Posts tagged science
Posts tagged science
Recent years have seen an influx of numerous studies providing an undeniable link between childhood/ chronic trauma and psychotic states. Although many researchers (i.e., Richard Bentall, Anthony Morrison, John Read) have been publishing and speaking at events around the world discussing the implications of this link, they are still largely ignored by mainstream practitioners, researchers, and even those with lived experience. While this may be partially due to an understandable (but not necessarily defensible) tendency to deny the existence of trauma, in general, there are also certainly many political, ideological, and financial reasons for this as well.
Many have called for the trauma and psychosis fields to join forces. So many valuable findings have come out of the trauma field that could inform practitioners and lay people alike in understanding how one might come to be so overwhelmingly distressed and behave in such seemingly strange ways (see Read, Fosse, Moskowitz, & Perry, 2014, for an informative overview of how trauma affects our bodies). Studies looking at how the non-disordered brain adapts to chronic stress, how cumulative adverse events affect how people perceive and react to the world around them, and how many creative ways people come up with to defend against their own awareness of their distress all can help others to understand the un-understandable. More importantly, the trauma field has shown time and again how trauma-informed care can help a person slowly heal from horrid life experiences.
Yet, the trauma and dissociation field often goes to great lengths in an apparent effort to draw a decisive line in the sand between “real” trauma “disorders” and “schizophrenia.” This largely is done by insinuating that “dissociation” is trauma-based and explains the bizarre behaviors of so many distressed individuals labeled with “borderline” or “dissociative identity disorder”, while some cognitive or brain-diseased factor contributes to “real” psychosis. Somebody with “schizophrenia” may have experienced trauma, but it is largely irrelevant to the present distress. Is this true? Is there any actual evidence for this beyond ideology? It may be helpful to look at the overlap and separation between “dissociation” and “psychosis” to get a better understanding.
Brief History of Trauma Research
Over 100 years ago, Pierre Janet became the first major figure to identify and treat the vast array of the effects of trauma. In fact, he considered almost all “psychopathology” to be the result of childhood trauma and dissociation (Janet, 1919/25). Under the large umbrella term of “hysteria”, Janet identified the following symptoms: hallucinations in all senses, fugue states, amnesia, extreme suggestibility, an odd disposition, nightmares, psychosomatic and conversion symptoms, reenactments, flashbacks, paranoia, subjective experiences of possession, motor agitation, mutism, catatonia, thought disorder (or disorganized speech), and/or double personalities (Janet, 1907/1965). He believed that treatment consisted of a phase-based approach involving stabilization, trauma processing, and recovery. Fatefully, Janet’s use of hypnosis provided the main basis for his eventual expulsion from the psychiatric community. He responded to his exile by pointing out that the medical establishment denied the existence of trauma and its effects, to the point of focusing too much on the physiological and biological domain.
For the next 8 decades or so, the mental health field became more and more narrow in its focus on and recognition of trauma to the point of neglecting it completely in the more biological domains. It was not until the late1970′s, when a massive influx of veterans gained political clout and women began to speak out and be heard, that trauma was once again recognized as a major factor in extreme emotional distress. This also was the time when the DSM became psychiatry’s new bible; and so, while trauma was once again recognized, it was also separated into narrowly defined disorders that included PTSD, adjustment disorders, and dissociative disorders (including multiple personality disorder, as it was then known). It was then that the modern-day lines were drawn.
So what are people talking about when they speak of “dissociation”? Well, not too many people agree on this. It also appears as though the more professionals attempt to come to a consensus on what this term means, the more they do so in an effort to delineate it from any possible association with “psychosis”; their attempts to define dissociation are done by disassociating.
Wikipedia defines dissociation (in the broad sense) as: “an act of disuniting or separating a complex object into parts.” I do not believe that many mental health professionals, particularly dissociation researchers, would entirely disagree with this definition. Rather, it is the interpretation of this meaning that is a hotly debated topic within psychiatry (a general term I use to describe the entirety of the mental health field). In general, it may be used to describe a process, a multitude of symptoms, specific disorders, a division of the personality (or lack of integration), and/or a psychic defense. Many believe that it refers to disconnection from one’s thoughts, feelings, environment, self, others, etc. The term is also used to refer to a process of entering a trance-like state or extreme detachment. Most agree that dissociation lies on a continuum from “everyday dissociation” (i.e., losing track of time while driving, becoming absorbed in a book) to severe dysfunctional dissociation (i.e., “multiple personalities”). Lately, it appears as though trauma researchers and practitioners are interpreting dissociation as solely meaning a separation of identity states or ego functioning that is based in trauma and is clearly understandable (i.e., not psychosis).
