These 32 tips for tapering off your medication can get you started on how to reduce or stop your medication. They also provide valuable information when weighing whether tapering is wise, how to prepare and how to tapering your medication safely.
These tips have been drawn up in collaboration with Dr Peter Groot, who has lived experience with tapering and published extensively on the topic 1-11. He can be considered one of the world’s foremost experts on this issue. He developed these tips together with psychiatrist Prof. Jim van Os, who developed PsychosisNet.com.
- Sensitivity to psychosis and bipolar fluctuation in mood is human – every person has some degree of these sensitivities.
- Some people have a very low level of sensitivity, other people a very high level of sensitivity.
- If you have a high level of sensitivity you can occasionally become psychotic or manic/depressed during stress.
- Every person must learn to live with his / her level of sensitivity to psychosis and bipolar mood fluctuation.
- This can sometimes be a very painful and lengthy process – but it is possible.
- Modern psychiatry wants to be recovery-oriented: helping people to experience a meaningful life. By learning to deal with your sensitivity to psychosis in times of stress, you can create “free” space for your life and personal goals, next to the domain of “vulnerability” and “illness”.
- Recovery is an individual quest; you cannot know in advance what will or will not help for you – experiments are crucial on the road to recovery, including experiments with medication.
- Medication can help in the acute phase of a psychotic or manic episode.
- Medication can also help prevent a new psychotic or manic episode.
- The ‘Numbers Needed to Treat’ of lithium / antipsychotics in preventing a new manic / psychotic episode is about 4. That is, out of four people who remain stable on medication over time, three would have been similarly stable on placebo (sugar pill).
Tapering off medication
- Most people want to phase out their meds at some point: they want to decrease the dose or even stop. This may be a good idea for 3 in 4 people – see line 10.
- You cannot know in advance whether tapering is a good idea for you.
- Whoever stops taking lithium / antipsychotics therefore takes a risk, but not a huge risk. It is a calculated risk, although this depends on what happened during previous episodes and how severe they were.
- A patient who is legally competent may wish to take such a calculated risk.
- Tapering your meds safely and successfully means:
- Doing it in consultation with your prescriber
- Doing it gradually
Decreasing meds in consultation with your prescriber
- Submit your desire to taper to your treating physician. It is important that your doctor thinks along and supports you – even if you take a risk in the context of recovery. The doctor (should) help(s) you with monitoring and guiding you. It is really a matter of working together and deciding together. The doctor may be critical – and that is his right in the process of shared decision making.
- Under the law, a doctor cannot simply refuse to help patients, who are legally competent and want to take a calculated risk – in the context of recovery or for other important reasons – to reduce / stop medication.
- Under the law, a doctor cannot abort care because he disagrees with a decision by a competent patient to conduct an informed experiment with reducing/stopping medication.
- The chance of a successful completion is greater if you:
- Taper down in consultation with your practitioner.
- Take enough time to gradually taper off.
- Monitor yourself closely during the process of tapering.
- Adjust the process of tapering if it goes too fast.
- Have insight, understanding and acceptance in connection with your vulnerability and have been able to give it a place in your life story.
- Learned the importance of regularity, structure, nutrition, sports / exercise, sleep and things like meditation and yoga.
- Have a network around you of people you trust, who know your sensitivity, who have lived experience themselves and with whom you are connected.
- Are not stressed or in a major life transition.
- Have made a good crisis plan that everyone (you, partner / network, GP, Mental Health services) is aware of and willing to cooperate with.
Taper down gradually
- Very important: Take enough time!
- Make a plan in advance with your practitioner so that you both know what you are working on.
- The steps by which the dose is reduced should not be too big and should become smaller towards the end – we call this “hyperbolic” tapering.
- The duration of the tapering down is related, among other things, to the length of time that you used medication and the dose you used before tapering off.
- Each step involves decreasing a certain percentage (eg 20% in the beginning and 10% later) and using that dose until you have stabilized on it (eg one to two months.)
- This is how you prevent withdrawal symptoms or relapse.
- It is not easy (also for your doctor) to make a distinction between relapse and withdrawal symptoms – relapse needs a different adjustment than withdrawal symptoms.
- Therefore, make sure that withdrawal symptoms are prevented by very gradual tapering.
- You do this by gradually decreasing at a pace that suits you. You don’t know exactly what the pace is – and there is no way of knowing beforehand.
- This level of uncertainty should not be a problem if you work closely with your prescriber to closely monitor yourself during the tapering process. Good (self) monitoring must therefore be ensured.
Monitoring and adjustment
- During the process of tapering the meds, pay close attention to how you are doing. Unrest / anxiety / irritability or other similar symptoms means that the tapering goes too fast. In that case, consult with your prescriber to find the approach that best suits your situation: (i) Decrease the speed with which you taper your medication or (ii) stabilize temporarily at the current dose and then continue tapering down, but at a slower pace.
- If you stabilize (that is, you stay on the same dose for a while) the withdrawal symptoms will subside over time. Once the withdrawal symptoms have settled, you can continue to taper, but at a slower pace.
- It is clear that in order to taper successfully, there must a possibility to flexibly adjustment the process over time. To make this possible, it is important that your practitioner can prescribe the medication you need for this.
Using tapering strips
Since pharmaceutical companies have never bothered to make dosages that are sufficiently varied to allow for a gradual tapering, it has been very difficult or even impossible for patients and prescribers to taper psychiatric medications.
- However, flexible and personal tapering has now become possible with the advent of so-called tapering medication – tapering strips and stabilization strips. Practitioners can prescribe the tapering medication in consultation with you and adjust it very flexibly during the process of tapering if necessary.
- At the request of patients, tapering medication is made and provided by the Regenboog Pharmacy in Bavel, the Netherlands. There are currently no comparable alternatives. For information about tapering strips see: www.taperingstrip.org
- The tapering medication comes with a self-monitoring form that you must complete once a day. That is not difficult and does not take much time. Doing so will help both you and your practitioner see how the tapering medication works for you.
- As long as things are going well, you can simply continue to taper the meds.
- As soon as you notice that you are getting new symptoms or that existing symptoms are worsening, contact your practitioner to discuss whether and how the tapering should be adjusted.
By doing that well, you ensure that tapering continues to run as smoothly as possible for you.
Alternatives to medication
- There are alternative therapies for medication: voice hearer groups, recovery groups at a recovery academy, running therapy, meditation, body-oriented work, psychotherapy.
Prof. dr. Jim van Os, Chair Division Neuroscience, Utrecht University Medical Centre. He is also Visiting Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Jim works at the interface of ‘hard’ brain science, health services research, art and subjective experiences of people with ‘lived experience’ in mental healthcare.
Jim has been appearing on the Thomson-Reuter Web of Science list of ‘most influential scientific minds of our time’ since 2014. In 2014 he published his book ‘Beyond DSM-5‘, and in 2016 the book ‘Good Mental Health Care’.