What is Decompensating?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 October 2016
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When socialite Paris Hilton was unexpectedly removed from her jail cell after only serving three days, rumors of a psychotic break or nervous breakdown were rampant. Several days later, a spokesman for the corrections department stated that Hilton had indeed experienced a medical emergency he described as decompensating. Although medical professionals had been using the term for years, this was one of the first incidents in which the term "decompensating" was applied in a very public manner.

Decompensation describes a situation in which a prescribed course of treatment for a known condition fails, and the patient experiences the original side effects, pain and complications of the condition. In other words, the medicines or treatments designed to help the patient no longer protect him or her from relapsing. This form of decompensation is often associated with heart patients who fail to take their medications. Once the drugs which keep the patient stable leave the system, the patient's heart may begin decompensating.

In a mental health sense, if a patient who suffers from chronic depression either stops taking anti-depressants voluntarily or is denied regular access to them, his or her brain may begin to decompensate. The sudden change in serotonin levels, for instance, could send the patient back into a severe depression. Unless the proper balance is restored quickly, the patient could continue a downward spiral as his or her mind continues decompensating.


There are both physical and emotional symptoms which often indicate a person may be decompensating emotionally. When denied regular access to a support network, such as during a period of incarceration, someone with a pre-existing mental or emotional condition could experience hallucinations. Under ordinary circumstances, these hallucinations or other thoughts could be controlled with psychotherapy sessions or medication. But when a person is cut off from those options, he or she can begin decompensating quite rapidly. The end result could actually be a psychotic break or complete nervous breakdown. This was the concern which led corrections officers to transfer Paris Hilton out of her original jail cell.

The good news is that the effects of decompensation can often be reversed as soon as the patient's normal regimen is restored. In the case of Paris Hilton, for example, she was able to complete her sentence without incident after she received proper counseling and treatment for her condition. This is generally the goal for all who receive medical treatment for mental or emotional conditions. As long as the person continues to take his or her medications regularly or maintains a healthy support system, the risk of decompensating should be minimal.


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Post 4

I had a friend in high school who got into drugs. He eventually got caught by his parents, and they made him get therapy.

He was doing well while in therapy. As long as he had someone to talk to and a group of peers who shared the same problem, he could cope with it.

However, when it came time for him to leave therapy and return to school, he displayed decompensating behavior. He started to become standoffish and angry once more, and his parents knew that they had taken him out of therapy too soon. They put him back in and this time, they had him participate for a much longer time frame.

Post 3

@wavy58 - How bad decompensation gets depends on the type of diabetes a person has. People who have type I diabetes have to take medication religiously until the day they die. People with type 2 can potentially become healthier and be able to stop taking their medication without any decompensation.

Type 1 diabetics don’t make insulin, so they will forever be dependent on medication. Without it, decompensation would result in death.

Type 2 diabetics can make a commitment to improve their health and eventually discontinue medicine, in some cases. I have an uncle who determined to lose weight and start exercising, and he became healthy enough to stop the medicine without any decompensation afterward.

Of course, his doctor had to give him permission. No diabetic should ever stop taking their medicine without the approval of their doctor.

Post 2

One condition I would think would be bad is decompensated diabetes. I’ve always heard that it is crucial for diabetics to stay on their medication. If they get off of it, they could die.

I have friends with relatives who are diabetic, and they have told me of some bad things that happen when one of them doesn’t stay on schedule with their meds. One friend said her dad gets very angry and confused, and he starts saying things that don’t make any sense.

She said that when this happens, she knows to give him a piece of candy right away to raise his blood sugar. After that, he just has to get back on his medication schedule.

Post 1

This is why doctors always tell people to never stop their antidepressants cold turkey. They could end up with anything from suicidal thoughts to psychotic decompensation.

I was on an antidepressant that gave me heart palpitations, so I had to stop taking it. My doctor slowly decreased my dosage, and near the end, I was taking half a pill of the lowest dosage available. I weaned myself off of it, and I experienced no bad side effects.

However, one of her patients on the same medication stopped taking it abruptly. She fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide. Luckily, someone found her in time to get her help.

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