October 20, 2015

Schizophrenic patients who receive one-on-one talk therapy along with lower doses of antispychotic drugs showed marked signs of improvement compared to patients who only got antipsychotics, a new government-funded study found.

The report, set to be published on Tuesday in The American Journal of Psychiatry and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, is one of the most sweeping studies on the disease, reports the New York Times, and suggests a new way to treat patients.

The study found schizophrenics who benefited most from talk therapy included those who experienced their first psychotic episodes in their early 20s. The study followed 404 patients: half received the traditional treatment of antipsychotic drugs and half received doses of the drugs that were up to 50% lower, along with a triple social support approach involving assistance with school, discussions with family members and talk therapy to help manage symptoms.

The study suggests an alternative to the current methods of dealing with schizophrenia, which involve heavy doses of antipsychotic drugs. While useful in easing hallucinations and delusions, side effects are damaging and often involve severe weight gain, drowsiness, tremors and a difficulty expressing emotions. The side effects push an estimated three-quarters of patients to stop taking medications within a year and a half.

The report’s findings have already been incorporated into new recommendations released last Friday from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which advised a dual program of talk therapy and antipsychotics for schizophrenic patients.

Talk therapy has increasingly become a favored method of treatment. In 2014, Congress set aside $25 million in grants to states for early-intervention mental health programs; 32 states have hopped on, with an emphasis on combining therapy and drugs. Experts are optimistic that talk therapy could improve quality of life for both schizophrenic patients and their family members.

Write to Tanya Basu at tanya.basu@time.com.

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