Study: Friends and Family Fix Schizophrenia Better Than Drugs

The Journal of American Psychiatry presents a new treatment regimen for schizophrenia.

More than 2 million people in the United States suffer from symptoms related to schizophrenia in its various forms. Like poor taste in music, these usually surface some time in a person’s late teens and early twenties.

The onset is hectic. A schizophrenic episode can include intense hallucinations, delusions, and a general feeling of being disconnected from reality. Not the good kind of disconnection: Like that achieved in a sensory-deprivation tank, or the rare and unexpected moment of zen you reach in traffic somewhere between the 110 and the 405 freeways; when your music is perfect, you haven't killed a motorcyclist, and you realize and accept that you don't and will never have complete control over anything. We're talking about the bad kind. The kind that manifests fear and severe paranoia and, at times, turns reality inside out for anyone afflicted with the disorder. 

Treatment of schizophrenia symptoms is life-long and no joke.

While the use of antipsychotic medications can have profound positive effects for some, this study champions a more human-to-human, less pill-to-mouth approach.

According to a study published October 20 in the Journal of American Psychiatry; a treatment regimen consisting of low doses of medication, talk therapy, heavy family involvement, and education and workplace support could reduce reliance upon the traditional prescription of heavy doses of medications that—as is the case with aripiprazole (Abilify) or quetiapine (Seroquel)—come with gnarly side effects.

The Mayo Clinic admits that “medications are the cornerstone of schizophrenia treatment” while acknowledging that “because medications for schizophrenia can cause serious but rare side effects, people with schizophrenia may be reluctant to take them.” 

Even “second-generation” medicines such as Abilify or Seroquel pose a reduced risk of those side effects.

About 45 seconds into this commercial for Abilify, which is commonly used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, the narrator begins listing side effects that range in severity from weight gain, dizziness and impaired judgment, to coma and death, some of which are worse than the symptoms the pill is intended to treat.

According to Dr. Robert Heinssen, the psychiatrist from the National Institute of Mental Health overseeing the research, the new study published in the Journal of American Psychiatry represents a “beautiful balance of scientific rigor and real world practicality.” Going beyond the lab,  the research was conducted over seven years in real-world settings on actual patients, with more than 400 participants spanning 36 clinics across 22 states. 

The new plan does not advocate a total freedom from pharmaceuticals. A control group in the study received traditional treatment, while patients under the comprehensive form of treatment received doses of medications between 20 percent and 50 percent lower than what is typically prescribed. 

Mental health and the politics, policies and treatments surrounding it have become a fixture in the national discussion.

While the use of antipsychotic medications can have profound positive effects for some, this recent study champions a more human-to-human, less pill-to-mouth approach.

Additionally, subjects selected for this study were administered to treatment after experiencing their very first hallucinations, schizophrenic episode, or “break from reality.”

Researchers say early diagnosis and treatment is crucial in treating schizophrenia. The longer one waits to seek help, the harder the process can be. 

"By identifying [the illness] early, you can actually bend its trajectory, and make it less disabling," Dr. Stephen Marder, a schizophrenia expert and attending psychiatrist at the UCLA Psychosis Clinic, tells The Kind.

The study found that after two years of receiving the comprehensive treatment, patients reported more dramatic improvements in quality of life and less frequent symptoms than did the control group. Patients were more open to treatment, stuck with it longer, and performed better in school and at work. 

Marder sees hope in the coordinated regimine: “This is a landmark study. The results were very encouraging. It [the study] was delivered in ‘bread and butter’ community clinics that actually help real people.”

Mental health and the politics, policies and treatments surrounding it have become a fixture in the national discussion. When was the last time you read an article about gun control that didn’t link to a story on mental health?

More money is being put into research across the field. And reportedly centers for Medicare and Medicaid services support treatments such as what was proposed and administered in the current National Institute of Mental Health study. According to Heinssen, his study was mentioned by name in mental health reform bills circulating congress.

This is cause for optimism, but researchers are still in the dark on what chemical imbalance is responsible for the words and actions of Guy Fieri. 

For that matter, much of what makes us do and say the things we do and say remains a mystery.