Sunday, January 29, 2023

Conversation about critical/relational psychiatry

I've posted a summary (see link) of my views about critical/relational psychiatry, which is to be published in a forthcoming Oxford University Press book adaptation (late 2023) of  'Conversations in Critical Psychiatry' edited by Awais Aftab. The essential message of critical/relational psychiatry is that primary mental illness cannot be reduced to brain disease. Such a view tends to be dismissed or marginalised as it may be difficult to believe and accept. Of course mental illness has something to do with the brain, people say. Is critical/relational psychiatry really suggesting otherwise?

Of course it isn’t! The brain mediates our thoughts, emotions and actions, including mental illness. This statement is of course true. But biomedical psychiatry’s claim is that mental illness will be shown to be due to an abnormality in the brain, even that there is considerable evidence already to come to this conclusion. This hypothesis may seem to stand to reason, but it doesn’t. Let me explain.

Abnormalities of the brain can of cause cause mental symptoms. Such is the case for example with a brain tumour. Definite neurological signs may also be present in cerebral disease. Fortunately such organic conditions tend to cause symptoms affecting cognitive functioning that usually allow them to be distinguished from non-organic mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or depressive illness. Primary mental illness, not caused by brain disease, is functional and not structural. It shows through the brain but not in it.

Acknowledging this situation has advantages for psychiatric practice. It should mean that people are not reduced to their brains. They must not be treated as objects. Clinical work needs to be focussed on understanding patients’ histories and mental states and formulating their problems in those terms. Treatment needs to be about supporting them to deal with their problems.

This basic message needs reinforcing in the current mental health system which has become too dysfunctional and fragmented. Psychiatry needs to move on from an outdated belief in mental illness as brain disease.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health bill has produced an impressive report (see eg. last post and twitter thread of what the Committee sees as the highlights. Also, see the walkthrough of conclusions and recommendations by Alex Ruck Keene.). I particularly welcome the Committee’s not necessarily expected recommendation to abolish Community Treatment Orders (CTOs) for civil patients. Although it is keen for the Mental Health Bill to be passed into legislation as soon as possible, it also promotes the need for ongoing reform. The Committee helpfully recommends the creation of the post of Mental Health Commissioner and the introduction of pilots for patients to be able to appeal to a slimmed down Mental Health Tribunal about treatment plans. It makes helpful recommendations about incorporating reference to the principles of racial equality, choice and autonomy, least restriction, therapeutic benefit and person as an individual on the face of the Act.

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

My understanding is that the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health bill should be producing its report this week (see its tweet). I just want to pick up on aspects of the additional written evidence submitted to the Committee since the original batch (see previous post). 

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 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

Reimagining psychiatry

Diana and Nik Rose have a Psychological Medicine article entitled ‘Is ‘another’ psychiatry possible?’. They discuss postpsychiatry (see eg. previous post), Open Dialogue,  the Power, Threat and Meaning Framework (PTMF) (see eg. another previous post) and service user involvement in research in this context. As they say, the leaders of the psychiatric establishment are unlikely to accept “reduction in their claims that they are the exponents of highly effective, neurobiological based, targeted treatment of brain disorders”. 

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. 

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Psychiatric practice is too based on speculation

Although psychiatrists generally admit that brain science has not advanced to the point where discernible biological lesions or genetic abnormalities have been found that are reliable markers of functional mental disorder, they tend to assume in practice that such markers will be found. Their clinical work is backed up by a vast research effort motivated to uncover the biological basis of mental illness. Treatments, such as medication, are presumed to correct abnormalities in the brains of mentally disordered people.

There are of course brain impairments that cause mental symptoms. These can primarily be divided into acute and chronic presentations. Acute conditions present with a toxic confusional state or delirium, for example related to the general effects of disease in the body. Chronic irreversible conditions are dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. Such organic presentations can be differentiated on clinical examination of the mental state, as they have cognitive symptoms and signs affecting intellectual functioning, such as orientation (time, place, person), concentration, attention, memory and level of consciousness. These cognitive abnormalities tend not to be present with functional disorders.

Mental disorders are of course mediated through the brain, but it is a conceptual mistake to regard non-organic disorders as being in the brain. People become mentally ill, not their brains. Functional mental disorder needs to be understood in the context of life, social, family and personal development and current situation. It may not be possible to 'prove' what causes mental illness, and it may be very difficult to make sense of some presentations, such as psychosis, but nonetheless any treatment needs to focus on providing the support and understanding to help people recover from their difficulties as much as they are able and wish to do so.