How Long Does Antidepressant Withdrawal Last?

Kelly Brogan, MD, ABIHM
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You board a flight for a stated destination, expecting to arrive within six hours. You can tolerate the hardships inherent in typical air travel, especially since you’re motivated by the anticipated result of getting from point A to the more desirable point B. But 12 hours later, the plane you boarded is still stuck on the tarmac because of unexpected and unexplained “mechanical problems.” Had they only informed you ahead of time, you would have made other arrangements. You would have avoided your prolonged misery… and the unforeseen delay in gratification.

Nobody wants to sign up for a complicated and enduring process, either en route to a planned geographic destination or on a personal journey to health and wellness. While these occurrences are relatively uncommon on airlines, they are increasingly prevalent in the world of modern medicine. Antidepressant drugs, for example, are routinely prescribed without informing patients that the exit plan may involve excruciating delays and complex withdrawal.

Withdrawal Can Be a Years-Long Struggle

A new study analyzing withdrawal symptoms for patients coming off of antidepressants was published in the International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine. Authored by researchers at three British universities, this particular study focused on the characteristics of withdrawal associated with SSRIs and SNRIs, including time of onset, duration, and the nature of the symptoms.

They studied self-reporting by approximately 173 people using a website that aims to help those dealing with antidepressant withdrawal.

There were some differences in the withdrawal characteristics reported, based on the specific class of antidepressants. Neurological symptoms including “brain zaps”—a sensation resembling an electric shock inside the head—were more common, for instance, among SNRI users. On the other hand, psychosexual/genitourinary symptoms were reported more frequently by SSRI users.

Adding insult to injury, everyone in this study reported a prolonged experience of drug withdrawal.

The mean duration of withdrawal symptoms reported by those discontinuing the use of SNRI drugs was 50.8 weeks—almost a full year. The corresponding length of time withdrawal persisted for those who had been prescribed SSRI was nearly twice as long—more than 90 weeks.

These Drugs Aren’t Yet Fully Vetted

Patient feedback is teaching the reality of psychiatric medication dependence, currently absent from prescriber training, and largely unacknowledged by conventional physicians. Insights around withdrawal complications did not emerge in the published literature until recently, and is not likely to be formally studied by drug production companies themselves. The medical and pharmaceutical community downplays the issue of withdrawal from SNRI and SSRI drugs by labeling it “discontinuation syndrome.” But that’s an inadequate, misleading definition. Studies confirm that withdrawal may occur even without full-blown discontinuation. Symptoms may arise if a dose is skipped, for instance, or when your dosage is therapeutically decreased.

Not only can withdrawal symptoms present themselves, but relapse or recurrence of the original complaint for which the antidepressants were prescribed can occur without root cause resolution interventions in place. But there’s another aspect to withdrawal that is too often ignored…

Patients are Unwittingly Deprived of Self-Empowerment

The patient experiencing the pain of withdrawal stopped taking their antidepressants with realistic expectations. They believed that they would feel better, and regain their sense of independent self.

After all, they aren’t ingesting pills purchased illegally in some back alley from a street-level dealer. They’re under the vigilant care of a board-certified medical professional who has vowed, first and foremost, to do no harm. But despite those reassurances, they find themselves in a world of hurt. They are challenged by a whole host of withdrawal symptoms comparable if not exceeding those experienced by people addicted to alcohol or narcotics.

That experience may convince them that they have failed to heal and can never be well without dependence on antidepressant drugs. They may subsequently experience feelings of self-betrayal for wanting to discontinue the drugs, or shame of failure. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the unintended outcomes from taking psychotropic medications, and attempting to discontinue them, even include suicide.

There Are Positive, Proactive Alternatives

The ugly, often unspoken truth is that these medications are habit-forming and debilitating. The withdrawal symptoms they precipitate can potentially undermine your ability to commit to the process of healing with a positive and determined attitude of self-empowerment. That increases the risk of relapse, which is why psychiatrist Peter Breggin called drug withdrawal programs “the most urgently needed intervention in the field of psychiatry.”

