Wednesday, May 17, 2023
Labelling differences between people as neurodevelopmental
Barriers to debunking the serotonin theory of depression.
Rather than psychiatric practice being based on the notion that primary mental illness will be found to have a physical cause, psychiatry needs to move on to a more relational practice.
I just want to elaborate what I mean by this in relation to the umbrella review that confirmed there is no convincing evidence to support the theory that depression is caused by low serotonin (see previous post). Even though antidepressants may be serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, they do not seem to correct an imbalance or deficiency of serotonin in the brain (see another previous post).
This may well be surprising to patients and the general public who have been led to believe in the serotonin theory of depression. Simplistic notions of the serotonin theory have actually been untenable for some time (see eg. previous post). Psychopharmacologists gave up the theory ages ago but it persists in clinical practice as a way of persuading patients to take their medication. I'm sure the fundamental faith of psychiatry that primary mental illness will be found to be due to brain disease will continue. Doctors find it difficult to accept that depression hasn't something to do with serotonin because antidepressants can be serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. They are convinced antidepressants work, so this must be due to their effect on serotonin.
Our modern understanding of illness and disease as bodily pathology has been remarkably successful in elucidating biological processes of disease. Doctors should take a person-centred approach to attain an understanding of the patient as well as the disease. For psychiatry in particular, the danger is that medicine may treat patients more as objects than people by reducing their problems to brain disease.
After decades of intense neuroimaging research, there is still no neurobiological account of any functional psychiatric condition (see eg. previous post). Psychiatry must stop identifying the brain with the person. People’s experience and relationships with others are at the core of depression and cannot be identified with neuronal or biochemical processes, such as serotonin imbalance or deficiency. We may find it attractive to try and simplify the relationship between mind and brain, but it may well be an enigma we cannot solve. We have to accept the integration of mind and brain in the person. Of course brain disease can cause mental disorder, but it may well not make sense to see depression as being in the brain. Depression is mediated by the brain but there may be no brain abnormality as such. This is what psychiatry will continue to find difficult to accept.
Monday, May 15, 2023
Creating panaceas for emotional and other mental health problems
Panorama is not the first media programme to highlight the exploitation of ADHD diagnosis (eg. see previous post). Adult ADHD is a relatively new diagnosis, as ADHD was originally a diagnosis made in children with symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. Such behaviours may be displayed when children feel frustrated, anxious, bored, abandoned, or in some other way stressed. The increasing diagnosis of ADHD in children, over many years now, has been compounded by diagnosis in adults without a previous childhood diagnosis, considered to have been a major unrecognised condition (see eg. my article). Many psychiatrists see this as an example of the overmedicalisation of mental health problems (see another previous post), which at least partly explains why adult ADHD services have generally been hived off into a special service, mostly with massive waiting lists.
Not all negative emotions and experiences should be labelled as mental disorder. A moral panic about mental health may encourage the packaging of our everyday problems as conditions that can be diagnosed and treated. The reality is not always so simple (see eg. previous post). As this is mental health awareness week, it is perhaps worth highlighting how destigmatisation campaigns seem to have encouraged this oversimplification (see another previous post). Services themselves also ironically have encouraged the expansion of demand, apparently with the misguided notion that a perseverative call for more funding will provide the answer. The cultural process of seeking to create panaceas for emotional and other mental health problems doesn’t always work and may create more problems than it is worth.
Tuesday, May 09, 2023
Changing how mental disorders are studied and managed
Tuesday, May 02, 2023
Value for psychiatry of the explanation/understanding distinction
Thursday, April 27, 2023
Psychiatrists, antidepressants and suicide
The data set we have summarized here confirms the findings of drug trials showing that ADs are ineffective for many people. The reports document the deaths of several thousand people who killed themselves despite being on ADs, and more than a thousand who actually used the drugs that were supposed to alleviate their depression to kill themselves.
Tuesday, April 11, 2023
Cultural-ecosocial approach to psychiatry
Tuesday, March 14, 2023
Mediated by the brain not necessarily the same as caused by the brain
The reason this happens is because people no longer want to make a distinction between the psychological and the biological. It is said to be a false separation (see eg. another previous post). The fear is that the mind/body split of Cartesianism is being perpetuated by seeing mental disorder as psychological, said to be implying it is not biological (see eg. yet another previous post). Better to do away with any distinction at all, is the thought.
As I've said before (see eg. previous post), René Descartes (1596–1650) was the first to apply a natural-scientific mechanistic approach to life Animate and inanimate matter were understood by the same mechanistic principles. Animals were, therefore, regarded as machines; and human physiology was also seen as mechanistic. Descartes stopped short, though, of including the human mind in this mechanistic framework. The soul was denied any influence in physiology. Descartes thereby avoided the materialistic implication that man himself is a machine. The split he created between mind and brain is what is referred to as Cartesianism.
