Taking the tablets

I’ve been putting off writing about this topic. Even though I know it is something I really should talk about. I’ve used the excuse of the failure of British Telecom to sort out my intermittent broadband connection, which can be real a problem living alone on an island. But I cannot avoid it any more. So I am going to say what I think about antidepressants.

In the spirit of presenters at the American Psychiatric Association currently taking place in New York, let me begin my presentation with a few disclosures, so that you are fully aware where I am coming from:

I am a psychiatrist.

I don’t practice now, I’ve retired, but throughout my entire professional life I prescribed antidepressants regularly.


I have spoken at meetings funded by pharmaceutical companies and they have funded a couple of small research projects for me over the last two decades.

Neither my talks, nor my research have been promotional. I’ve never been involved in any research trial of a medication. At meetings I’ve generally been the acceptable psychosocial meat in the biological sandwich- squashed between presenters talking about the latest research into the biology of depression, much of which I’ve had a great deal of difficulty really understanding, even as an academic.

Last, but not least, I’ve taken antidepressants for most of the last 25 years. I’ve been continuously on them for 20.

My treatment record reads a bit like a history of the pharmacology of depression- and the promotion of antidepressants. Tricyclics (dosulepin), SSRIs (paroxetine and fluoxetine), SNRIs (venlafaxine and duloxetine) and adjunctive therapy (Lithium) with some antipsychotics thrown in.

So those are my disclosures.

What can I say about the rights and wrongs of taking medication?

First of all, just that: It is neither right nor wrong. I number among my friends people who will not take medication, and others who do. I don’t try and impose my view on them. Neither do they try and do that to me. It’s a matter of personal choice. But I hope it’s a fully informed choice when you make it.

Secondly: I dislike a great deal of what is written in the press about medication, because it often diminishes my experience of both having personally benefited from it and of seeing many of my most severely depressed patients do so too. Suggestions I would be harmed by it (which I haven’t been, though I’ve certainly experienced a great many side effects and had to withdraw from Seroxat- so I know about withdrawal symptoms) have proved incorrect. Some of the items in the media of late diminish the whole experience of severe depression by telling me everything can be solved by my going out for a run (radio 4 today) or taking up gardening.

Thirdly: Just because I’ve taken medication it doesn’t mean I haven’t had episodes of depression, but they haven’t been as severe as they were before I went on it. They are certainly not ‘happy pills’. I wear black most of the time and my friends will tell you I am not known to be pathologically over-cheerful. My mood dips, usually in response to how I cope with life events, and when I’m on medication it rights itself a little faster, but at least it bounces back. It used to take a lot longer, and I would get much lower, when I wasn’t.

Fourthly: Even Skeptics will acknowledge there is some evidence for antidepressant medication in severe depression. My approach clinically was always to work through the advantages and disadvantages of particular treatments and add my own opinion. As an expert, my patients expected me to have one. But the choice was theirs. If they were severely depressed, I’d ask that they not completely dismiss medication as an option, but to hold it in reserve for a while. I would do all I could to help them with their preferred option first. But if that didn’t work could we re-evaluate the decision at a later date?

Fifthly: Medication has its risks as well as its benefits. There are no easy options when your mood is very low. Side effects can be awful, and there are situations in which antidepressants should be used with extreme caution. Especially in younger and older people. A combination of venlafaxine and lithium gave me a prolonged Q-T interval in my ECG, which in lay terms means I had a greater than average chance of dropping down dead. I recovered on it, but it had to be stopped.

Sixthly: there is no place for the use of medication alone. Most people get depressed because they have problems, and if they don’t have them before they get down, persistent depression will cause them. It’s difficult living with a person with chronically low mood. Our physical health suffers too. We cannot work.

Talking of one form or another is an essential accompaniment to medication; anything on the broad spectrum from an honest and open conversation with a GP who listens to you and provides continuity of care to a longer term psychological therapy to help deal with some of the issues which increased your vulnerability to depression in the first place. Whatever is most appropriate and needed at the time.

Lastly: If the life events and problems which originally contributed to your depression have not resolved, you may benefit from staying on medication. Not everyone is able to make the changes in their lives that are needed to stay well. I’ve spent my life working in places where people lead very tough lives. There is nothing to be ashamed of in staying on medication, and I’ve argued the point with GPs who wanted to ‘wean’ patients off tablets prematurely. (Weaning is such a demeaning and unwarranted term anyway- it suggests a degree of infantilism).