If nobody agrees on what it means, then why do we really care? Because the political implications and resulting effects on treatment options are directly related to how one interprets this meaning. We can see by looking at the DSM how this might work…
DSM and all its Fancy Terms
Akin to many religions throughout time, psychiatry makes up many technical terms and then create circular and eccentric definitions to confuse lay people into believing that mental health issues can only be dealt with by an educated professional. Putting this political maneuvering aside, I would like to focus for a moment on key terms related to the topic at hand: trauma, dissociation, dissociative symptoms, psychosis, psychotic symptoms, dissociative disorders, and schizophrenia.
Trauma: Trauma is technically defined as an event that provokes death-related fears in an individual. It is also agreed upon that trauma is defined by the person’s response to such an event, rather than the event itself. But, what of the child whose parents are cold and over-protective? Or the child who is “only” bullied verbally? Or the child who is chronically invalidated? Or poverty? Or the person in existential crisis? Are these not a form of “trauma”? Certainly, they are shown to be chronically stressful which, physiologically, is not any different than “trauma” defined in the DSM-sense. Although it is understood that trauma is subjective, the DSM insists on narrowly defining it anyways.
Dissociation: As stated previously, very few professionals in psychiatry agree on what this term means. Instead of just saying “absorption”, “feeling unreal”, “feeling one’s surroundings are not real”, “lack of integrated sense of self”, or “detachment” (all considered in different circles as varied forms of dissociation), scholars instead argue over its meaning until it has no meaning at all. Often, it is an ideological term that is used to say “trauma” vs. “not trauma”, whether this is explicitly acknowledged or not. Therefore, when one’s “symptoms” are considered non-dissociative, the assumption generally tends to be that they also are not trauma-based.
Dissociative symptoms: Although dissociative symptoms are acknowledged as existing in a multitude of different DSM categories, they mostly are usurped by the dissociative disorder classifications. In this case, as I will discuss in a moment, dissociative symptoms often seem to take on the meaning of “not psychotic” rather than having any distinct meaning in and of themselves.
Psychosis: Psychosis is another technical term with no precise meaning. It tends to refer to a state in which a person appears to not be aware of or in touch with consensual reality. This can be for 5 minutes or 5 years, but the term itself is non-time specific. In practice, it tends to be used when the professional comes to a point where they say “I don’t understand you or agree with your interpretation of reality.”
Psychotic symptoms: Most people tend to think that psychotic symptoms clearly refer to things such as hearing voices, seeing visions, having strange beliefs, or disorganized thinking/speech. However, “psychotic symptoms” specifically refers to symptoms of psychosis. What is psychosis? Having psychotic symptoms. If you don’t have psychosis, then you may have “psychotic-like” symptoms or “quasi-” insert what you like here. What makes these symptoms psychotic-like instead of truly psychotic? Whether or not your therapist understands you.
Dissociative disorders: While there are 5 dissociative disorders, the one that is most intertwined with the idea of psychosis is dissociative identity disorder (DID). People who might meet the criteria for DID often experience what is inarguably the core of the term “dissociation”; namely, having a fragmented sense of self. In addition, they also experience periods where they cannot remember large gaps of time. This amnesia is certainly not an experience that is universal to many or even most individuals suffering extreme states; however, the other experiences common in DID are definitely non-specific to this classification. These include: hallucinations in all senses, incoherence, bizarre beliefs, impaired reality testing, lack of awareness of the present moment, paranoia, and paranormal experiences. However, these are reframed as: hearing voices of an “alter”, body memories, flashbacks, intrusions of trauma and/or “alters”, beliefs attributed to “alters”, not being grounded, and hypervigilence. These words do not necessarily indicate any difference in the lived-experience, but rather a difference in how psychiatry interprets the experience. And who wouldn’t rather say “I have body memories and intrusions” then “I have hallucinations and delusions”?
Schizophrenia: The category of schizophrenia, and all its sister disorders, is one that is assumed to be a largely biological, genetic brain disease. What differentiates it from DID? No one seems to be able to define where this distinction lies, but those in the dissociative disorder field will state that the difference is based on the existence of “delusions” and/or “thought disorder”. A delusion, of course, is a belief that society deems unacceptable. Yet, nobody seems to be able to explain where the line is separating a delusion from an acceptable belief. More specifically, nobody will explain what the difference is between believing “I have a bunch of people living inside of my body who are not me” (DID) and “I am God” (psychotic). But questionnaires that measure dissociation use this very distinction to say whether one has dissociation or not. And then they say “delusions are not related to dissociation” because they just ruled out dissociation by the fact that a person did not endorse an interpretation of their experience that the questionnaire makers deemed dissociative.
