’t sleep said to me. ‘I didn’t want to take any pills, so I just decided to try alcohol, it’s a natural remedy isn’t it? Well no, it’s about as natural as anything that’s been processed by a brewery or distillery can be I suppose. And the Distiller’s Company also gave us thalidomide too. Not that I am any way comparing alcohol with that particular drug, but we know it also can cause terrible damage to the unborn. Alcohol is acceptable, available and costs comparatively less than it used to when you buy it in bulk at the supermarket or in Happy Hour.

When I worked as a consultant in a substance misuse service I saw so many young men whose problems with alcohol had begun in their teens, when they drank to self-medicate for social anxiety, unable to approach a member of the opposite sex when completely sober. The problem is alcohol doesn’t only relax you, it lowers your inhibitions in other ways. You are more likely to put yourself at risk, for example by having unsafe sex or walking home in the snow with insufficient clothing after a night out risking hypothermia, when you are drunk. Alcohol has a curious relationship with mood disorders that mental health services in the UK (but not in Australia) still don’t pay enough attention to. People with bipolar disorder can drink excessively when they are high and when they are low. Those of us with depression use alcohol to numb the pain of being alive, but the side effect is that we then feel much less inhibited about trying to harm ourselves or end our lives. When I was a student I discovered the advantages and disadvantages of drinking to oblivion. I was in danger of becoming the person we all remember who seemed to go that little bit further than everyone else, and we much later heard was not only emotionally but physically dependent on booze and on their way to destroying their career. Medicine is noted for its relationship with alcohol. There even used to be a bar in the doctors residence in Manchester when I was a junior doctor. I’ve glibly asked students at interview what they do to relax, because ‘medicine is an emotionally taxing profession’, and heard them list all their sporting and musical activities knowing full well how many of us fall back on the nightly Stella because it’s the easy, instant option.

So, of late, I’ve been considering this relationship much more honestly than I have in the past. I’m aware I have within me the potential to spend far too much time with this erstwhile friend and be lead seriously astray, but I’m still ambivalent. l so love the feeling of being intoxicated, at least until I wake in the early hours next morning. But I rarely allow things to go that far now. I’ve been staying alcohol free for longer and longer, particularly when I’m in Scotland. I don’t drink alone in the house, and I can no longer have anything at all when I’m out due to the new drink driving laws. I hope they are having an effect on the overall amount people consume, but we still need legislation on minimum pricing. I learned as a medical student that national consumption was governed by cost and availability. Why is more research required?

I still enjoy the occasional drink but I’m beginning to know, and like, my persona who is always two units under a little better and helping her find other ways to manage her anxiety. It’s a healthier option for me, in the longer term, giving alcohol the brush off.

(Still) taking the tablets

Not so long ago, I asked my current doctor how he thought I would have been over the last 20 years if I hadn’t stayed on antidepressants continually. He said he thought I would have had at the least a period of in-patient care. When I asked my other half, who has known me for nearly 30 years, and remembers life before and after I had medication his response was simple.

‘You would be dead.’

Since I last somewhat reluctantly shared my views on antidepressant medication a year ago, (before that I’d kept my head below the parapet) there has been a continuing debate about them both on twitter, where I’m quite active, and in the media. My blog was paired with an article written by a fellow psychiatrist who has very different views from my own, who told the Daily Mail she wouldn’t take antidepressants even if she were suicidal. I was pleased our contrasting views went out together. Others have questioned me directly with comments such as ‘I can understand why you take them if they’ve helped you, but why do psychiatrists still prescribe them when they don’t work?’ and a little more personally: ‘well you would say they help because you’re a psychiatrist.

When I joined twitter, I expected there would be primarily a view that medication was unhelpful and shouldn’t be prescribed. I guess that’s because that’s the message that the media often seems to prefer. There are several eminent mental health professionals who share this view and write about it frequently. Many of them are involved in the Council for Evidence Based Psychiatry and are active on social media. In fact, what I found, as well as people who share their views, was a substantial section of people who were willingly to talk of how medication has helped them. Some of them, like me, have also had psychological therapies, but many others have unfortunately not been able to access them.

NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) is about to start a new review of the evidence, but its current advice is that antidepressants should not be used in milder depression, should be offered as option in moderate depression, and should be used in addition to psychological therapy in severe depression. That’s why I prescribed them when I was still practicing and most other psychiatrists and GPs, still do. But unfortunately the difficulty in accessing psychological therapy makes it hard in practice to follow the NICE guidance as we should. Many people do not get offered evidence-based treatment. If this happened in cancer it would be a national scandal, yet untreated depression, as we know too well, not only causes great suffering but can also be lethal. There are people who wouldn’t benefit from antidepressants who end up on them unnecessarily and only experience the side effects. There are others who feel there is no other choice open to them without a long wait. In severe depression, treatment which doesn’t also include psychological therapy is incomplete. Medication alone is never the solution.

I’ve stayed on tablets because, as my doctor and husband agree, I don’t think I could have managed to live the life that I’ve been fortunate to have, if at all. It’s been a productive one, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve still had relapses: I was unwell earlier this year again and am now recovering. I didn’t cope with work stress well at all, although latterly Cognitive Behaviour Therapy helped me to find new ways to manage that; and I know that I still react badly to loss events. I have a family history of mental illness, and one first degree relative was hospitalized. My early life almost certainly contributed to my susceptibility. I’ve written at much greater length about this in my memoir, which will be published this autumn. However I haven’t been as low or completely unable to function as I was prior to taking medication. Psychotherapy helped me earlier in my life, but couldn’t prevent me having more severe episodes in my mid-thirties. Each time I’ve relapsed, my medication has been changed. Sometimes things have been added in. I’m on a combination now once more. I know there will be people who will say my recoveries are due to the placebo effect, which can be very powerful, but last time, as previously, I’ve begun to recover in the time scale predicted by the evidence. This time it was around 3 to 4 weeks. It certainly was not immediate, in fact as sometimes happens, my mood continued to deteriorate after I started the new treatment.