I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t taken medication, but I can tell you things were not looking very positive. There are times when engaging in talking therapy is very difficult. When you feel as though there is a weight pressing down on your chest, making it very hard for you to breathe or carry on. The idea of going out for a run….well….need I say more? It feels impossible to be sure of your next breath. Antidepressants helped me to get to a point where I could use psychotherapy effectively. I’ve been able to keep going, write, research and hopefully help others. So I cannot put off honestly saying what I think and hope you will listen.

That’s all I can ask for.

Asylum and stigma

You don’t have to dig very far into the history of most families to find someone who spent some time in an asylum. More than one person in my own family has ended up in the building ‘round the bend’ in the road, out of sight. A story was told about my Scottish great uncle who stayed on voluntarily as a gardener in hospital for the rest of his life which was, I guess, the family way of lessening the stigma of having a husband and father who went into the asylum and never came out. A much closer relative spent many months in a crumbling monolith in Lincolnshire in the seventies. When I went to see him, everyone in the train carriage would watch as I got off the train in the middle of nowhere. There was only one possible destination: a place which carried the taint of madness. And then there was my father. Although there were times in his life when his mood was very bleak, he wasn’t admitted as a patient; he would never have dreamt of even seeking help. But he spent a period in his youth working contentedly on the farm at the Towers Hospital in Leicester alongside those inmates who were well enough to be let outside into the extensive grounds, to milk the cows, collect the hens’ eggs and care for animals. Unlike my uncle, I think he really was just working as a farmer.

So it’s been interesting in the last week to reflect on the nature of asylum and the associated stigma following the response to the new book by Barbara Taylor The Last Asylum describing her periods in Friern Hospital, which is now luxury apartments and the acclaim for ex- mental health nurse Nathan Filer winning the Costa book award with his novel The Shock of the Fall. I was extraordinarily moved by the article Nathan Filer wrote for the Guardian this week on the state of current in-patient care, Mental health care- where did it all go so wrong. He describes the experience of his best friend Bryon Vincent who was admitted to the place where Nathan himself had worked some years before, after attempting suicide. What is experienced by Byron as the patient, and Nathan as his friend and visitor, is a ‘care’ system which is in a ‘God-awful mess’. Unlike Barbara Taylor’s book, this is not an account from the past; an historic description of the last days of a Victorian relic. It’s a much more contemporary description, even though the ward into which Byron was finally admitted was itself due to close because of budget cuts.

As Byron says:

“There was a pervasive air that things were disintegrating, one day I found a member of staff hiding in a bush. Alarms would sound and not be switched off for hours. The ward was more a place of crisis management than one of respite. I really felt for most of the staff, it was obvious they were doing their best under what were clearly incredibly difficult circumstances”

There are times when a person is in such a dark and tormented place that they need a place to be safe, to feel listened to and to be physically cared for. Sometimes they may need this for weeks or months, yet there is constant pressure to reduce the length of stay in psychiatric in-patient beds to little more than a few days. Nathan Filer’s friend Byron describes the pervading atmosphere succinctly: “The modern system seems much more focused on bureaucratic risk avoidance than it is on care.” Mental health workers now spend a great deal of their time trying to find beds for people often many miles from where they live, and where it is almost impossible for family and friends to visit them. I’ve commented before in this blog on the physical state of some in-patient units. With the closure of many of the new wards purpose built in the last decade with exorbitant Private Finance initiative funding, the situation is only going to get worse.

Mental health care in this country is in crisis.

I began to train in psychiatry at a time when the old asylums were beginning to close. I worked in modern though not particularly homely units attached to large general hospitals. They were situated in the community in which they served. Families and friends could visit. Home visits were possible. The aim, which wasn’t nearly achieved, was nevertherless to try and destigmatise ‘mental illness’ by providing care in a different kind of setting from the dark places built out in the fields, and on the same site as people were treated for physical illness. Many of my patients had physical illness too and were treated in the other half of the hospital. People in the acute wards and the maternity hospital benefited from the proximity of mental health expertise.