“Thought disorder” has been convincingly described by Richard Bentall as a problem in communication, rather than an indication of any true cognitive impairment (Bentall, 2003). Yet, the theory adopted by mainstream psychiatry remains that “thought disorder” is a neurological disease. And so, if one is considered to have DID, any indication of thought disorder is instead interpreted as “intrusions” or “rapid-switching” of altered identity states. Only those with “real” psychosis have a “real” thought disorder.
On the other hand, psychosis researchers solve the problem by simply saying DID just does not exist. People who present with altered identity states and memory problems (not attributed to an actual neurological problem) are considered as just “borderline” or “attention-seeking”. I honestly cannot think of much that is worse than experiencing such emotional turmoil and distress to the point of a break-down and then being told I am making it up for attention. But, then, of course, that is just my perspective.
In spite of these ideological battles, studies still have shown that individuals meeting criteria for schizophrenia endorse a greater level of dissociative symptoms than any other clinical group, discounting PTSD and dissociative disorders (Ross, Heber, Norton, & Anderson, 1989). Approximately two-thirds of individuals diagnosed with DID who are hospitalized also meet structured interview criteria for schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder (Ross, 2007), 25-50% of anybody diagnosed with DID has received a previous diagnosis of schizophrenia (Ross & Keyes, 2004), and approximately 60% of those diagnosed with schizophrenia meet criteria for a dissociative disorder (Ross & Keyes, 2004). Up to 20% of individuals diagnosed with DID have been found to exhibit communication styles indicative of thought disorder (Putnam, Guroff, Silberman, Barban, & Post, 1986), and levels of dissociation are highly correlated with thought disorder (Allen, Coyne, & Console, 1997). Bizarre explanations for anomalous experiences are not rare in those diagnosed with DID; indeed, one study discovered that 41% of individuals diagnosed with DID have been found to believe they were possessed by demons, and 36% experienced possession by some other outer power or force not attributed to part of the self (Ross, 2011). In addition, the original concept of ‘schizophrenia’ (as it was discussed by Kurt Schneider, Eugen Bleuler, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Harold Searles) appears to emphasize presentations indicative of a dissociative disorder.
On the other hand, it has been found that dissociatively detached individuals are not necessarily chronically psychotic and can function at a high level (Allen et al., 1997). Individuals diagnosed with DID are often able to maintain reality testing despite experiencing “psychotic” phenomena (Howell, 2008). Another difference is that persons diagnosed with DID also report higher levels of dissociation, and more child, angry, persecutory, and commenting voices (Dorahy et al., 2009; Laddis & Dell, 2012). They also generally report a higher rate of more severe childhood trauma than any other clinical group (Putnam et al., 1986).
What Does This all Mean???
It is often purported that “delusions” and “schizophrenia” are not dissociative, when using the narrow definition of dissociation; when dissociation means dis-integration of identity. I would argue that when one is so distressed so as to be labeled as having delusions or schizophrenia, the person has experienced such a high level of dissociation so as to have a completely shattered identity; dis-integration to the point of disintegrated oblivion. But, this is not acknowledged as dissociative, and so then is considered somehow something completely different and separate.
I do not believe it is possible to separate psychosis and dissociation; to me this is like attempting to separate a headache and a fever when I have the flu. Where does the headache begin and the fever end? And should I focus on “treating” my headache, fever, or maybe the virus that infected me and is creating an interconnected process of events in my body? While psychosis and dissociation are not the same thing, I believe that one does not have psychosis without dissociation or dissociation without psychosis. Often the difference simply boils down to: who can frame things the way that the professional wants to hear or agrees with.
Certainly not all those who experience altered identity states experience strange beliefs, voices, or incoherence, but most do. Not all those who experience extreme states also experience altered identity or memory loss, but some do. These experiences are not separate, even if they are different. Although one may appear more reality-based and “dissociative” while another may appear more out of touch with reality and incomprehensible, I believe both stem from the same underlying process of attempting to deal with overwhelming life experiences. And this is where “treatment” should be focused.
