Currently, treatment for many of the two million Americans with schizophrenia involves strong doses of antipsychotics, which can cause severe side effects such as significant weight gain or debilitating tremors, The New York Times reported.
This study found that schizophrenia patients whose treatment involved more one-on-one talk therapy and family support and smaller doses of antipsychotic drugs showed greater recovery over the first two years of treatment than those who received the standard drug-centered care.
The earlier patients began the combined treatment after their first symptoms of schizophrenia, the better they did.
The National Institute of Mental Health-funded study began in 2009 and included patients at 34 community care clinics in 21 states. The findings were published Tuesday in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
Experts hailed the results.
The study is "a game-changer" in the way the talk therapy-focused approach combines numerous, individualized treatments suited to the stage of schizophrenia, Dr. Kenneth Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The Times.
"I'm very favorably impressed they were able to pull this study off so successfully, and it clearly shows the importance of early intervention," Dr. William Carpenter, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland, said.
Dr. Mary Olson is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who advocates treatments that are less reliant on drugs. She said, "it's thrilling that this trial got such good results."
The study was released as Congress discusses mental health reforms and the findings are already influencing federal agencies. Last Friday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' guidelines included strong support for the combined therapy approach, The Times reported.
Mental health reform bills in Congress "mention the study by name," according to Dr. Robert Heinssen, who is director of services and intervention research at the centers and oversaw the study.
Last year, Congress offered $25 million in grants to states for use in early-intervention mental health programs. To date, 32 states have started using the grants to fund combined-treatment services, according to Heinseen.
"It's been a long haul, but it's worth noting that it usually takes about 17 years for a new discovery to make it into clinical practice; or that's the number people throw around. But this process only took seven years," Heinssen told The Times.