When as a consultant I found myself with beds in an asylum, at Whittingham Hospital in Lancashire, I was horrified by some of the attitudes of the staff I met whose families had worked there for generations. There had been evidence of cruelty and mismanagement at the hospital in the 1960s and 70s and an inquiry, yet little seemed to have changed. So the asylum era is not a period I hold any romantic notions about. The old asylums not only failed to meet the needs of many of the (excessive) numbers of people who ended up there, but contributed greatly to the fear of mental illness and being ‘put away.’ Many people were subject to abuse and neglect within their walls. Yet now, we seem to be in a period in which, as local units are closed down and what beds remain are centralised, there is a danger of recreating these asylums. Places where you will have to be really mad to get admission to, in which an increasing proportion of people will be most probably detained against their will, and which will once again be a source of fear and great stigma.

If we are really going to combat the stigma of mental illness, one of the things we have to do as a civilised society is put greater value on how we care for people who are too vulnerable to care for themselves and who do not always fit in with society’s prevailing norms. These are the people who may find it difficult to trust you enough to give you ‘Time to Talk,’ because they will be fearful about what your motives are, and whom you will tell; who will need empathy, care, reassurance , financial support, tolerance and sometimes a place where they can simply just be. Much as I understand the motives behind the antistigma campaign that Mind is currently running in England, there are many people out there at the moment who need a lot more than a cup of tea and a chat to help them get by. They need asylum in the other sense of the word. A place offering protection and safety.

So when a colleague told me the intention was to close all the local beds and build a new mental health unit on a ‘greenfield’ site I suggested they might also want to build a farm too. And you know I wasn’t entirely being facetious.

The friends and family test

Not long ago the NHS introduced a patient feedback test asking people if they would recommend a service to their friends and family. I may have missed it, but I would have thought we should really be asking staff too if they would suggest that their friends or loved ones might want to use the mental health service in which they work? Would they be satisfied enough with the quality of care?

Supporting colleagues who are themselves suffering from mental health problems or have family members in need of help is always eye-opening. In some places it’s really hard to get through the barriers to care and access the kind specialist advice and help a person would really benefit from. I’ve been lucky in that, despite not being psychotic or actively suicidal (colleagues may disagree about the psychotic, I get fairly paranoid when I am really down) I’ve generally managed to get therapy when I’ve needed it. I have good GP care. I went privately for cognitive-behavioural therapy not only because of the impossible wait where I live, but because I wanted to see someone who knew something about depressive rumination.  Even then, having helped me a great deal, he generously refused to accept payment from a fellow professional. I know most people are not quite as lucky as I have been.

Getting access to mental health care these days seems to depend on whether you want to kill yourself imminently or if you are hearing voices telling you to kill someone else. My colleagues in psychiatry get annoyed with me when I say you only need to ask these two questions now in the mental state assessment, but how easy is it really to see someone who can provide specialist advice on a serious mood disorder before you are at the end of your tether? Waiting list for psychological therapies are long, and they often don’t have parallel advice available to them for reviewing the often complicated medications that people are on and may have been taking for years. NICE guidelines say both should be available in severe depression, yet if you are under the care of the community mental health team (CMHT) some psychological therapies services will not see you until you are discharged from the care of the CMHT. I’ve heard this several times now. Why is this allowed to go on? It is contrary to national guidance. If it were happening for serious physical illness it would be a subject of a Radio 4 report. If people cannot access care when they are in the early stages of relapse, it is hardly surprising that they reach the point where detention sometimes seems to be the only option to those trying to care for them.

Do people who get depressed who work in mental health care have the same problem getting help? What do they think when they are told bluntly don’t ‘you don’t meet our referral criteria’ and get sent back to a GP who is asking for expert advice because he or she doesn’t know what else to do? Do they demand access and get it? Are they as lucky as I have been, because I think I have been fortunate to access skilled and high quality care.  I know it can be done if there is a will.

I’ve pretty much worked in the community the last few years, but I’ve visited a lot of mental health units to talk to people about taking part in research. You only have to walk into a cancer unit, as I did not so many months ago to visit a friend, to be shocked at the gross disparity between the physical environments that people with mental health problems, and those who work with them, have to tolerate when compared with those who have physical illness.  I know the entrance hallway isn’t always what the hospital is actually like inside, and the care provided in acute units has not escaped criticism either. We have the Francis Report after all.  Nevertheless I cannot help feeling that the state of our shrinking, poorly staffed, ill-resourced and physically unappealing mental health units, separated as they were from physical health care a decade ago in the new Mental Health Trusts, are a sign of where our priorities lie as a society. I cannot imagine recommending that a member of my family should be treated in one now, although I have at other times in the past.

I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who works in mental healthcare who would be perfectly happy for friends or family with severe mental illness to be (hypothetically at least) treated in their own service. Take the test.