Of course, this belief comes with the caveat that some presentations of emotional distress (whether it is psychosis, depression, dissociation, or any other term or category one might like to think of) are dietary, biological, and/or neurologically based. These are not psychological or psychiatric problems, then, and should be dealt with in the medical realm. All individuals suffering from extreme states should evaluate their diet, exercise, and overall physical health; when these are shown to be a non-issue, however, it should be assumed that some difficulty with life has led to whatever the person is suffering through in the present rather than blaming a faulty brain or neurochemicals without any evidence to back up such assertions.
I do not have all the answers. But, I do ask why it is that mental health professionals do not start with just saying what they mean? We can talk about altered identity states, memory loss, feeling unreal, not knowing what is real or not, being terrified of others, etc. Mental health professionals can own the fact that “I do not understand this person” instead of taking this as equivocal evidence of some brain-diseased process of “psychosis.” Each of these experiences do not make a distinct disease. People are complex. People do not fit in nice, neat boxes. People suffer, and when they do this is not necessarily a disease. People adapt to unbearable life circumstances in a number of complex ways that cannot be categorized, no matter how much psychiatry insists that it can. And none of these labels can tell anybody much of anything about a person beyond the stereotypes and confirmation biases they elicit.
At the end of the day, extreme states and anomalous experiences are terrifying; they are terrifying to the people experiencing them and to all those around those people. Doctors are human beings (much as many might like to state otherwise) and they too often act out of that fear. Certainly, nobody wants to get labeled with being psychotic, and there is benevolence in the efforts of those who try to save many from being so doomed. Being recently labeled with “schizophrenia” appears to be enough to increase the likelihood somebody will commit suicide (Fleischhacker et. al, 2014).
Instead of trying to understand people through labeling and insisting on enforcement of an authoritarian dictation of what the experience “really” is, perhaps psychiatry can listen to those who have actually been there. The Hearing Voices Network has given us tools to work with voices and other anomalous experiences; the National Empowerment Center has given us tools on how to work with crises and extreme states; I am working to try to get first-person perspectives on how to work with altered identity states and memory loss; so many individuals (most famously Marsha Linehan) have given us tools on how to work with self-harm and suicidality.
Why does psychiatry then continue to insist on abiding by a broken and invalid system of disease mongering? Why do we not allow the experiencer to make sense of their experience through their own framework? Why must we be so evangelical and insist that they see things our way? There is NOTHING that truly, scientifically can say that one diagnosis is more “accurate” than another. All of these diagnoses are just checklists of behaviors- there is nothing that anybody “has” and until some biological test shows otherwise than nobody can claim that there is. What matters is being with a person in their world where they are at and understanding the MEANING behind the experience, not attempting to define the experience itself in a way that makes sense to us. This is nothing more than social control and perpetuation of the status quo, not science.
Even the most biologically-based medical doctor knows that treatment can only be effective when the underlying disease is recognized and addressed. In my opinion (and it is only that), the underlying “disease” is trauma, overwhelming emotions in reaction to an un-understandable and terrifying world, and/or fear of death/annihilation. If this is the issue, and logically then the issue that needs to be “treated”, then why do we spend so much time splitting hairs over differentiating what behaviors or beliefs belong in what technical categories? In the heart of the Hearing Voices Network, why are we not focusing all of our time on understanding what happened to the person, not what’s wrong with the person?
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Disclaimer: The views presented here are constructed from my biased interpretation of the vast literature associated with the various topics discussed. This is based on my on-going dissertation work as well as personal and clinical experiences that influence my views. In no way is any of this meant as a criticism towards any individual organization or researcher. I have a great appreciation for the work done in both the trauma and psychosis fields, and recognize that we all cling to views that help us make sense of the world. I just hope that one day we might be able to move past some of these partialities and work towards improving options for people who are in extreme distress without further traumatizing them in the process.
This article’s references can be found HERE.
For Depression, Prescribing Exercise Before Medication
By Olga Khazan
Aerobic activity has shown to be an effective treatment for many forms of depression. So why are so many people still on antidepressants?
Joel Ginsberg was a sophomore at a college in Dallas when the social anxiety he had felt throughout his life morphed into an all-consuming hopelessness. He struggled to get out of bed, and even the simplest tasks felt herculean.
“The world lost its color,” he told me. “Nothing interested me; I didn’t have any motivation. There was a lot of self-doubt.”
He thought getting some exercise might help, but it was hard to motivate himself to go to the campus gym.
