The People's Perspective on Medicine

1 Out of Every 6 American Adults Takes Psychiatric Drugs

Tens of millions of Americans take anti-anxiety agents, antidepressants, sleeping pills and antipsychotic medications. Never stop such drugs suddenly!
Closeup of crying woman with tears

The numbers are startling: one in six American adults has taken a psychiatric drug. This is the finding from a study reported in JAMA Internal Medicine (online, Dec. 12, 2016). The researchers reviewed data from 2013 on medical expenditures. Extrapolating from their calculations, we estimate that over 40 million Americans are likely taking psychiatric drugs.

Antidepressants, Anti-Anxiety Agents & Sleeping Pills Top the List:

They found that 12 percent of the people in the government survey took an antidepressant such as sertraline (Zoloft), citalopram (Celexa), trazodone (Desyrel), escitalopram (Lexapro), duloxetine (Cymbalta) or fluoxetine (Prozac). Approximately 8 percent relied on medication to treat anxiety or insomnia. Alprazolam (Xanax), zolpidem (Ambien) and clonazepam (Klonopin) were most frequently prescribed for those problems.

One of the Authors Comments:

We spoke directly with the lead author, Thomas J. Moore, about the significance of this study:

“I have safety concern that 84% reported long-term use. The problem is that 8 of the 10 most widely used drugs either have warnings about withdrawal symptoms, are DEA Schedule IV, or both. Both patients and physicians need to periodically re-evaluate the continued need for psychiatric drugs.  In addition, patients need to understand that in many cases stopping the drug may seem to make the problem come back. But in fact it could be withdrawal or rebound symptoms that will resolve with awareness and careful tapering of the dose when quitting.

“As the study notes,  I have previously studied zolpidem/Ambien and found that a majority of use did not comply with safety recommendations, including using only for short periods of time.”

Psychiatric Drugs Can Trigger Withdrawal Symptoms:

When anti-anxiety agents were first introduced, prescribers did not realize that such drugs could cause withdrawal symptoms. If patients complained of anxiety, panic, agitation, disorientation, insomnia, faulty memory, depression, muscle twitching, dizziness, headache, irritability, digestive upset, inability to concentrate or tremor, they were told that their underlying mental problems were returning. In other words, you were anxious before taking Valium or Xanax. The drugs worked great to control your symptoms. Now you have stopped the drugs and your symptoms have returned.

What doctors did not appreciate for years was that stopping a benzodiazepine-type drug could trigger all those symptoms regardless of any underlying psychological problems.

Reader Stories:

Victoria in California shared this experience:

“I am off Klonopin after taking it for 30 years. The anxiety rebound I handle with meditation; however the physical symptoms are horrible. With a doctor’s assistance I tapered off for one year until off the medication. I have bloating in my stomach and what people in England call a Benzo Belly, though I am at my perfect weight.

“I am writing to let people know it is possible to be free of Benzos. I must tell myself that this will not last forever and right now I am very calm. Taking this medication for many years when older can cause serious fall risks and dementia. I have numerous physical symptoms which can be researched online but do not want to dwell on them.”

Anthony in Santa Fe, New Mexico, writes:

“I was prescribed a low dose of Klonopin for anxiety and insomnia. My physician never warned me about dependence. I was probably on this drug for 18 months. Long story short, the side effects of benzos mirror the problems for which they were prescribed so there is a tendency for physicians to up the dosage.

“I resisted that (fortunately) but with time my side effects were so uncomfortable that I was barely able to function. I educated myself and learned that benzo addiction is extremely common in a certain percentage of patients. Some can get off the drug by weaning themselves with decreasing doses over a period of a month or two. Others, such as myself, are much less fortunate.

“The weaning only made me more and more miserable until one day I just quit cold turkey. The next 6 months were pretty much a living hell and I wasn’t finally free of the withdrawal symptoms for two years. I am still far from right. In England this drug is virtually never prescribed for longer than two weeks. In the US it’s as if nobody has a clue about how dangerous prescribing these drugs is.”

Antidepressant Withdrawal:

As with benzodiazepines, most clinicians never imagined that people could become dependent upon their antidepressant medication. There was very little written about the need for gradual withdrawal. We now know that people who suddenly stop taking a medication like duloxetine, paroxetine, sertraline or escitalopram can experience some very uncomfortable symptoms:

Symptoms Linked to Stopping Antidepressants Suddenly:

  • Anxiety, irritability, hostility
  • Dizziness, disorientation
  • Headaches
  • Brain “zaps” or feelings like electric shocks in the brain
  • Hand shaking, tremor, nerve tingling
  • Fatigue, lack of energy

Reader Stories:

Hopeful in Indiana:

“Getting off of Cymbalta was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done in my life. Many doctors don’t realize how difficult it is or that you have to taper – mine did not.

“I found A LOT of help online — my withdrawals were so difficult, I’m not sure I would have survived if I had not found all the online resources and other people’s stories of how difficult getting off of it was and the techniques they used. What I did, safely and carefully, was actually open the capsules and count the beads in order to taper down. (Cold turkey is horrible and was simply not doable for me!) This counting of the beads was detailed in many places online.