One of the first to challenge this perspective was Georg Ernst Stahl (1660–1734). He claimed that living things possess an immaterial soul, although he did not necessarily mean a transcendent soul, that provided the key element of movement to matter within the living body. His ‘dualistic’ notion was different from that of Descartes, in that he differentiated organic life from the inorganic, not the soul from the body. Unlike Descartes, he proposed that the soul and body are not separate but integrated in the organism. Despite his vitalism, Stahl originated a holistic perspective in the life and human sciences. This perspective formed the basis for his emphasis on psychosomatic medicine, and a focus on clinical medicine rather than the physical sciences. But his vitalism is as much derided, now, as Cartesianism. Although it makes sense to distinguish life from inanimate matter, a more modern way of expressing this is through enactivism, rather than vitalism (see eg. previous post).
The mereological fallacy helpfully highlights that even though mental disorder is mediated by the brain, this does not imply that it is necessarily represented in the brain. Of course, cerebral disease or abnormality can cause mental disorder. But the vast majority of mental disorder is functional, not structural. It is not represented in the brain as such. It doesn’t make sense to see it as being in the brain. Even delirium and dementia caused by cerebral disease should not be seen as being in the brain as such. It’s people that become delirious or demented, not their brains. But the cause of organic mental disorder, such as delirium and dementia, is abnormality in the brain, whereas for functional disorder, it is not. It is more to do with the whole person, not just the brain, and cannot be understood mechanically. The mental is as much biological as the physical. Because the assumption is that mediation by the brain means that all mental disorders must be in the brain, people fail to recognise that mental disorders are not always in the brain. Being more careful and avoiding language to say that the brain is the person would be a start towards that realisation.
Monday, March 13, 2023
People are not their brains
People need to be understood as wholes, as their brains are only part of them. The brain mediates cognition, emotions and behaviour but it is not the brain that perceives, thinks, feels and acts. It is people as a whole that do that (see eg. yet another previous post).
Brain disease or abnormality can cause mental disorder. Such organic mental disorders can be due to a primary brain disorder or secondary to a systemic illness, or result from an exogenous toxic agent, or be due to physical withdrawal of an addictive substance. But not all mental disorder is due to brain disease or abnormality. Mental disorder shows through the brain but not necessarily in it.
Brain disease can be detected when assessing for mental disorder by disturbances of sensorium and cognitive functioning (see eg. previous post). In particular, level of consciousness, orientation, attention and memory are affected. Jaspers in his General Psychopathology referred to the "state of consciousness" as the "momentary whole" of the "psychic state". Brain disease may be detected by its effects on consciousness and that sense of wholeness.
Depression and schizophrenia, as examples of functional mental disorders, need to be understood in meaningful context. But the meaning of dementia, as an example of an organic mental disorder, could be said to be more to do with brain abnormality. It's people that become demented rather than their brains, as such, but the brain abnormality of dementia, whether Alzheimer’s or whatever, affects the wholeness of people's experience of themselves.
Wednesday, March 08, 2023
Publication bias in antidepressant trials
Thursday, March 02, 2023
Reducing overprescribing in the NHS
As the DHSC report says, what’s needed to reduce overprescribing is already known: shared decision-making with patients; better guidance and support for clinicians; more alternatives to medicines, such as physical and social activities and talking therapies; and more Structured Medication Reviews (SMR) for long-term health conditions. The problem is that “Many patients do not feel that they experience a compassionate, coordinated service that pays enough attention to their individual needs, assets, values, preferences and priorities”. The College of Medicine (see webpage) launched its Beyond Pills Campaign in 2022. A cultural change to reduce the reliance on medication and to support shared decision-making would be very welcome, not least for mental health services.
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Does psychotropic medication work?
Almost as a kind of disclaimer, the programme had to say that there is no doubt that psychotropic medication helps millions of people round the world. But what is meant by such a statement? Individual experience may be that psychotropic medication helps. For others it may not be of benefit. Clinical trials tend to show an advantage for eg. antidepressants, but maybe not as great as is commonly assumed and a good proportion of people do not respond to antidepressants, even in the clinical trials. The efficacy of antidepressants is in fact still an open issue in the scientific literature because of methodological problems with the clinical trials (see eg. previous post).
The dynamic of the doctor-patient relationship is important even when medication is used. It is difficult for people to accept that so-called antidepressant efficacy may merely be due to the placebo effect (see eg. another previous post). Even cognitive neuropsychological theories, as for example described by Catherine Harmer in the programme, tend to assume that medication works through brain effects. Of course a placebo effect in itself can make people think more positively and seem to help their depression.
Although Joanna Moncrieff said that antidepressants make people physiologically dependent, the programme did not really deal with this issue (see eg. previous post). The extent to which taking medication can be an identity-altering experience tends to be underestimated (see eg. another previous post). Of course psychotropic medication can have physiological effects. But the whole edifice of modern psychiatry has been built on psychotropic medication being more than placebo and the fear is that it will come crumbling down if this were not true. Not a very firm basis for practice in my view. Psychiatry, of course, existed before the modern psychopharmacological era and isn’t just about medication.
