Long-term benzodiazepine use is associated with increased mortality in people with schizophrenia

What I did before

When psychiatric patients are treated in an emergency department, they are often hypervigilant, manic, or otherwise in an excited, agitated state. The current standard of care to manage acute agitation in adults is using an antipsychotic medication and a benzodiazepine, often loxapine or haloperidol and lorazepam. For patients who have schizophrenia, antipsychotic medication alone often treats such symptoms in the longer term, yet many patients are discharged with a benzodiazepine prescription continue long-term benzodiazepine use possibly because the community clinician hopes to avoid triggering a relapse in discontinuing the medication. As a psychiatrist who has worked on acute and tertiary inpatient units, I have discharged patients on benzodiazepines with the expectation it would eventually be discontinued, but I have also seen many patients for whom it never was.

What changed my practice

Then, in 2013 while at the 7th Annual Pacific Psychopharmacology Conference, I was introduced to research showing that people with schizophrenia on chronic benzodiazepine therapy have an increased risk for suicide and all-cause mortality. I kept these observations in the back of my mind and was further alarmed in 2016 when another article from the same researchers found high-dose benzodiazepine use, but not lesser doses, was associated with increased suicide and cardiovascular mortality.

What I do now

Based upon these studies, I find the evidence compelling that benzodiazepines are contraindicated for long-term use in people with schizophrenia. When appropriate, I continue to use lorazepam for acute agitation amongst other reasons, I also educate patients about the risk of long-term use, including dependence and cognitive impairment in addition to mortality.To raise awareness of this issue among my colleagues, I mention the rationale and include recommendations for tapering benzodiazepines in consultation reports and discharge summaries.

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