“I went down VERY slowly and this greatly minimized the horrors of cold turkey. I think I took 3 solid months to go off of it completely- a LONG time. Even then, I had bad side effects and my brain didn’t heal completely for 9 months — I had bad memory problems, extreme difficulty with logical thinking, exhaustion, physical aches, and more. BUT I DID get better finally; it was just a very long, painful journey.”

DCWriter shared this:

“Years ago I stopped taking Zoloft. That was before the medical profession recognized the horrible withdrawal problems (some still don’t, or downplay it). Tapering was not even suggested.

“I thought I was going crazy. Every time I moved my head I had an ‘electrical zap’ throughout my skull, plus other problems. Even though today I could probably benefit from an antidepressant, I refuse to go on them because they are hell to get off of. Docs don’t seem to understand my reluctance. They haven’t had the pleasure of that nightmare withdrawal!”

Millions Also Take Antipsychotics:

In addition to all those who take anti-anxiety agents, antidepressants or sleeping pills, 1.6 percent took antipsychotic drugs, often used to treat schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses. About 80 percent of those taking such medications were on them for the long term. Many of these medicines can also cause dependence, with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when people discontinue them.

The authors recommend that psychiatric medications should be prescribed at the lowest effective dose. They conclude:

“Safe use of psychiatric drugs could be improved by increasing emphasis on prescribing these agents at the lowest effective dose and systematically reassessing the need for continued use.”

Read about other stories of psychiatric side effects at these links:

Share your own experience with psychiatric drugs in the comment section below.

Rate this article
5- 11 ratings
About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Psychological Side Effects

Download guide to which drugs change personality or cause depression? Side effects of Halcion, Prozac and Xanax. Protect your children from problems with OTC drugs.

Psychological Side Effects
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.

Showing 8 comments
Add your comment

Kids shouldn’t be taking any drugs until their brain have fully developed. When they’re old enough to smoke weed, they’ll be old enough for anti-depressants.

I don’t think anti-depressants or therapy are effective enough treatments to successfully eliminate any mental illness. Neither are natural medicines.

There are no cures for mental illnesses and no one’s looking for them.

The psychiatric/therapy industry is mostly incompetent and ignorant of their own failures. Their approach seems to be to to scold the mentally ill like children who eat too much candy. Therapists and psychiatrists like being authority figures who possess all knowledge and they’re not going to give that up unless they’re forced to. They like telling the mentally ill how wrong they are about everything. They like believing they have all the answers and that the mentally ill simply need to listen better and do what the therapist says. They like telling you to accept everything people do to you because those people are just “doing the best they can” but anything you do is a crisis of your own making. They like thinking nothing they do is ever wrong because they know exactly what you need to do and no matter who you are or how much pain their treatment causes, that’s the only treatment and if you don’t get better that’s because you’re not trying hard enough. They like thinking there’s nothing out there but yoga, anti-depressants, and CBT (which is based on telling you your mental illness is caused by you choosing to think irrationally.)

After 9 years of therapy and medications failing repeatedly, after years of abuse at the hands of law enforcement and DOCTORS and hotline operators, I quit. I’m better off without this garbage. It’s a tragedy there’s really nothing the mentally ill can do to get better.

Actually, there’s one thing we can do. We can fix our lives and get good jobs and meet nice people. We can create an environment where we’re comfortable and don’t have to worry about people who don’t care about us controlling our lives at their whim. But we can’t do that, actually, because we’re pariahs. We’re supposed to feel lucky we can work anywhere for any amount of time. We’re supposed to pretend we’re not sick as hell and ready to throw up from pain. It’s impossible to get better in America right now. There’s no resources and the discrimination is disgusting.

This is one of the most honest, truthful, realistic, and sensible things I have ever read. Thank you.
I was put on antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anti-anxiety meds I did not want for the better part of thirty years and was shifted from some to others and others and more and more. They destroyed most relationships in my life, turned me into a suicidal mental health patient which turned me into an embarrassing pariah and a drug-seeking addict who could eventually no longer get a doctor to prescribe the stuff doctors themselves had physically addicted me to.

I had been put on benzodiazepines for more than twenty years, had them abruptly yanked more than once by a few doctors who bemoaned my addictions – and promptly had seizures, which were supposedly my own fault due to my lack of moral character. More than twenty years of compounded misery which was essentially due to unnecessarily chemically treating situational depression and/or anxiety that would have resolved itself eventually. But once I was caught up in this awful rollercoaster it became so hard to get out.

I did manage to do so and I had to do it all alone, all by myself. Did it while I was overseas. No doctor was willing to supervise or manage any tapering of anything. I am now finally free of psychiatric intervention and of these jerks holding my life in their hands, and I’ll never fall into their clutches again.

I have never taken any Psychotics but I have had women I dated start taking them and also employees who had post heart surgery distress take them. The results have been such an alteration in their personality that in all cases these relationships ended, on a friendly note, but yet they ended none the less. Why?