Medication has some truly vile side effects; I’ve experienced many of them and still do. I’ve had withdrawal symptoms too. Some people cannot tolerate them, and others feel much worse. Fluoxetine made me so agitated I had to stop it. In young people that effect can lead to increased self-harm. Medicines can help, but they can also be dangerous too. Its always about balancing the risks and potential benefits.

To suggest I would only say medication was helpful because I’m a psychiatrist devalues my experience as a service user. Perhaps it’s not easy to be seen as both at the same time. But I know others have found medication helpful too so I’m not alone. When writers suggest antidepressants shouldn’t be used, those of us who have benefited find that very scary. We know we are not weak because we need to take them, but sometimes it can feel like others honestly think this of us. All I am asking is that those who don’t want to take them respect the choice of those who do and continue to allow people who may possibly benefit (and have potential problems on them too) to make a fully informed choice. As I said previously I have never forced anyone to take them.

I have been suicidal, and I chose to start taking an antidepressant. At that point I was still sufficiently ambivalent about death to try anything that might help.

I’m still here.

Ambivalence

I wish they had taught me about ambivalence at medical school. It would have made my life immeasurably easier if I had understood it earlier. Instead I was quite a long way into my career before I really began to see how important it was both to my patients, and to me personally.

I was taught what to do for each clinical problem with the expectation that a person would be ready, and willing, to accept my advice. If he or she wasn’t, they were something of a nuisance, indecisive, unable to recognise what was good for them. ‘Oh she’s ambivalent about it,’ I would be told if a person was shilly-shallying around. Ambivalence as a concept was confused with indecision. But it isn’t. It’s something much more than that. It’s about wanting to have something at the same time as not having it. Wanting to be thin, but to eat a large slab of chocolate every day.  Wanting both the benefits of sobriety and inebriation. Even wanting to be both dead, and alive at the same time. I know from talking to people who have tried to kill themselves and failed, that they sometimes wanted to be both still here among the living, yet dead and out of their suffering too. Some of them changed their minds as soon as they had acted to end their lives and came to seek help. Ambivalence underpins so many of the problems people have brought to me, and my own difficulties too. I was an ambivalent medical student, and for many years an ambivalent doctor. I wanted both to belong to a profession and all the benefits that come with it, and not to belong because of the cost to me personally and emotionally.

If you haven’t read Kenneth Weisbrode’s recent short book on the topic, entitled ‘On Ambivalence’ I can highly recommend it.

‘Ambivalence lies at the core of who we are. It is something more subtle, and more devastating than human frailty. Weaknesses can be remedied. Ambivalence comes, rather from too much ambition. Desire begets dissatisfaction, and vice versa. Optimization becomes a fetish. Wanting the ‘best’ means that we must have both or all and are reluctant to give up any option lest we pull up the roots of our desire. That is why ambivalence is so hard to confront, understand. Or master. And why it can be so disastrous.  Most of us know this. Yet we continue to deny it.’ (p2)

 

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The person who is ambivalent about their eating, or drinking, or lifestyle ( add ad infinitum) is not only unable to choose the from the options they have in front of them, but refuses somehow to admit that there is even a choice to be made at all. It’s both a painful yet oddly pleasurable place to be. We cannot have it all, but still somehow  want to believe that we can. We don’t have to decide what to do, to change our lives, because there isn’t a decision to be made. Yet we suffer because we struggle to live what is an impossible existence, only we don’t admit how impossible it really is.

If I had understood this when I was younger, I might have been able to recognise how much suffering is rooted in ambivalence. I began to understand it when I worked in addictions, and later with people who had eating disorders.  I’ve talked to many people who have felt judged rather than helped by those they have consulted; who have been labelled as weak because they are unable to ‘choose to change their behaviour’, rather than essentially ambivalent about life and what they wanted from it. I was influenced by Bill Miller, who first described Motivational Interviewing in the 1980s. I remember reading about how the clients of the clinic where he worked were routinely asked if they were willing to accept the label of alcoholism and accept treatment. That was exactly what I witnessed as a junior doctor:

Consultant: ‘So do you think you are an alcoholic?’

Patient : ..’No… I don’t’

Consultant: ‘Are you prepared to attend AA?’

Patient: ‘Why would I want to do that.?’

Consultant: ‘Well, if you aren’t prepared to admit that, you aren’t motivated to accept help. Come back again when you are.’

We may say it doesn’t happen quite like now, but it does. A person who doesn’t see the need to make a decision about taking up therapy and attends only intermittently is rapidly discharged for being unmotivated.  Instead of trying to understand their ambivalence and empathising with the problems they are experiencing which make it impossible for them to contemplate a decisive response to their problems, we treat them as wasting our time. When he first described Motivational Interviewing, Miller emphasized the responsibility of the therapist in helping the client to acknowledge and explore their ambivalence. When the person is ‘unmotivated’ we are discharged, as therapists, from our responsibilities.

I was personally fortunate. I had a therapist who was prepared to engage me in acknowledging that I both wanted to succeed and to fail in my career, and ultimately to both to live and to die. I’m still ambivalent, but I don’t want to talk about that now. There isn’t time. My cat is currently driving me crazy, wanting to be on both sides of the back door at once. Now that’s ambivalence.