Patients need to be fully informed of the inherent risks of these drugs, and the adverse impact of withdrawal. Otherwise they are robbed of their ability to gain objective perspective and reframe the experience with a view toward sustainable healing.

There are positive alternatives, and ways to improve physical, emotional, and spiritual resiliency through an upfront commitment to a healing protocol. Mindset is a key factor in the medication taper and withdrawal process. The patients I’ve worked with have dramatically reduced the time it takes to discontinue their meds, while significantly reducing the withdrawal symptoms and coming to know a new and vital person beneath the prescriptions. When more people are informed about psychiatric medication withdrawal and what might be required to navigate it safely, they can overcome their challenges without the additional burden of severe, unintended withdrawal symptoms.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I won’t bother to read the article right now, because it begins with the false assumption that there is any such thing as an “antidepressant” in the first place. MIA authors ought to know better than to publish articles that propagate psychiatric propaganda so recklessly. There are mountains of research that demonstrate why the term “antidepressant” is a euphemism and a misnomer. Even Moncrieff, in her book “The Bitterest Pills,” shows why it is wrong to call toxic and brain disabling psychotropic drugs by any kind of name that implies healing.

    “How Long Does Antidepressant Withdrawal Last?” The question ought to be, “How long does withdrawal from toxic and brain disabling psychotropic drugs last?” The answer to this question varies for each individual. Some of these individuals are dead as a result of psychotropic drugging. Others are maimed. Others continue to suffer many years after the drugging and the withdrawal. Think of neuroleptic malignant syndrome. Think of tardive dyskenesia. Think of a thousand other terrible problems that result from psychotropic drugging. These are not “side-effects.” These are the primary intended effects of the drugs, drugs that cause what Breggin has so aptly named “medication spellbinding.” These dangerous chemicals were invented with one purpose in mind: profit at the expense of human suffering. Just because psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies try to cover up the harm with euphemistic terms such as “antidepressant” or “emotional lability” doesn’t mean that the rest of us should perpetuate such psychiatric nonsense as “antidepressants.”

    Enough is enough. Slay the Dragon of Psychiatry.

  2. “These dangerous chemicals were invented with one purpose in mind: profit at the expense of human suffering.” I beg to clarify, according to the mental health industries’ own medical literature, and even the DSM, “these dangerous chemicals were invented” primarily with the goal of covering up rape of women and children, in addition to “profit at the expense of human suffering.”

    https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/

    And this is a long run systemic medical/religious problem, due to the fact all of us have been living in an historic paternalistic society for centuries. The primary function of our paternalistic “mental health” industries, historically, and still today, has always been covering up rape of women and children.

    https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo

    And partial proof of this is that today no “mental health professional” may ever bill any insurance company for ever helping any child abuse survivor ever, without first misdiagnosing them all with one of the billable, but “invalid” DSM disorders.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-child-does-not-have-bipolar-disorder/201402/dsm-5-and-child-neglect-and-abuse-1

    That being said, I think you were rather harsh on Kelly. Because I do believe she is one of the most honest psychiatrists, who is explaining how to help the millions of American women who were wrongly prescribed the antidepressants, heal from such wrongful prescriptions.

    As to Kelly’s question, “How Long Does Antidepressant Withdrawal Last?” I’m a mother of a child abuse survivor, who had the common symptoms of antidepressant discontinuation syndrome misdiagnosed as “bipolar,” which resulted in a ton of inappropriate anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings. I will say 17 years later, and 11 years since I’ve had a psych drug forced upon me, I still have the antidepressant induced “brain zaps.” So antidepressant withdrawal effects may last forever.

  3. Thanks for increasing awareness about this issue. Yes, drug withdrawal is very real. I don’t think though that the solution is opening a lot of psychiatry led withdrawal centres. That might be helpful temporarily, but I ultimately think that the best thing psychiatry could do is to admit to their mistakes, and admit to the impact on people’s lives, and then release their grip. Actually allow the public to breathe and liberate each other from the mess without interference. For me, true “self-empowerment” is coming from rejecting further control and listening to survivors.