Wednesday, February 08, 2023
Truth about psychiatric diagnosis
The Rosenhan study was actually more designed to challenge the validity rather than reliability of psychiatric diagnosis. Andrew Scull (who I’ve mentioned before eg. see previous post) has recently published an article in History of Psychiatry summarising the evidence that the study was fraudulent. Six of the seeming nine original participants are said to have never been traced. Data from one of the participants was not included in the Science report and this psychology student at the time of the study, who became an academic psychologist, published his own more positive account of his experience (see article).
At the very least, Rosenhan (1973) is biased, inaccurate, dishonest and exaggerated its findings. As Andrew says, there is a "possibility that they [ie. the six missing participants] may still surface" but he thinks it is more likely they "never existed at all".
I know of two reports of modified repeats of the Rosenhan study. Because they are later, both were done in the context of the rundown of the traditional psychiatric hospital. Although all Rosenhan's pseudopatients were said to have been admitted to hospital, both these reports suggest that feigning an auditory hallucination does not now generally lead to admission, maybe because of the pressure on beds. Scribner (2001) used 7 volunteers with long well documented histories of chronic schizophrenia, six of whom were actually denied treatment and turned away. The baseline histories were therefore very different from Rosenhan (1973), whose pseudopatients were said not to have had a history of mental disorder.
The other report was from the book Opening Skinner's Box (2004) by Lauren Slater. Interestingly, she too has been accused of never conducting her study (see article). As she says in the book in her chapter on Rosenhan:
Psychiatry as a field is, of course, predicated on the belief that its own professionals know how to reliably diagnose aberrant mental conditions and to make judgments based on those diagnoses about a person’s social suitability
Interestingly again, she seems to suggest that Martin Seligman, an eminent psychologist, was one of Rosenhan's pseudopatients, which is not mentioned by Scull (2023). As far as I know, Seligman is still alive, so it may be possible to check this.
Slater herself has a "formidable psychiatric history" and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital aged 14. She does not deny the reality of mental illness. Slater says she used someone else's name, so that she wasn't recognised, and denied any psychiatric involvement in the past. She relates that she presented herself nine times saying she was hearing a voice, and that, although she was treated kindly and was not admitted, she was prescribed a total of 25 antipsychotics and 60 antidepressants. Almost every time she says she was given a diagnosis of psychotic depression.
I suppose Rosenhan could be said to have had more impact on psychiatry as a social scientist than Andrew (except maybe Andrew’s influential dismissal of Foucault in the literature - see eg. previous post)! Not excusing Rosenhan's behaviour, but I think the scientific literature is plagued by such dishonesty as Rosenhan's. There is evidence, though, that at least aspects of his Science paper are correct. Certainly it was possible for a person who is not mentally ill to obtain admission to psychiatric hospital and mislead psychiatrists into diagnosing schizophrenia. Maybe this has always been the main message that people have taken from the study. Rosenhan does seem to have elaborated the details to reinforce his conclusion that psychiatric diagnosis is subjective and does not reflect inherent patient characteristics.
What worries me is that Andrew’s complete dismissal of Rosenhan’s study as fraudulent may reinforce the case that psychiatric diagnosis is objective, which it isn’t in any absolute sense. The limitations of psychiatric diagnosis do need to be acknowledged (see eg. previous post). If psychiatric diagnosis is meaningful, there will be inevitable inconsistencies.
Sunday, January 29, 2023
Conversation about critical/relational psychiatry
Tuesday, January 24, 2023
Although it expresses concern that the introduction of conditional discharge for restricted patients may be overused, the Committee only recommends close monitoring of implementation with a statutory review after 3 years. My main concern about the report is that it does not seem to have considered the need to improve the right to an independent second opinion from a person of the patient’s choice, rather than just from a Second Opinion Approved Doctor (SOAD) appointed by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). As I said in a previous post, the strengthening of the role of SOAD is welcome, but this should be taken further by making the second opinion process even more independent. I think this is particularly the case in the context of developing the role of the Tribunal to consider treatment decisions and I would argue that eventually SOADs could be abolished.
The Committee emphasises the need for adequate resourcing of the MHA changes and sees it as essential that a detailed plan for resourcing and implementation is produced on introduction of the Bill. I look forward to seeing the government's response.
Monday, January 16, 2023
Legislating for Mental Health Act (MHA) reform
Supplementary written evidence by the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act helpfully highlights the need to improve the quality of advocacy services (see twitter thread; also guidance from NICE on how to commission and deliver effective advocacy services) and to enable the Mental Health Tribunal to challenge treatment decisions (see another twitter thread). NHS England expresses concern about the power of supervised discharge (see twitter thread). A letter from from the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommends improvements in MHA complaint handling (see another twitter thread).
I look forward to seeing how the Committee deals with these and other issues in its report to take forward the Mental Health Bill.
Thursday, January 12, 2023
I’ve always said it’s unrealistic to expect a paradigmatic shift in psychiatric practice because the hope of finding a biological basis for mental illness will never go away completely. But the extent to which it’s understood that this belief is wishful thinking may change. Psychiatry does need to become more open minded, more self-critical and less dogmatic in its beliefs and claims.