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Mental Health, Neuroscience, Schizophrenia, Suffering

Treat the person, not the brain

The terrible side-effects of anti-psychotic drugs

I currently have a diagnosis of the mental health condition schizoaffective disorder (schizophrenia with bi-polar elements).  Over the past six years I have experienced three episodes of psychosis, and I have taken five different kinds of anti-psychotic medication as doctors have attempted to treat the condition.  These include Olanzapine, Quetiapine, Aripiprazole, Risperidone, and Amisulpride.

The side effects of these drugs are very serious.  They are designed to alter brain states, but the physical effects are severe.  When taking Olanzapine, I put on huge amounts of weight.  The weight distribution with Olanzapine is not even, so the body morphs into a strange shape.  You can tell by looking at people whether they are taking Olanzapine.  I was constantly hungry when taking this drug.  It is also sedative, so I was always tired when taking it.  I felt depressed all the time, and I had disturbed sleep states with terrible dreams.  In terms of side effects, this is the worst anti-psychotic drug I have taken.

Aripiprazole alters the body in a different way.  There is no significant weight gain, but instead one feels a permanent tension in the left hand side of the brain, which is frustrating and inhibiting.  At the same time there is an urge to constantly move one’s legs – a side effect known as ‘akathisia’ – which is very uncomfortable and irritating.  When taking this drug it is very difficult to be around other people – I couldn’t get on buses or trains because I felt easily suffocated and self-conscious about the constant need to move my legs.

The other anti-psychotic drugs that I have taken also had severe side effects.  Quetiapine, in particular, affected my heart significantly and I had frequent palpitations and the uncomfortable feeling that my internal organs were being weakened by a kind of poison.  With Risperidone I was told about the risk of infertility, and that I might start gaining weight around my chest in a way that would be very embarrassing.  Luckily I stopped taking this drug before those terrible side-effects kicked in.

I currently take a low dose of Amisulpride, and I don’t notice any serious side effects.  There is sometimes a mild nausea, but this was much worse when I was on a higher dose, so I can’t complain.  I feel very lucky that at the present time I have a normal, clear, and healthy state of mind, and that I am not having to wrestle with the terrible side-effects that come with taking high doses of anti-psychotic medication.

Do anti-psychotic drugs even work, or is there a better way?

I have never known anyone who can confidently say that they understand human thought.  Scientists tend to associate thought with the brain, but beyond that, they admit the mysterious nature of thought and that “we don’t yet understand” the brain.

From my own perspective, I feel that scientists are misguided when they focus on the brain to try and understand thought.  I believe that thought comes from God (not the brain), and I find it perfectly feasible that thought could exist without the brain or any kind of structure similar to the brain.  Therefore I wonder whether the Western approach to schizophrenia treatment – the use of anti-psychotic drugs – is really the best way to approach this mental health problem?

There is no doubt that the severe effect that anti-psychotics have on the body affects the mind in some way.  For instance, if you are taking drugs that make you feel constantly tired and depressed, you are less likely to have the kind of hyper thoughts that are often present in psychosis.  So from that perspective, anti-psychotic drugs do indeed have an affect on the mind.

But might there be a more humane and healthy way of dealing with disturbed states of mind?  In my experience, a conversation with someone who has experienced psychosis themselves and can relate to what you are going through can affect your mind in a positive way just as much as a drug can.  Could it not be that by surrounding ourselves with the right influences, and having the right conversations, we could return to a normal state of mind, without the need to take drugs that have such a terrible effect on the body?

Scientists will continue to try to understand the mind in terms of the brain, and I think that their attempts will prove futile.  While scientists ignore the spiritual aspect of existence – the fact that there is an all-powerful God in control of the cosmos – they will never be able to see the human mind in a realistic way.  Trying to understand the mind by looking at the brain is like trying to understand the game of football by looking at a football – it is a waste of time and energy.

When treating mental health conditions we need to focus on the person, not the brain.  We need to acknowledge the impact that the correct kind of conversations and lifestyle can have, and not invest heavily in pills that are ineffective and inhumane.

For my part, I will keep taking my low dose of Amisulpride, and I will hope and pray that the side effects remain under control and that my body won’t suffer serious long-term damage as a result of me taking the pills.  I am taking them not so much because I believe in the power of anti-psychotics to change thoughts, but because my friends and family believe in science and therefore feel a sense of reassurance knowing I am taking the pills.  Their peace of mind gives me peace of mind, so from that perspective, it is a worthwhile endeavour taking the drugs.

About Steven Colborne

Philosopher and author from Oxford, England.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Treat the person, not the brain

  1. Hi Steve,

    An interesting piece! I’m sorry to read about the effects you’ve experienced.

    I think that the narrow focus of specialists is the issue here (or at least a big part of it), and their subsequent contribution. After all, there are people who study footballs, and create new, lighter/better versions. They won’t know everything about the game, but their knowledge contributes to the overall understanding of it.

    Likewise, some scientists study brain tissue, some study brain activity (much as football pundits/scouts study football ‘activity’), and are considered useful experts. Nonetheless, the ultimate decisions can be made by the person affected (the player, to extend the metaphor) and their advisors/friends/doctors (the manager/coaches!).

