Thursday, September 17, 2020

Towards a more relational psychiatry

I have mentioned 'relational psychiatry' before (see previous post). Even though I come from a critical psychiatry position, which has never hidden that it grew out of what mainstream psychiatry called 'anti-psychiatry', there are more recent developments from anti-cognitivist phenomenological and enactive accounts of psychopathology that come to the same conclusion about the biomedical model of mental illness. For example, I have mentioned books like Sanneke de Haan's Enactive psychiatry (see eg. previous post) and Thomas Fuch's Ecology of the brain (see another previous post). 

Laurence Kirmayer summarises his perspective on what he calls ‘ecosocial psychiatry’ in an article in World Social Psychiatry. As he says, "Cognitive science supports the view that mental processes are intrinsically social, embodied, and enacted through metaphor, narrative, and discursive practices". As I've argued throughout this blog (eg. see previous post), there needs to be a shift in perspective from a narrow biomedical perspective towards a more truly biopsychosocial approach. As Laurence puts it, what's required is "a shift in perspective from a psychiatry centered on brain circuitry and disorders toward one that recognizes social predicaments as the central focus of clinical concern and social systems or networks as a crucial site for explanation and intervention". In this quote and the article in general, Laurence also helpfully illustrates the importance of social psychiatry, as focusing on the person inevitably means including the interpersonal dimension. This leads, as Laurence says, to an emphasis on "the powerful effects of structural violence and social inequality as key determinants of health".

Reductionism leads to the loss of meaning of human action and a mechanistic psychology cannot be realised in practice (see eg. previous post). This critique of reductionism and positivism in psychiatry, including mechanistic psychological approaches, creates a framework that focuses on the person and has ethical, therapeutic and political implications for clinical practice. It also has consequences for psychiatric research, which has become far too focused on speculative neurobiological notions. 

Descriptive psychopathology is not studied organically at the level of neurobiology. History and mental state examination instead produce a formulation of people’s problems in terms of differential diagnosis and aetiology. Examining the brain in a scanner, for example, does not tell us anything about the cause of thoughts, emotions and behaviour. An integrated understanding of mental dysfunction in the context of the whole person, including emotional needs and life issues, forms the basis for patient-centred and relational psychiatry. The physical disease model of mental illness is outdated and needs to be replaced by a relational psychiatry.

Misdirected aspirations for psychiatric classification

Peter Zachar et al (2019) have published an oral history of the development of DSM-5. For some reason, this does not seem to have included interviewing David Kupfer, the chair of the Task Force, so I do wonder if the article has been affected by the retrospective glosses of Darrel Regier, one of the co-authors of the paper and vice-chair of the Task Force, and Kenneth Kendler, another co-author and chair of the Scientific Review Committee appointed by the President of the  American Psychiatric Association (APA). I hadn't realised how much the APA Board of Trustees (BOT) had a role in the DSM-5 process, including appointing Task Force members. 

As Zachar et al note, what was originally envisioned was a shift to a "more scientific basis of psychiatric classification" to take account of the aetiology of mental disorders (see eg. previous post). The paper suggests that any hope for a shift from descriptive to aetiologically-based diagnostic criteria had been largely abandoned by the time the workgroups were finally formed in 2008, not least because the human genome project had not produced candidate genes for mental disorders and there was more questioning about what neuroimaging could achieve.

Darrel Regier reports that DSM-5 leaders were not willing to delay publication, even though the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) were about to launch its experimental approach that became the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) (see previous post). This was because of "what amounted to a resurrection of those very aspirations [that had initially motivated DSM-5]". If this was really the case, then DSM-5 had some foresight, as speculation about neural circuits has gone overboard (see previous post) and Thomas Insel, the previous NIMH director, in my view led NIMH completely 'off beam' with RDoC and so-called precision medicine (see another previous post). 

The paper suggests any decisions about changes were left to the workgroups. To give more direction to the process, BOT created an oversight committee in summer 2009. New guidelines accepted that “DSM-5 will not ‘in itself’ represent a paradigm shift, nor abandon the categorical system of classification, but will start a process that will lead to more useful ways of classifying and diagnosing disorders”. I’m not convinced it really did so, ending up merely with a tinkering with diagnostic criteria far short of the original misguided intentions. It would have been better if the time had been spent rethinking the basis of psychiatric classification (see eg. previous post).

Monday, September 14, 2020

Treatment of depression with antidepressants is primarily a placebo treatment

I’ve mentioned before that NICE may be laying itself open to judicial review about its depression guideline (see previous post). I’ve also emphasised the lack of clear evidence from clinical trials that antidepressants are effective, because placebo amplification may be an explanation of any statistically significant results (see eg. another previous post). This means we should have more of a psychological rather than pharmaceutical model of antidepressant action (Ankarberg & Falkenström, 2008).

