What does it mean for a patient to be undermedicated?

A patient I see for psychotherapy, without medications except for an occasional lorazepam (tranquilizer of the benzodiazepine class), told me his prior psychiatrist declared him grossly undermedicated in one of their early sessions, and had quickly prescribed two or three daily drugs for depression and anxiety.  He shared this story with a smile, as we’ve never discussed adding medication to his productive weekly sessions that focus on anxiety and interpersonal conflicts.  Indeed, the lorazepam is left over from his prior doctor.  I doubt I would have ordered it myself, although I don’t particularly object that he still uses it now and then.

Of course, there’s a completely innocuous way to explain this difference between his prior psychiatrist and me.  My patient could have looked much worse back then, in dire need of pharmaceutical relief.  However, he didn’t relate it to me that way, and I have no reason to doubt him.  There’s also the possibility that I’m missing serious pathology in my patient — that I too would urge him to take medication if only I recognized what I’m now overlooking.  But I don’t think so.  I’m left to conclude that his prior psychiatrist and I evaluated essentially the same presentation rather differently.

In particular, I’m struck by the term “undermedicated” (more often spelled without the hyphen, according to my Google search).  This judgment most often come up in speaking about populations, as in the debate over whether antidepressants are over-prescribed or under-prescribed in society at large, or whether children are diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed stimulants too often, or not often enough.  Under- and overmedication are also commonly used when describing medication management of pain, a thyroid condition, mania, or chronic psychosis in an individual.  Here the terms express disagreement with a particular dosage, where the benefits of treatment and adverse side-effects or risks are deemed out of balance one way or the other.

“Undermedicated” also implies that adding medication is the preferred or only sensible treatment approach.  While this may always be true in hypothyroidism, it clearly isn’t with regard to physical or emotional pain.  The term rhetorically denies non-medication alternatives.  I would also add that, to my ear, “overmedicated” and especially “undermedicated” sound dehumanizing, as though referring to a machine that is out of adjustment, or a chemical solution being titrated on a lab bench.  Since the natural state of human beings is not to be medicated at all, it sounds a bit odd to hear someone — as opposed to one’s disease — assessed this way.  Perhaps I am especially sensitized to this after reading a controversial article by Moncrieff and Cohen that highlights the “altered state” induced by psychotropics and their lack of known, specific mechanisms of action.  There is often a supposition that medication dosage correlates with symptom relief.  This is not always true of subjective states, underscoring that the complexity of human experience often belies simple “over/under” judgments.

My patient’s mood and anxiety vary with his interpersonal situation.  It wouldn’t occur to me to turn his “thermostat” up or down in general, even if drugs reliably could do this.  Yet I know colleagues who’d argue that one, two, or even three daily medications could help him overcome his everyday challenges of dealing with people.  These approaches point to different fundamental viewpoints in psychiatry.

Does the patient have a disease, an as-yet-undiscovered chemical (or electrical, viral, inflammatory, etc) imbalance in the brain that is best remedied by a medical intervention, accurately dosed neither “over” nor “under”?  In acute mania or florid psychosis, as in hypothyroidism, it seems to me the answer is yes, although this is unproven and time will tell.  Perhaps too in severe melancholic depression.  But in social anxiety?  Self-consciousness?  Feeling discouraged about one’s career?

The field’s perspective on these has shifted in recent decades, such that now a hidden biological cause is assumed here as well, or at least held out as a rationale for treatment.  It is only by making this dubious assumption that one can speak of undermedicating such complaints, or the people who have them.

Steven Reidbord is a psychiatrist who blogs at Reidbord’s Reflections.

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