ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Tortuous Side Effects of Antipsychotic Medication

By Jack Bragen
Friday March 15, 2013 - 02:58:00 PM

Psychiatric medication, ideally, is a tool to help persons with mental illness become and remain functional in life. Medication should not be an enemy. 

However, among medications, antipsychotic ones in particular sometimes have side effects that can make life seem unbearable. To understand this, the reader would have to try taking this type of medication, and a lot of it, over a long period of time. Taking antipsychotic medication is sometimes a source of agony. 

Some people get worse side effects than others. Some medications work better than others, from person to person, both in terms of minimizing side effects and (as a separate issue) in terms of effectiveness. When someone is first hospitalized, the psychiatrists are supposed to try a patient on several different medications to see which ones give a person less side effects, and which ones do the job of making the patient better. 

The misery of side effects, if someone is on the wrong medication or the wrong dosage, can be enough to make someone go noncompliant with taking medication, or worse. 

Typical side effects of antipsychotic medications (the ones that almost every patient gets and not the "serious" ones) include muscle stiffness, dry mouth, a horrible drugged feeling, being depressed, "motor restlessness," inability to concentrate and being unable to perform simple work tasks. Antipsychotic medication treats psychosis by means of blocking the neurotransmitters of the brain. It does this across the board. 

Psychiatrists often prescribe a second drug, called an antiparkinsonian, to help with some of the side effects. However, these secondary medications also have their own side effects. 

Antipsychotic medication can also kill you. "Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome" refers to an adverse medication reaction (characterized by muscle rigidity, fever and delirium) which can result in death. 

Antipsychotic medication can cause involuntary movements of the tongue, face and upper body-a reaction called "Tardive Dyskinesia." This reaction to medication is debilitating, disfiguring, and is often irreversible, including when the medication is stopped. 

These adverse reactions are not "one in a million" as the people vending these medications might want you to believe. When someone takes antipsychotic medication, they are taking a genuine risk. 

A glut of newer antipsychotic medications has been invented in the past two decades, most of them known as "atypical antipsychotics." Originally these newer medications were touted as having fewer side effects compared to the older class of drugs. However, over time it has become clear that this claim is not accurate. 

When I was first hospitalized in the 1980's, I was put on Haldol, and this made me unable to focus my eyes, and did other weird things to me. The doctors believed I didn't react well to Haldol. When I was to be released from hospitalization, they gave me a drug called, "Prolixin," and I was miserable on it. 

However, after taking prolixin for over a year, my side effects eased up. In 1985, I was able to take electronics training, and I was dating a girlfriend. After a four-month technical course, I got a job as an electronics technician performing TV and VCR repair. I worked in repair of home electronics for several years that followed. (It was a struggle for me to keep jobs for reasons unrelated to the medication.) 

By then, I was able to use meditation to deal with the discomfort of medication side effects. Being medicated became my new normal, and I essentially forgot what it was like not to take medication. The human mind is supremely adaptable, and I had adapted to being medicated. 

Medication side effects are no walk in the park. They can make a person extremely uncomfortable for a very long period of time. Side effects are a major cause of persons with mental illness being noncompliant with taking medications. When you force a person with mental illness to take medication, you are asking a lot. 

I took prolixin for about nineteen years before switching to ample dosages of the newer medications. While I still get a lot of medication side effects, which most of the time I ignore, the newer medications that I take, in combination with meditation practices, have given me a better level of mental clarity compared to taking the older medications. 

(I had several episodes of medication noncompliance over the past thirty years, and one of my main reasons for this has been the anguish of medication side effects. However, since 1996, I have remained medicated. And this is partly due to the influence of my wife, who I first met in 1994.) 

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My two mental health related books, "Instructions for Dealing With Schizophrenia: A Self-Help Manual," and "Jack Bragen's Essays on Mental Illness," are available on Amazon. I can be reached with your comments at but I can not give any advice to individuals.