Although it should not be surprising, empirical findings confirm that one of the most influential factors in the treatment of depression is the quality of the early therapeutic relationship, not necessarily medication (Blatt & Zuroff, 2005). Pretreatment characteristics of patients may also be factors in outcome. Training in the treatment of depression, therefore, needs to focus on teaching competence in establishing effective therapeutic relationships. Randomised controlled trials, which NICE tends to concentrate on, may be considered the gold standard of experimental design, but naturalistic studies may well have more external validity. The long-term outcome of treatment for depression may not necessarily be that good (see previous post). I’m not encouraging exploitation of the placebo effect, but merely acknowledgement of the importance of the doctor-patient dynamic, even when medication is used (see my BMJ letter). Perhaps NICE should start from a position of therapeutic nihilism before it makes any recommendations about treatment (see last post), but at least it should be clear that the therapeutic relationship is significant and almost certainly affects outcome.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The argument for medical nihilism

Jacob Stegenga published his book on Medical nihilism in 2018. He aligns himself with therapeutic nihilism meaning that "it is impossible to cure people or societies of their ills through treatment' (see Wikipedia entry). This view is contrary to the widespread faith that people tend to have in medical practice. Financial incentives, even corruption, influence medical science. Its research methods are malleable enough to lead to exaggerated claims for effectiveness. We should not be confident about such claims and should be sceptical that medical interventions are effective.

Jacob comes to a position of medical nihilism without apparently fully taking on board the scientĂ®fic challenges in the application of randomised controlled trials (see eg. Kramer & Shapiro, 1984), perhaps particularly the problem of unblinding (see eg. my letter and follow-up). He emphasises the common small effect size of clinical trials, and the fact that some interventions are removed from clinical practice because they are later found to do more harm than good. Few drugs are ‘magic bullets’ in the sense of specifically targeting the cause of a disease. In practice not all clinical trials generally show a benefit for a drug. Bias, even fraud, in clinical research tends to be minimised.

Jacob makes clear he is not saying that no medical intervention is effective. But assessing the effectiveness of medical treatment generally is not merely an empirical matter because of the methodological problems of such research. Research methodology does need to be improved, which will reduce effectiveness estimates, but even so there are still problems about interpreting the data. There is a sense in which it is impossible to be objectively certain about the effectiveness of the vast bulk of treatment. 

Medicine has not really advanced as much as we might like. Broader socioeconomic conditions of health may well be more important than medical treatment itself. In general, there is too much medicine (see eg. post on my personal blog). Jacob encourages medicine to be gentler in its approach, and not so radically aggressive. There needs to be enhanced regulation of medical interventions. The profit motive in medical research is distorting social priorities. The art and science of medicine needs to be rethought (see another post on my personal blog).

Friday, September 11, 2020

“[P]ast 20 years have not been good for the quality of care [in mental health services]”.


BJPsych Bulletin
has an interview with Tom Burns, who I have mentioned previously (eg. see previous post). He talks about the OCTET study on community treatment orders (CTOs), which I have also discussed before (see post). Personally I think CTOs should never have been introduced (see eg. another previous post) and Tom now thinks he made a mistake in promoting them. It always strikes me as ironic that there used to be so much concern that a few detained patients were being kept on S17 leave too long, whereas essentially CTOs provide just such a 'long-leash' arrangement. As far as I can see, the introduction of CTOs has led to insufficient use of S17 trial leave. This almost certainly has reduced the opportunity for arranging informal community care without CTO.

Tom is also critical of DSM-5 (see eg. previous post). He's right to focus on descriptive psychopathology as a strength of psychiatry. He calls it 'diagnosis', which can be misleading because history and mental state examination actually lead to a formulation which includes differential (not necessarily a single and certain) diagnosis and aetiology. Diagnosis should not be overemphasised in psychiatric assessment (see eg. previous post). 

Tom's also right about the fragmentation of services over the last 20 years. Hopefully the community mental health framework for adults and older adults will provide a basis for development but it does need leadership to implement it. Despite what Tom says, I haven't abandoned the use of the term 'patient', although also use the term 'service user', even 'survivor', certainly recognising the importance of mental health advocacy (does he?). Tom rightly expresses concern about clustering, which was supposed to support so-called payment by results, which seems to have been quietly dropped (see post on my personal blog). As he also indicates the overpreoccupation with risk has been damaging (see eg. my unpublished article and talk).

A younger version of Tom Burns sounded more optimistic in an e-interview. He even noted the "sense of excitement and 'importance' of psychiatry" created by RD Laing and how anti-psychiatry made the profession "glamorous, albeit controversial". He's still writing about the history of anti-psychiatry (see previous post and my letter).


(With thanks to Suman Fernando who alerted me to the recent interview)