OCD and Atypical Antipsychotics

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Janet Singer's son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe he could not even eat. What followed was a journey from seven therapists to ...Read More

While the frontline treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder continues to be Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, many OCD sufferers appear to be helped by medication as well. Often the combination of ERP therapy and medication, typically high doses of SSRI’s that are also prescribed for depression, seems to be particularly helpful.

When my son Dan’s OCD was severe, this is the route that was also taken with him; a high dose of an SSRI coupled with ERP therapy. He was also taking a benzodiazepine. He was making progress, slowly but surely, in his fight against OCD, but was subsequently prescribed an atypical antipsychotic, also known as second generation antipsychotics. Some brand names of these drugs include Abilify and Risperdal. The explanation given to us was that this addition would “enhance” the effects of the SSRI Dan was currently taking.


In my son’s case, this was a recipe for disaster. Not only did this combination of medication not help him, it hurt him. He became increasingly agitated and depressed, and developed some overall shakiness, including hand tremors. When my husband and I expressed our concerns to his doctor, we were told our son absolutely needed all his medications. As time went on, tachycardia (fast heart rate), sky-high triglycerides, and a weight gain of thirty-five pounds in several months were added to his list of side-effects. And his OCD seemed worse. We finally had enough and insisted he be weaned off his medications. Not surprisingly, his side-effects abated and his OCD also improved.

Recent studies have shown what was obvious back then to me and my husband: Atypical antipsychotics can exacerbate the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and can even cause OCD to appear in those without the disorder. This fact does not seem to be widely known by the public, including many therapists.

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In another study conducted by researchers at Columbia University and The University of Pennsylvania, participants already taking an SSRI to treat their OCD were separated into three groups. One group was given seventeen sessions of Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, one group was given Risperdal, and the final group was given a placebo. The results were as follows: Those in the ERP group had, on average, a 52% reduction in their OCD severity scores. Those in the Risperdal group showed a 13% reduction and those in the placebo group had an 11% reduction.

Based on this study, it is clear that Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy appears to be the most effective treatment for OCD. Risperdal, did not provide any statistically significant benefit over that of a placebo. We all need to be very careful when pursuing treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and be sure to have a competent treatment provider who we trust, and who will listen to our concerns. Given the results of these recent studies, I would think long and hard before taking atypical antipsychotics for the treatment of OCD. I just hope doctors will think long and hard before prescribing it.

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