  4. I’m trying to withdraw from super tiny doses having tapered from 15 pills a day of 5 different meds to 1 capsule and 2 half-tabs. (Wanting to withdraw because I’m having all kinds of “medical” “side effects”). And when I tried to eliminate one of the half-tabs — BAM! crazy withdrawal. I’ll have to take time off work to cut any further (or wait till I retire). This so sucks.

    • Carlene,

      I identify with you.

      Many years later I’m still suffering withdrawal as s result if stopping one quarter of a 25mg Seroquel tablet ( I stopped 6 mg of Seroquel). But I had no choice as this tiny drug was causing frightening drops on heart beats , and in the morning I noticed my chest area was pink and the rest of me pure white.

      Seroquel at 25mg per day is limited in some countries as this dosage has no psychiatric effect, (it’s effective for sleeping), – but can be very dangerous.

      The “psychotics” take their chances.

  5. Kelly. Are there any nutritional means of speeding up this withdrawal process to make it less difficult? I know it’s possible with alcohol, using mega niacin and ascorbate, and amphetamine, using ascorbate and B1 (and B3, if there are hallucinations). I’ve also come across programs for narcotics (I used to subscribe to the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine).
    I’m asking you because you seem to be more familiar with such procedures than most of the contributors.

  6. Thank you Dr. Brogan for being a psychiatrist with a holistic and honest approach to mental wellness and for validating these psychiatric drugs are harmful and addictive.
    I don’t think it is a problem as to how these harmful psychiatric drugs are identified (as being anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, etc) but rather to appreciate and endorse the big picture Dr. Brogan is presenting and how one can be healthy and heal anxiety and depression without these drugs. Hurrah to that!

  7. After 18 years of various SSRI and SNRI meds I’m determine to get off. They don’t work. The pattern of increasing and increasing doses and then switching to others when dose gets too high is ridiculous in hindsight. After going through 5 different meds I finally realized these aren’t working. I decided to go to therapy, learn mindfulness and yoga and discovered some supplements that are helping. My psychologist is a big proponent of NOT using any-depressants and has been very helpful. I’m trying for the 3rd time to get off for good. I’m down to counting beads on my last dose and taking it extremely slowly. I started in July and I don expect to be fully off until this July. And if I need to be patient I’ll cintinue this journey as long as it takes. The withdrawal effects last time were brutal. I struggle mostly with anxiety and if I get depressed it is only because of a very long spell of anxiety and I begin to wonder if it will ever go away. I’m not even a worrier. Just have this debilitating sinking feeling and irritability that drains my energy. When I got off last time, I’d actually weep at the smallest things. Brain zaps galore. Headaches. Body Aches. No energy. They actually put me on another antidepressant to help with the side effects and that made me extremely tired and didn’t fully get rid of the withdrawal. I actually began thinking that this would be much easier if I could go to a hospital for a moth and detox off this. It was so hard to function.

    Reading this article and seeing that the side effects could last a year is disappointing, but at least I have some real information. My primary care doctor said that most of her other patients have no problems stopping these meds, yet she told me I might have to stay on the smallest dose forever. They really don’t know and honestly I don’t like going to see her because I get much more information from this site and other forums with actual patient experiences. She wanted me to go see a psychiatrist, but I’m scared I’ll get one of the many that push pills. I’m so glad to have found this site.

    I’ve had some success with Lithium Oratate and Ashgawanda, but stopped those after discovering Sam-E plus Betaine. Sam-e plus betaine has been really helpful for me over the last month. Sam-e alone would work for one day and then I’d get bad anxiety. It took a month of experimenting before I found the right dose of each. Betaine apparently helps as a methyl donor and I’m amazed at the difference. I will continue to look here for help in getting off this med. I’m also searching for a good functional medicine doctor.