medications for OCD and activation syndromeIt seems to me that there are more commercials than ever before on television for all kinds of medications, including SSRI’s (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) which are antidepressants also used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. In these commercials there’s usually a person by themselves, gazing out of the window and looking depressed. Fast forward after taking the advertised medication, and this same person is out and about, smiling and enjoying life in the company of others, or perhaps twirling around as the sun sets in the distance. All is well. But wait. There’s one more part to these commercials, a very important part that many of us might not pay much attention to. That fast-talking voice at the end of the advertisement telling you that these drugs can cause a slew of dangerous side-effects, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts (especially in children, teens, and young adults).

I am an informed consumer. I read all of the little pamphlets that came with my son Dan’s medications, and was aware of all of these possible side effects. What I didn’t know was that this cluster of symptoms was common enough to actually have a name; it is known as activation syndrome.

On more than one occasion, Dan’s psychiatrist ignored my concerns and even looked at me condescendingly when I asked if my son’s marked increase in anxiety and depression might be a side-effect of one or more of the drugs he was taking. “Sure, blame the drugs,” I imagined him thinking. “That’s easier than admitting you have a very sick son.” Shouldn’t this doctor have known about activation syndrome, or at the very least, taken me seriously?

Dr. Eric Storch, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of South Florida, has researched activation syndrome with two colleagues. According to Dr. Storch’s site, “there is a dearth of data on the phenomenology and quantification of this putative syndrome, despite the relative frequency with which it occurs.”

So it does occur. And “relatively frequently” enough to warrant research. Now I am in no way advocating that everyone go and throw out their SSRI’s. Not at all. I’ve heard from enough people who say SSRI’s have really helped them fight their OCD to know that they do benefit some people. And of course nobody should every come off medication without the supervision of a medical professional.

That being said, I do think it is imperative that we all are aware of the potential side effects of any medications we might be taking. We need to know that activation syndrome is real, and it has the potential to be catastrophic. Part of the syndrome for my son involved suicidal thinking, which frightened him as much as it frightened my husband and me. Thank goodness we switched health-care providers quickly and got the right help. While medications prescribed for depression and OCD do have the potential to help some people, for others they cause more harm than good. I know this for a fact: It happened to my son.

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