“So what I did is break it down into mini-steps,” he said. “I would think about just getting to the gym, rather than going for 30 minutes. Once I was at the gym, I would say, ‘I’m just going to get on the treadmill for five minutes.’”
Eventually, he found himself reading novels for long stretches at a time while pedaling away on a stationary bike. Soon, his gym visits became daily. If he skipped one day, his mood would plummet the next.
“It was kind of like a boost,” he said, recalling how exercise helped him break out of his inertia. “It was a shift in mindset that kind of got me over the hump.”
Depression is the most common mental illness—affecting a staggering 25 percent of Americans—but a growing body of research suggests that one of its best cures is cheap and ubiquitous. In 1999, a randomized controlled trial showed that depressed adults who took part in aerobic exercise improved as much as those treated with Zoloft. A 2006 meta-analysis of 11 studies bolstered those findings and recommended that physicians counsel their depressed patients to try it. A 2011 study took this conclusion even further: It looked at 127 depressed people who hadn’t experienced relief from SSRIs, a common type of antidepressant, and found that exercise led 30 percent of them into remission—a result that was as good as, or better than, drugs alone.
Though we don’t know exactly how any antidepressant works, we think exercise combats depression by enhancing endorphins: natural chemicals that act like morphine and other painkillers. There’s also a theory that aerobic activity boosts norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood. And like antidepressants, exercise helps the brain grow new neurons.
But this powerful, non-drug treatment hasn’t yet become a mainstream remedy. In a 2009 study, only 40 percent of depressed patients reported being counseled to try exercise at their last physician visit.
Instead, Americans are awash in pills. The use of antidepressants has increased 400 percent between 1988 and 2008. They’re now one of the three most-prescribed categories of drugs, coming in right after painkillers and cholesterol medications.
After 15 years of research on the depression-relieving effects of exercise, why are there still so many people on pills? The answer speaks volumes about our mental-health infrastructure and physician reimbursement system, as well as about how difficult it remains to decipher the nature of depression and what patients want from their doctors.
Jogging as medicine
“I am only a doctor, not a dictator,” insists Madhukar H. Trivedi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “I don’t tell patients what to do.”
Trivedi is one of the forefathers of the movement to combat melancholy with physical exertion. He’s authored multiple studies on the exercise-depression connection, and workouts are now one of the many weapons in his psychiatric arsenal. But whether any given treatment is right for a particular person is entirely up to that patient, he said.
“I talk about the pros and cons about all the treatment options available—exercise, therapy, and pills,” he said. “If a patient says, ‘I’m not really keen on medication and therapy, I want to use exercise,’ then if it’s appropriate, they can try it. But I give them caveats about how they should be monitoring it. I don’t say, ‘Go exercise and call me if it doesn’t work.’”
Here’s how he goes about this unconventional type of prescription:
“People will take the disease and treatment lightly if they know Paxil is coming.
First, Trivedi must gently raise the idea of exercise as a treatment option—patients often don’t know to ask. (There are no televised pharmaceutical ads for running, he notes.) He then tells patients about the studies, the amount of exercise that would be required, and the heart rate they’d need to reach. Based on a recent study by Trivedi and others, he recommends three to five sessions per week. Each one should last 45 to 60 minutes, and patients should reach 50 to 85 percent of their maximum heart rates.
He and the patient then blueprint a weekly workout schedule together. Not doing enough sessions, he warns, would be like a diabetic person “using insulin only occasionally.” He encourages patients to use FitBits or other monitoring gadgets to track their progress—and to guilt them off the couch.
Trivedi says this approach rests on three key elements. “One, you have to be very clear with patients that just because exercise has been shown to be efficacious, it doesn’t work for everyone. Two, the dose of the treatment is very important; you can’t just go for a stroll in the park. And three, there has to be a constant vigilance about the monitoring of symptoms. If the treatment is not working, you need to do something.”
That “something” could be adding antidepressants back into the mix—but only if the workouts have truly failed.
“People will take the disease and treatment lightly,” he said, “if they know Paxil is coming.”
The insurance challenge
When it comes to non-drug remedies for depression, exercise is actually just one of several promising options. Over the past few months, research has shown that other common lifestyle adjustments, like meditating or getting more sleep, might also relieve symptoms. Therapy has been shown to work just as well as SSRIs and other medications. In fact, a major JAMA study a few years ago cast doubt on the effectiveness of antidepressants in general, finding that the drugs don’t function any better than placebo pills for people with mild or moderate depression.
