Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Antipsychotic Drugs

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 26, 2016


The world changed when Prozac came out in 1989.  A few years later, in 1993, Risperdal was FDA approved for schizophrenia, heralding the “second generation” antipsychotic medication family which includes drugs such as Zyprexa, Geodon, Seroquel, Abilify, Latuda, Saphris and Fanapt. As with all new drugs, there is tremendous hope that the disease sufferers will have relief, and yet, as the story unfolds, the patients may experience greater relief, but they also suffer new side effects which the “first generation” drugs did not have. In other words, like so many things in life, it was a trade-off, as opposed to a transformational treatment. Whereas first generation antipsychotics gave patients a “Parkinson’s look,” second generation antipsychotics cause metabolic symptoms, meaning they are at significantly higher risk for cardiovascular disease and hence a shortened lifespan. Since the metabolic syndrome evolves over time, patients on second generation drugs appear “normal” whereas patients on first generation drugs look “diseased” and hence there is a greater tolerance of these second generation drugs by the general public. As a result, these second-generation antipsychotics are overprescribed to populations in which behaviors may be difficult to manage, such as in foster care and nursing homes. So, coincident with Prozac bringing in a generation of people who are medicated with psychotropic drugs, Risperdal was introduced adding on to the explosion in psychopharmacology. Further, in 2006, Risperdal was approved for the treatment of irritability associated with autism, opening the door to children being placed on antipsychotic medications in shocking numbers. This is disturbing because metabolic side effects are cumulative, and as such, the longer a patient is on these medications, the greater the risk of both morbidity and mortality. The antipsychotics, since they appear easy to tolerate, have become the go-to drug for all behaviors which are scary, which includes severe anxiety and severe anger. As such, there is less of a curiosity about why the patient is anxious and/or angry, and a quick trigger to give medications which immediately calms, but with long-term risks, many people do not want to consider. This issue of short-term relief, in exchange for long-term problems, is a particular problem given that outcome measures are often for short-term issues, and so the data can appear positive, if the measurements are done fairly quickly after symptom presentation.


Arlie, a twelve-year old girl, comes to mind. She is bright, has an intact family, has four older and academically successful siblings, and she goes to a high-pressured private school. As the semester nears to an end, she refuses to go to school. No one knows why and she won’t say. Her parents take her to two psychiatrists. One says she should go on Abilify, an antipsychotic, to soothe her presumed anxiety about going to school. The second psychiatrist, many decades older than the first psychiatrist, suggests that she baby-step her way back to school, with incentives after each step, and with a peer assigned to helping her through her day. The parents, not wanting to “trouble the school” opt for medication. Arlie is placed on Abilify and she still refuses to go to school. Her Abilify is increased and then she reluctantly agrees to go. She stays on Abilify and the parents feel they made the right decision. Arlie, when asked, states she is “crazy” and so she is on medication. She feels she “gave up” because the medication dulled her brain, but it is also true, she would say, that it is easier for her to be in school. Arlie illustrates the complexity of these antipsychotic medications. The fact that they produce symptom relief is not necessarily a reason to prescribe them. Behavioral techniques to get her back to school would be more time-consuming and would require heavy lifting by both the school and the family. On the other hand, Arlie would not carry the emotional weight of being on a psychotropic medication. She would also not risk long-term side effects and perhaps most importantly, she would not have the cognitive dulling associated with this class of medication. This case illustrates the tremendous generational divide in treatment approaches. It also illustrates the cultural shift which has taken place over my lifetime. When I trained in child psychiatry 1989-1991, most parents were frightened of medicating their children. Today, I see that , like Arlie’s parents, there is an eagerness to medicate and have the problems be resolved relatively quickly. The fact that antipsychotics no longer make patients look like they have a terrible neurological disease has opened up use of these medications to populations, such as children, who benefit from their calming effects. This benefit comes at a scary price. And so, the class discussion will begin.

4 Responses to “Antipsychotic Drugs”

  1. Shelly said

    You say that with the availability of these new psychotropics, people would rather medicate than find out the reasons for the anxiety and the behaviors. In your example, Arlie doesn’t want to go to school. If you’d asked her why, perhaps she’d say that she wants to hang with the cool kids but socially, she wasn’t in that place and was anxious about that. Ok, so now you know why. It still doesn’t make it better for Arlie nor her parents, nor the school. Her anxiety is still there. She is still unhappy. Yes, you could try therapy and try to make Arlie be happy with herself as she is, but that takes time. Nobody has the time when a child is angry and exhibiting behaviors that don’t allow them to be in school. The schools just want conforming behaviors. The parents want Arlie happy. And Arlie wants to fit in and be a cool kid.

    • Yes, but this is not an either/or situation. Arlie could be medicated and be in psychotherapy. My issue is that the atypicals are now causing clinicians to lose their curiosity about underlying issues, which could be critical for Arlie’s development. Thank you, as always.

  2. Eleanor said

    Shirah when I read this example of “modern day” psychiatric treatment approach (for a child no less!) I wonder how and why did psychiatry let their profession get to this?? A 12 year old girl refused to go to school and her anxiety is “treated” with antipsychotics??!! Did anyone consider this may be the “identified patient” and the family dynamics may need more consideration….or the fact that just because one “high pressure” elite private school may work for the siblings that is no guarantee that it is best for this child. Does anyone “care” what this child’s reasons behind her anxiety really are? Are the parents so busy or so “threatened” that they can’t make time to support their child’s issues in a more thorough way with deeper perspectives. Why in the world does modern psychiatry support this quick fix approach, with all the potential future ramifications? So sad.

    • Yes, sad indeed. Psychiatry, including child psychiatry, has moved more towards Neurology in that they see issues in terms of which medications can be helpful instead of being curious about the multiple factors which can contribute to school refusal. The deeper perspective is of little interest to most newly trained psychiatrists, but fortunately there is a minority who still care about those complex determinants of behavior. Psychiatrists support it because this is what they are trained to do. As the saying goes, if your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, and in this case the only tool is an atypical antipsychotic drug. Thanks.

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