Let us first consider the reason the doctor states to take such medications…in general depression. Just this past week two doctors advised my wife in my presence that she needed to take Lexapro because her tiredness and lack of concentration were symptoms of depression.

My wife is almost 47 and already in menopause. These are normal symptoms of menopause. So I asked them why they felt she needed a pill (they had still not disclosed to her that this was an antidepressant even though she had told them now for two years she did not want an antidepressant. They insisted that she should try it for 30 days and she will definitely feel better. She asked what if she stops after 30 days…they gave no warnings but said she may have to stay on it forever to feel good forever. I might add that my wife is a very happy person and always smiling and others love her for this reason.

We both work with a drug rehabilitation. We find that most people start the addiction path by being told just give it a try and you will like it. You can stop whenever you wish. With many illegal drugs that are not physically addictive you can do this. But who would want to? Why if your feeling so good would you stop? The addiction is mental and comes from your desire to be happy. So it is with psychotic drugs as well.

As I sat there listening I was so disgusted…in fact the actual doctor sounded more like a pusher than a doctor with his emphasis and the sale of this drug. My wife went along not knowing it was an anti-depressant. Even though she told them she did not want to try anything until after a meeting with their councelor, we got a call from the pharmacy the next day stating her $125 perscription was ready. This from the number one clinic in FL and number 2 in the US!

Doesn’t anyone get it that taking a pill to feel better emotionally is going to addict you simply because you will not want to go back to being unhappy. Why quit the high when there is no damage done? Well the damage is done because this high comes by making you feel good without consideration of your surroundings and relationships. You gradually drift away from your role in emotional links to those around you. You become more self-focused and less involved in anything that normally triggers you to compromise and work with others. You do not need anything outside your own mind to feel good.

I think these drugs are addictive, they have withdrawl symptoms, and I see very little difference between them and those that are illiegal other than the latter result in incarceration, loss of income, and loss of the means of being a normal member of society thus resulting in a life of crime until one really finds an answer outside of the drugs.

This may sound like an exagerrated comparison but give it some thought and tell me what the differences are.

I do believe their is a place for psychotics. But it should be approached as if one were prescribing heroine and limited only to cases that justify this.

I consider myself very fortunate, having been on escitalopram 10 mg. which I cut in half. I was also blessed that I had a friend who us an integrative doctor who helped me wean off by first taking 5-HTP at bedtime for 2 weeks, then stopping it and begin to taper one every other day for a week and then stop. That has been almost two weeks ago and I have had not one side effect! I had bee on this horrible drug for approximately 3-4 months.

I have been on low dose of Sertraline for 15 years. Each time I tried to taper off, I had the worst vertigo spinning, where I would have to reinstate the drug all over again to stop the horrible spinning causing nystagmus twitching of the eyes and unable to focus or walk.

3 months ago I tried tapering off once again. As I turned my head to the side, the Vertigo was so severe that I fell back on the couch. My eyes were twitching so bad I could not stand up or walk. I tried to reach my phone to call Police and had to crawl to get the phone. I was taken by Ambulance to the hospital and was given Intravenously Benadryl, and Valium. I was kept overnite for observation and put back on the 25 mg Zoloft with horrible spinning from the Vertigo. I was discharged the following day and needed a cane to assist in walking. I had a brain MRI, CT Scan all normal. I have stayed on the 25 mg of Sertraline since, with no more discontinuation Syndrome.

When I came home from the hospital, I was still very lightheaded and had to have a nursing service come to my home 3 times a week to take my vital signs and follow up. It’s been 4 months now and the vertigo has stopped and I will always be terrified to ever try to wean off of Sertraline again.

I never would have taken these meds years ago if I knew this would happen. I was told by Doctors that to taper off you must go very very slowly. So now I’m going to have to remain on this low 25 mg dosage due to the fear of ever having to go through that again.

These Pharma companies never tell us the severity of coming off of these horrible drugs. Yes, the Sertraline did help my anxiety and Depression, but to try coming off of them is a living Hell.

I never miss a chance to comment — adversely — on my hellish three-day use of Cymbalta, which a neuroulogist prescribed as an analgesic for some serious pre-surgery pain. This was the drug that turned me into a really good imitation of an extra from “The Walking Dead” in short order, with a sudden desire to simply die. (Well, being a zombie is no fun…)

I sympathize profoundly with people who have gone through withdrawal from Cymbalta or similar drugs: even three days was ugly, and I can only imagine what trying to get off the stuff was like after longer use

These are dangerous drugs, prescribed blithely for a wide range of problems, often with no real cautions or monitoring by the physicians involved. I took the time to write an FDA complaint (which was probably an exercise in futility) and would caution any friend not to be seduced, as so many physicians seem to be, by the siren calls of pharmaceutical companies and drug reps about the efficacy and safety of their products.

I’m worried about Abilify for children and long term use. More and more psych drugs are prescribed for them as well. If positive results are seen, how do they identify if it is maturity or the med that’s helping? How do they know if the child can come off the med and what would be the way to handle ending it so there wouldn’t be side effects? Thanks.

* Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^