    I think you’re right – great support is essential. Drugs can make people manageable, and their use in medicine can reassure others (and society at large) – especially if they keep us docile. If we can’t get this support (for personal/family reasons, lack of money etc.), they are the next best thing. Certainly not ideal.

    As a further point, I find the development of psychoactive (sorry, not sure if that’s the right term) drugs rather scary, particularly in terms of the principle of control. Money spent on expensive chemicals can keep some people quiet (or could be used one day to improve people’s capacities – memory, speed of comprehension etc.) Some neuroscientists have suggested, (Michio Kaku, I think), implants will play a big part in our future make-up, rather than pills – and they will be expensive ‘upgrades’.

    Posted by Robin | June 13, 2012, 2:55 pm
  2. Thoughts in my experience are generated by the ego. Its that simple. No ego = No thoughts = Peace of mind

    Posted by Tim | July 19, 2012, 3:17 am
  3. Steven,

    First of all I would like to say thank you for some enjoyable reading. I have barely touched the surface of your blog but I like the way you think about religion, free will and God. The above article interested me because I have had several brushes with schizophrenia. Although I do not live with any mental illness myself, schizophrenia has become a feature of my life and I feel, for some reason, compelled to analyze it.

    In the mid nineties I worked in a law firm when a gunman walked into my office and held myself and several others hostage throughout an afternoon and a night. Strangely, although my life was threatened I felt comfortable engaging the gunman in conversation for many hours (the reality was, he wanted to talk). He spoke of intricate plots to have him killed and would not be swayed otherwise by the improbability of the events he believed in. In the end he grew tied and we jumped him. Sadly many years later I heard that he killed himself and his family.

    In the late nineties my secretary began to behave very strangely. I recognized the paranoia and unshakable belief in plots involving government takeovers by Michael Jackson and secret codes imprinted on the pound. Her family came to collect her and she never returned to work.

    In 2005 I married a wonderful woman who is still my wife. In 2009 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and I saw up close the disruption (and even devastation) that can be caused by a person with this condition. I am in favor of treating the person and not the symptoms of the disease, but this episode demonstrated the very useful ability of antipsychotics to end the downward spiral. It took almost 3 months to bring her hallucinations and paranoia under control. Prior to this, I had been trying to get her to see things clearly for a long time, but they got steadily worse. It was like a conversation with the gunman, only it went on for years.

    As soon as her insight was back, we, meaning my wife and I together, began to address the problem holistically, from a more personal point of view. We started with exercise, she had been on Zyprexa (which you called Olanzapine) and had put on a huge amount of weight, but exercise is good for the mind in any event. We researched vitamins and supplements that could make a difference and she began to take all of these. We did what we could to remove stress from her life and importantly, she continued to take the medication. Her Doctor always felt that she would need to be on the medication for life. I found this hard to accept. To date her recovery has been so good that she has dropped her antianxiety and antidepressant tablets altogether. She is now only left with a small 7.5mg dose of Abilify which seems to have no side effects. Her psychiatrist has decided to try to gradually drop this to zero over the next few months.

    Her recovery has been amazing and the reason for that I believe is that we did not just rely on the medication.

    I was raised a catholic and my wife has basically been agnostic her entire life, although technically she is Anglican Christian. Surprisingly she has recently decided to join the church again. I can’t help thinking that this will be the final step that is require to end her ordeal permanently.

    Finally I would like to comment on Tim’s comment. I agree that the removal of ego would solve many mental health problems, although I would not know how to achieve this. We are all conscious beings and it amazes me that we manage to project our thoughts beyond ourselves to the extent that we do, as often as we do. I have an ego and most of what I do is ultimately done, when reduced to a base level, to serve some need of my own. In truth, I am concerned that if I learned to remove my ego and I lost all the self-centered things I surround myself with, my life would not be as good. I’m a little ashamed.

    Posted by Matthew | October 31, 2013, 5:27 am
    • Dear Matthew,

      Many thanks for your interest in my blog, and for your thoughtful comment. It was interesting to read about your life experience, it sounds as though you have been through some challenges! I have never met anyone who has been taken hostage before, I can only imagine how frightening that must be.

      At the moment I am taking an antipsychotic called Depixol and the side effects are minimal, which makes a welcome change from some of the other drugs I have had to take. I am living in a shared house with people who all have mental health problems and are much older than me. This is very difficult and is causing me a lot of stress at the moment. One tenant in particular is very troublesome and very hard to live with. But in terms of my mental health I am doing pretty well at the moment.

      I hope that everything goes smoothly with your wife coming off the medication. When I have come off the meds in the past I have tended to relapse, and I hope that isn’t the case with you wife.

      Have a good weekend, Matthew, and I hope you will return to my blog again – your involvement is much appreciated!

      Best wishes,

      Steven

      Posted by Steven Colborne | October 31, 2013, 10:32 am
      • I will be here again. I enjoy reading your material. I don’t think I have read views like yours before but strangely I feel like you say the stuff I only think.

        Posted by Matthew | November 1, 2013, 11:04 am

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