One way anti-psychiatry groups trivialize psychosis and marginalize psychiatry is by emphasizing the adverse effects of antipsychotic medications while denying or minimizing their benefits.1 To be sure, the well-recognized metabolic, neurological, and cardiovascular risks associated with many antipsychotic medications must be taken very seriously. Moreover, antipsychotics (APs) are often used when they are not needed; eg, for the treatment of anxiety disorders2; for “agitation” in nursing home patients; and for “acting out” in adolescent populations. (I spent many years as a psychopharmacology consultant trying to get doctors to reduce their over-reliance on antipsychotics.) On the other hand, there is convincing evidence that in patients with chronic schizophrenia, APs play a crucial role in maintaining remission, averting relapse, improving quality of life, and—importantly—reducing overall mortality.3-5
But even many psychiatrists may not realize that APs reduce the risk of suicide in patients with schizophrenia.
To back up a bit: an estimated 20% to 40% of those with schizophrenia attempt6—and 5% complete—suicide7—a risk at least 10 times that of the general public. Suicides are concentrated early in the illness course and are associated with a number of risk factors, ie:
“Risk factors with a strong association with later suicide included being young, male, and with a high level of education. Illness-related risk factors were important predictors, with number of prior suicide attempts, depressive symptoms, active hallucinations and delusions, and the presence of insight all having a strong evidential basis. A family history of suicide and co-morbid substance misuse were also positively associated with later suicide. The only consistent protective factor for suicide was delivery of and adherence to effective treatment.”8 [italics added].
This last point, of course, is crucial. Indeed, the authors add that,
“. . . efforts at prevention should focus on optimizing adherence to medication, and possible earlier use of clozapine, as the only antipsychotic medication with demonstrated efficacy . . . for the management of suicidality in schizophrenia.”8
Indeed, the first FDA-approved medication with an anti-suicide indication was clozapine for schizophrenia. The regulatory approval in 2003 was largely based on the International Suicide Prevention Trial (InterSePT), a randomized trial that compared clozapine with olanzapine in patients with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder who were at high risk for suicide.9 Suicidal behavior (measured by suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and rescue interventions) was significantly decreased in patients treated with clozapine, which is associated with a substantially lower risk of suicide than any other antipsychotic.10
But while clozapine provides the best evidence of anti-suicidal properties in schizophrenia, there is accumulating evidence that antipsychotic medication in general is associated with decreased risk of suicide in this population. For example, Tiihonen and colleagues11 performed an observational study of antipsychotic treatment in patients with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder (N = 2230, average length of follow-up =3.6 years). Excess mortality was seen mostly in patients not taking antipsychotic drugs, for whom the risk of suicide was high. There were 26 suicides in patients not taking antipsychotics compared with 1 in patients taking medication (adjusted relative risk 37.4).11
Dr Pies is Professor in the psychiatry departments of SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY, and Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, and Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times.
1. Pies R. Trivializing the suffering of psychosis. Psychiatric Times. December 22, 2014. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/schizophrenia/trivializing-suffering-psychosis
2. Pies R. Should psychiatrists use atypical antipsychotics to treat nonpsychotic anxiety? Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2009;6(6):29-37.
3. Pies R. Long-term antipsychotic treatment: effective and often necessary, with caveats. Psychiatric Times. February 22, 2016.
4. Leucht S, Tardy M, Komossa K, et al. Maintenance treatment with antipsychotic drugs for schizophrenia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 May 16;5:CD008016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22592725.
5. Ran MS, Weng X, Chan CL, et al. Different outcomes of never-treated and treated patients with schizophrenia: 14-year follow-up study in rural China. Br J Psychiatry. 2015;207:495–500. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26382951.
6. Schizophrenia and suicide.WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/schizophrenia/guide/schizophrenia-and-suicide
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9. Meltzer HY, Alphs L, Green AI, et al. International Suicide Prevention Trial Study Group. Clozapine treatment for suicidality in schizophrenia: International Suicide Prevention Trial (InterSePT) [published correction appears in Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60:735]. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60:82-91.
10.Tiihonen J, Lönnqvist J, Wahlbeck K, et al. 11-year follow-up of mortality in patients with schizophrenia:a population-based cohort study (FIN11 study) Lancet. 2009;374:620–627.
11.Tiihonen J, Wahlbeck K, Lönnqvist J, et al. Effectiveness of antipsychotic treatments in a nationwide cohort of patients in community care after first hospitalisation due to schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder: observational follow-up study. BMJ. 2006;333(7561):224.
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13. Tiihonen J, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Torniainen M, et al. Mortality and cumulative exposure to antipsychotics, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines in patients with schizophrenia: an observational follow-up study. Am J Psychiatry. 2015;Dec 7. http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15050618?journalCode=ajp
14. Hill AB. The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation? Proc R Soc Med. 1965;58:295-300.
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