By Julie Wakefield, RPS Museum volunteer
From the 1950s onwards there have been significant breakthroughs in the medicines used to treat mental health problems.
In the early 1900s the drugs used in psychiatry were the ‘chemical straightjackets’ such as opiates, bromides, and barbiturates that simply sedated patients.
This all changed in the 1950s with the introduction of chlorpromazine for psychosis, lithium for bipolar disorder, and imipramine for depression.
It began a pharmacological revolution because it demonstrated that drugs, not just psychotherapy, could restore mental health.
Imipramine was the first of a class of drugs called ‘tricyclic’ antidepressants. In 1955, researchers gave it to 40 depressed patients. The results were dramatically successful. The pharmaceutical firm Geigy had produced the first drug in the history of psychiatry that acted specifically against depression.
Since then many more of these drugs have been developed, with varying side effects. However, imipramine is still considered by many psychiatrists to be the gold standard of antidepressant therapy.
Antipsychotics for Schizophrenia
Many pharmacy historians have regarded chlorpromazine as the single most important drug in the history of psychiatry. Chlorpromazine treated the symptoms of schizophrenic psychosis with less sedation than previous drugs.
A trial on 38 psychotic patients in the early 1950s showed that it could not only calm the patient but also treat a whole range of their symptoms. These included hallucination, delusions, confusion, anxiety states and insomnia.
Chlorpromazine was the first of a class of drugs called ‘typical’ antipsychotics for schizophrenia. A dopamine antagonist, it works by blocking the uptake in the brain of excessive levels of the neurotransmitter (a chemical that helps transmit signals in the brain) dopamine, believed to partly cause the symptoms of schizophrenic psychosis.
Just as chlorpromazine brought relief to sufferers of schizophrenia, lithium carbonate, launched in 1954, became the ‘gold standard’ treatment for bipolar disorder. Lithium is a mood stabiliser used in the prevention and treatment of mania associated with bipolar disorder (manic depression).It is still the most common treatment today as it both treats and prevents mood disorders.
The pharmaceutical treatment of mental health in 2018
However despite the significant developments in psychiatric medication over the last 70 years, many patients with mental health problems are still not receiving a high enough standard of care.
As part of its mental health campaign, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society is exploring how pharmacy teams can help improve the physical health of people with mental health problems. People with mental health problems often have more difficulty accessing healthcare than others and the life expectancy of those with a serious mental illness is 15-20 years less than average.
A key part of improving this is ensuring patients get the best outcomes from their medicines, so reducing adverse events, minimising avoidable harm and unplanned admissions to hospital, while using resources more efficiently to deliver the standard of care that people with mental health problems deserve.