Britney Spears reveals she was forced to take lithium — here's what the drug is used for

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Los Angeles, CA - June 23: Supporters of Britney Spears rally as hearing on the Britney Spears conservatorship case takes place Stanley Mosk Courthouse on Wednesday, June 23, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Supporters of Britney Spears rally as her conservatorship case takes place on Wednesday in Los Angeles. (Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

There were a number of shocking revelations at Britney Spears’s conservatorship hearing Wednesday, during which she requested that her father, Jamie Spears, no longer retain total control of her life. In a statement, Britney reportedly revealed that — on top of being forced to keep an IUD despite her wishes to “have a baby” — she was put on the antidepressant lithium against her will. 

Britney implied that a psychiatrist forced her to switch medicine after she said no to performing in Las Vegas, where she has now performed nearly 250 times. “He immediately, the next day, put me on lithium out of nowhere. He took me off my normal meds I’ve been on for five years,” Britney told the court. 

She continued by sharing the negative effects she experienced from the medicine. “Lithium is a very, very strong [drug] and completely different medication compared to what I was used to. You can go mentally impaired if you take too much if you stay on it longer than five months,” Britney said at the hearing. “He put me on that and I felt drunk. I couldn’t even have a conversation with my mom or dad really about anything.”

Lithium, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is traditionally used to treat bipolar disorder. It’s also prescribed, although less commonly, to treat conditions like major depressive disorder or schizophrenia. While the drug can be a lifesaving treatment for those who need it, it can also come with the risk of side effects, including headache, diarrhea, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

Dr. Jessica Gold, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, says that lithium is what’s known as a “mood stabilizer” and is technically a naturally occurring mineral. Although she cannot comment on the specifics of Britney’s case, she has treated patients with lithium.

“For bipolar, it's one of the most frequently prescribed drugs. If people haven’t responded to a couple of medications, it can also be really effective in depression alone, and it’s one of the only medications that’s actually approved for treating suicidality,” Gold told Yahoo Life. “So often you will notice that people are put on things like lithium, and they don’t actually have bipolar, but sometimes it’s for these other reasons.”

She said that it’s crucial to discuss how the medication is working and to adjust the regiment if it is not. “I’m a big believer that any side effects that anyone is experiencing are worth listening to and are valid,” Gold explained. “If a patient is experiencing a lot of things that make them uncomfortable, there’s a risk-benefit to taking the medication.” This discussion typically happens with the patient, Gold said, but in the case of someone who’s “conserved,” it can be trickier.

“If the conservator is not necessarily taking the risks and benefits into account, including the patient’s own subjective experiences of side effects, that might be a reason why someone could still be feeling a certain way on a medicine and still be on it,” said Gold. “Even they don’t want to be on it, or it’s not a good medicine for them.”

Gold says that since lithium “is a medicine that has a good amount of side effects,” it’s one of the most strictly monitored. Patients should regularly undergo blood tests, especially at the start of treatment and when changes in dosage are made. “Lithium can affect your kidneys, it can affect your thyroid and it can affect some of your electrolyte levels,” says Gold. “So we monitor that. We also look at your complete blood count and make sure that that’s OK.” 

The most dangerous of all reactions is what’s known as lithium toxicity or a lithium overdose. This occurs when your levels of lithium are too high, which can cause symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic, such as blurred vision, clumsiness, seizures, slurred speech and trembling. Gold said it’s impossible to know why Britney felt drunk or afraid but that too high of a dose could, theoretically, create this type of reaction. “Feeling like you’re drunk could mean you’re on too high of a dose,” explained Gold. “It could also be that it’s somehow affecting your cognition or your ability to process things — you know, I think all that is possible.”

She does, however, want to clarify that the idea that five months is too long to be on the medication is not necessarily true and that lithium — like many other psychiatric medications — can be highly effective without interfering with someone’s life. “I think it’s important to know that a lot of people benefit extremely from psychiatric medicines. ... Every single day I hear stories, including about bipolar medicines, that make a huge difference in people’s ability to function,” said Gold. “I don't want people to feel scared to get help.”

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