Background The nature of pharmacy: Peter Breggin (2008) is very critical of psychopharmaceuticals, pointing out that these compounds are not condition-specific but affect the entire brain. He suggests that these compounds do not “cure” the conditions for which they are intended, but that they suppress neural function across the brain to the point where the patient is no longer bothered by the symptoms of any specific disorder. This is achieved, Breggin points out, at the significant risk of various side effects. Consider a person with a seizure disorder for which the neurologist has prescribed phenytoin (generic equivalent of Dilantin®). The medication hopefully will reduce the “firing” rate of the neurons in the damaged area of the brain that initiates seizures, and in this way, reduce or eliminate the seizures experienced by the patient. It also reduces the rate at which a significant percentage of the other neurons in the brain might fire to pass their electrochemical message on to the next neuron in line. Patients who take phenytoin often complain of being clumsy or of feeling tired much of the time, both side effects that are reflections of this general suppression of neural function. The same phenomenon is encountered with the use of blood pressure medications. Patients might take diuretics to help their body excrete excess fluid, thus lowering the workload on their heart. But they often report feeling thirsty much of the time and will consume more water in an attempt to quench their thirst. Further, many anti-hypertensive medications in this category will make the user feel unsteady on their feet for a moment when they stand up, increasing their risk for falls and injuries. Thus, the medications have a desired effect (lowering blood pressure), but their “blanket” action also brings with it side-effects that might make the patient unwilling to continue to use them. Discussion Question What is the difference between treatment and symptom suppression? Given Breggin’s (2008) criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry, are there any conditions in which a simple suppression of the psychiatric symptoms is appropriate? Are the side effects worth the benefit of suppressing seizure activity? Do you know of somebody who has experienced this “blanket” phenomenon from a medication? Did the person continue to take the medication, or discontinue the medication because of the side effects?
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