Don’t be scared, it’s just antipsychotic medication.
There has been much useful discussion concerning antidepressant medication and dispelling myths surrounding this treatment to help break the stigma of mental health within the church and society. But one group of medications that are sometimes prescribed for mental illness, called antipsychotics, still remain relatively misunderstood and their name can unhelpfully contribute to part of the stigma. As a sufferer of anxiety and depression I have taken antidepressants for a long time, but for two periods between 2009 - 2011 I was also prescribed antipsychotic medication. Therefore, I’m going to be honest about my personal experience with taking this type of medication to help raise awareness about the need for this as a treatment, and provide some insights about managing the side-effects. I hope this is also helpful to those in the church supporting mental health suffers using this treatment.
A few years ago I was unwell and was suffering with psychosis whereby I was perceiving and interpreting things around me differently from those near to me. I had unhelpful hallucinations and could hear voices that were telling me things that were not true. Looking back on this time I can now see that it was a very scary period, especially for my wife and family, but for me it felt very real, believable and dare I say normal. Except, it wasn’t normal. At some stage these symptoms got unbearable, and I was admitted to hospital for treatment, and prescribed antipsychotic medication.
‘Antipsychotic’ isn’t a great name is it? I have to say that when I tell people I was on this type of medication you can sense that some folk are uncomfortable with this and perhaps think my symptoms were associated to something like some maniac from a horror film running around and wanting to kill. The word psychotic conjures up images of those from a Halloween movie or something similar perhaps. This is why it is important for everyone learn about mental health and to breakdown the false understanding these words can create. Our understanding of what this medication does is crucial to enabling us to appreciate the treatments.
Antipscychotics are a range of medications that are used for some types of mental distress and disorder, such as schizophrenia, manic depression, severe anxiety and depression. They can help with those experiencing hallucinations, delusions, difficulty in thinking clearly and managing mood swings (RCPSYCH, 2015). The doctors explained to me that we all have a natural chemical in the brain called Dopamine. It is the Dopamine that helps with moving messages around the brain. But what can happen is that an overactive amount of Dopamine can contribute to hallucinations and delusions etc. Therefore, the antipsychotic medication works by helping to calm and control the overactive Dopamine. It was a vital treatment in relieving my symptoms.
When I began taking the antipsychotic medication I required a relatively high dosage to combat the acute symptoms I was enduring. Over time there were adjustments to the medication. Unfortunately, like lots of types of medications, antipsychotics can have some side effects. I personally found the antipsychotics made me very sleepy first thing in the mornings and I also particularly struggled with an overwhelming appetite. I would want to eat everything in the fridge and had a particular craving for Nutella coating a bannana! This was a real struggle because quite quickly I began putting on weight and after a while the increased weight was a negative to my self-esteem. But in time I recognised the problem and I put some things into place, like going to the gym to do some manageable exercise. I’m not a fan of exercise but I was able to do just a bit to help manage the problem. I consulted a dietician to help me think about portion sizes and I asked my wife to assist me with making sure unhelpful foods were not abundantly available in the house! No more Nuttella L
During my recovery, a few months after my discharge, I returned to work. I’m a nurse so this meant I had to work early shifts. Waking at 5:30am to be at work on time for 7:30am was sometimes really difficult to achieve. Previously, I had always been a late-to-bed type of guy. This had to change. I had to have more hours of sleep and so going to bed early was important. I would set two alarm clocks to ensure I woke up and I gave my wife permission to literally push me out of bed! The medication caused me to be drowsy first thing in the morning, so this meant I had to have at least 1 hour awake before I could journey to work. This was also essential so that I could work safely. Being open honest with my manager about this struggle really helped because they were able to support me in my working day.
Sex life. Yes, for me it was affected due to the medication. I didn’t have as much sexual drive as before and it was important for me to speak to my doctor about this because it was beginning to have a negative impact on my marriage.
What I learnt whilst taking the medication was importance of speaking to my GP and Psychiatrist, because there are sometimes adjustments to dosages etc that can be of help. Where a change to the medication isn’t available, it can be helpful to talk through coping strategies with the healthcare team because they may have advice to share. Utilising support groups and mental health charities where you can meet or find out about how other patients cope with side effects can be really useful and supportive. For me, it was also about speaking to my wife and facing the challenges together and working out a strategy and having support in place for when times were tough for both of us. This is where the church and friends can be a great resource. I am a worship leader and so mornings were not the best for me to lead, so the church supported me in leading in the evening services instead. My bible study group was understanding if I didn’t stay until late in the evening, because they knew I had to get to sleep early so that I could work safely in the morning.
With time the antipsychotics were a treatment that helped me to get to a stage whereby I was able to function again and stopped the psychosis. There were times whilst taking the medication where I wanted to stop because of the negative side effects. But, I hung in there by asking for help and choosing supportive strategies that I owned and used. There was a lot of prayer support, which is an incredible support to be utilised through our churches.
For some people they will need to stay on antipsychotic medication long-term and this can be challenging. Think about those who take a daily injection for diabetes. They require adjustments to their diet, lifestyle, choices, and daily routines. In the same way, those with a mental illness may need similar adjustments due to treatments and I believe there is a fantastic opportunity here for the church to come alongside the mentally unwell and to help those who are struggling with their routines and lifestyle.
The use of antipsychotic medication is well evidenced, documented and is an established treatment just like other medications that is a blessing to many people who suffer with illness. I wasn’t a maniac, I was suffering a chemical problem in my brain….It’s just an antipsychotic medication….please don’t be scared.
Written by Tim James
A Senior nurse working in the NHS.
(The article above does not replace the necessary importance of gaining any advice regarding the use of antipsychotic medication from a medical expert).
See also - http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/treatmentswellbeing/antipsychoticmedication.aspx from the Royal College of Psychiatrists