By Therese J. Borchard
You’ve been to four psychiatrists and tried over a dozen medication combinations. You still wake up with that dreadful knot in your stomach and wonder if you will ever feel better.
Some people enjoy a straight path to remission. They get diagnosed. They get a prescription. They feel better. Others’ road to recovery isn’t so linear. It’s full of winding bends and dead-ends. Sometimes it’s entirely blocked. By what? Here are a few impediments to treatment to consider if your symptoms aren’t improving.
- The Wrong Care
Take it from the Goldilocks of mental health. I worked with six physicians and tried 23 medication combinations before I found the right psychiatrist who has kept me (relatively) well for the last 13 years. If you have a complex disorder like I do, you can’t afford to work with the wrong doctor. I would highly recommend that you schedule a consultation with a mood disorders center at a teaching hospital near you. The National Network of Depression Centers lists 22 Centers of Excellence located across the country. Start there.
- The Wrong Diagnosis
According to the Johns Hopkins Depression & Anxiety Bulletin, the average patient with bipolar disorder takes approximately 10 years to receive the proper diagnosis. About 56 percent are first diagnosed incorrectly with major depressive disorder, leading to treatment with antidepressants alone, which can sometimes trigger mania.
In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, only 40 percent of participants were receiving appropriate medication. It’s pretty simple: if you’re not diagnosed correctly, you won’t get the proper treatment.
- Non-adherence to Medication
According to Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and author of An Unquiet Mind, “The major clinical problem in treating bipolar illness is not that we lack effective medications. It is that bipolar patients do not take these medications.” Approximately 40 to 45 percent of bipolar patients do not take their medications as prescribed. I’m guessing the numbers for other mood disorders are about that high. The primary reasons for non-adherence are living alone and substance abuse.
Before you make any major changes in your treatment plan, ask yourself if you are taking your meds as prescribed.
- Underlying Medical Conditions
The physical and emotional toll of chronic illness can muddy the progress of treatment from a mood disorder. Some conditions like Parkinson’s disease or a stroke alter brain chemistry. Others like arthritis or diabetes impact sleep, appetite, and functionality. Certain conditions like hypothyroidism, low blood sugar, vitamin D deficiency, and dehydration feel like depression. To further complicate matters, some medications to treat chronic conditions interfere with psych meds.
Sometimes you need to work with an internist or primary care physician to address the underlying condition in tandem with a mental health professional.
- Substance Abuse and Addiction
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), people who are addicted to drugs are approximately twice as likely to have mood and anxiety disorders and vice versa. About 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder, such as depression, also have a substance abuse disorder, and about 20 percent of those with a substance abuse problem also have an anxiety or mood disorder.
The depression-addiction link is both strong and detrimental because one condition often complicates and worsens the other. Some drugs and substances interfere with the absorption of psych meds, preventing proper treatment.
- Lack of Sleep
In a Johns Hopkins survey, 80 percent of people experiencing symptoms of depression also suffered from sleeplessness. The more severe the depression, the more likely the person will have sleep problems. The reverse is also true. Chronic insomnia creates a risk for developing depression and other mood disorders, including anxiety, and interferes with treatment. In persons with bipolar disorder, inadequate sleep can trigger a manic episode and mood cycling.
Sleep is critical to healing. When we rest, the brain forms new pathways that promote emotional resilience.
- Unresolved Trauma
One theory of depression suggests that any major disruption early in life, like trauma, abuse, or neglect, may contribute to permanent changes in the brain. According to psychiatric geneticist James Potash, M.D., stress can trigger a cascade of steroid hormones that likely alters the hippocampus and leads to depression.
Trauma partly explains why one-third of people with depression don’t respond to antidepressants. In a study recently published in Scientific Reports, researchers uncovered three subtypes of depression. Patients with increased functional connectivity between different brain regions who had also experienced childhood trauma were categorized with a subtype of depression that was unresponsive to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Zoloft and Prozac. Sometimes, then, intensive psychotherapy needs to happen alongside medical treatment in order to reach remission.
- Lack of Support
A review of studies published in General Hospital Psychiatry assessed the link between peer support and depression and found that peer support helped reduce symptoms of depression. In another study published by Preventive Medicine, teens who had social support were significantly less likely to become depressed after experiencing work or financial stress in early adulthood than those without support. Depression was identified among conditions affected by loneliness in a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health. Persons without a support network may not heal as quickly or as completely as those with one.