Side Effects

by Katie Cavanagh Petersen LCSW, CYT

One sunny Sunday afternoon, I was relaxing in my chair reading. My husband was watching golf on TV. I am surprised I was still awake because this is my prime opportunity for a nap. What kept me awake were the commercials. I was stunned by all the different medications for mental illness that are advertised on TV. What surprised me even more are the side effects that may occur while taking these medications. I thought, “I would rather be sick!” I heard so many side effects from so many different medications; explosive diarrhea, impaired judgment, dry mouth, nausea, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, fatigue, constipation, urinary retention, blurred vision, dizziness, weight gain, sweating, nervousness, elevated heart rate, bronchial dysfunction, rashes, sweating, chills, nausea, mood changes and the forever puzzling and ironic side effect, suicidal and homicidal ideation. How can an anti-depressant make people want to kill themselves or others?

According to the Center for Disease Control, long-term side effects intensify especially when patients are co-prescribed multiple psychotropics such as a stimulant for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) plus an anti-psychotic for a “disease” such as Bipolar Disorder. Symptoms include feelings of paranoia and anger, arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) ischemia, (inadequate blood supply to organs) pulmonary events, tardive dyskinesia (neurological disorder characterized by involuntary movements of the face) Parkinsonism (instability in walking) and obesity, which leads to type 2 diabetes. Patients also report numbness in their emotions and not being able to laugh or cry.

Diagnoses such as Depression, Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, (OCD) are scary to hear from a doctor, especially when the subject is you or your child. People obviously want to get past this low point in their lives and do whatever they can to feel better as quickly as possible. Of course, this is understandable. I have heard my clients and friends say that medication helps them calm down, or to focus, get out of bed, sleep better, stop checking the stove 85 times a day, or obsessing about their body image. Psychotropic drugs can be valuable to help a patient turn down the volume of crippling anxiety or lifting some pressure from the vise of clinical depression, but so are placebos. According to an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, sugar pills are as effective in treating depression as prescription medication. I believe most people have the power to alter their thoughts even in the worst situation. Unfortunately, a lot of us are putting a prescription band-aid on emotional wounds before cleaning them out.


What Sunday afternoon golf commercials don’t disclose is the alarming frequency of Americans who are medicated. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately one in five take at least one psychotropic medication. So many people are taking Prozac, it is being found in our drinking water! Patients visit their family doctor or their friend’s medicine cabinet and walk away with a prescription for an “anti-depressant” or other prescription medication without considering evidence-based therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is an approach that embraces the problem and trains the brain to attain acceptance and achieve positive goals.

CBT can be combined with fun, interactive activities like yoga, art, pet therapy, dancing, music, gardening, mindfulness, walking or just about anything to help the patient engage in wellness and appreciation of the present moment. Participants learn to recognize how early symptoms physically feel in their bodies, and to get in control of them before slipping into darkness. CBT frees up roadblocks to inner growth, and helps us change the things we can. With motivation and guidance, evidence-based therapies are more reliable than medication. When a patient engages in therapy, he or she can rely on themselves and the skills learned to feel better.

To put it simply: therapy works better than medication without the negative side effects. The patient learns told the mind to react to irrational thoughts just as they are…thoughts.

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