The half-dozen psychiatrists I interviewed said they’ve started to incorporate non-drug treatments into their plans for depressed patients. But they said they’re only able to do that because they don’t accept insurance. (One of the doctors works for a college system and only sees students.)
That’s because insurers still largely reimburse psychiatrists, like all other doctors, for each appointment—whatever that appointment may entail—rather than for curing a given patient. It takes less time to write a prescription for Zoloft than it does to tease out a patient’s options for sleeping better and breaking a sweat. Fewer moments spent mapping out jogging routes or sleep schedules means being able to squeeze in more patients for medications each day.
“[Psychiatrists] can probably do four medication-management visits in an hour,” said Chuck Ingoglia, a senior vice president at the National Council for Behavioral Health. “If they were doing therapy, they might see one person for 50 minutes.”
An insurance company might pay an internist and a psychiatrist both $100 for an appointment, but a primary care check-up might take 15 minutes while a thorough conversation with a psychiatrist takes 40 or more.
Because of these constraints, psychiatrists are among the least likely specialists to accept insurance—only about 55 percent of them do. Henry David Abraham, a psychiatrist in Lexington, Massachusetts, said he stopped accepting insurance once he realized his patient visits were becoming too rushed.
“I was seeing patients for 15 minutes each to give them drugs,” he said. “What would my mentors say about that quality of care? They would say, ‘Horrible!’”
He now sees patients on a sliding scale, with the wealthy essentially footing the bill for the poor. His sessions include a range of treatment options, including therapy.
“One patient lost a husband to cancer, and medication may take the edge off of some of those emotions, but the process she requires is to work through the elements of grief,” he said. “There’s not a pill for that.”
Meanwhile, psychiatrists who take insurance are increasingly less likely to offer talk therapy—or longer appointments of any kind—because licensed social workers and psychologists can offer the same types of sessions at lower rates.
“If you’re an insurance company, and you can get a social worker to do therapy for $50, that becomes the floor,” Ingoglia said.When Brittany, a woman who lives in northern Virginia, first began experiencing panic attacks a few months ago, she turned to a series of providers in her insurance network. None of the doctors she saw wanted to discuss anything but drug options, she said.
“They were all just throwing medication at me,” she said. (She asked that I not use her last name). “I said I don’t want medicine, but they didn’t want to talk about a long-term therapeutic plan.”
She went through eight different providers before finally finding a psychiatrist who helped her establish a plan to do yoga several times a week to manage her panic disorder. Those psychiatrist appointments are 90 minutes long.
Exacerbating all of this is the fact that there’s a shortage of psychiatrists, and the needs of people with mental health issues are increasingly being addressed by primary-care doctors, who now provide over a third of all mental health-care in the U.S. Sixty-two percent of all antidepressant prescriptions are now written by general practitioners, ob-gyns, and pediatricians.
But general practitioners aren’t always as equipped as psychiatrists to diagnose and treat depression. In 2007, 73 percent of patients who were prescribed an antidepressant were not given psychiatric diagnoses. In other cases, primary care doctors may balk at the idea of prescribing any interventions because they don’t feel they know enough about depression.
Writing in The New Yorker last year, primary care internist Suzanne Koven said she’s often at a loss when faced with “the lawyer who’s having trouble meeting deadlines and wants medication for attention-deficit disorder. Or the businesswoman whose therapist told her to see me about starting an antidepressant.”
She feared she lacked “the time or training to diagnose and manage many psychiatric disorders,” she wrote.
Managing life’s roadblocks
Let’s say you’re a psychiatrist who has managed to start incorporating sleep, exercise, and other non-drug remedies into a patient’s depression treatment. Congratulations! You now face a patient who is, very possibly, lethargic, unsatisfied, and lying about how many times he or she went running last week.
That is, if you can convince the patient to try anything other than drugs in the first place.
Julia Samton, a psychiatrist who practices in New York City, said she prescribes medications as a “third-tier resort” after lifestyle changes and therapy have been ruled out. She spends 45 minutes on each appointment, attempting to punch through her patients’ stony Manhattanite exteriors and expose the foundations of their agony.
“There are some people who say all they want is medication,” she said. “But they are the ones who are suffering tremendously and have a difficult time accessing their mental life. They want things fixed, and fixed right now.”
She said some of her patients are lured by the drug ads they see on TV— charming little spots that make it look like a gloomy day is nothing an SSRI can’t handle.
“It’s evocative to see a commercial where your world could change from black and white to color,” she said.
Beth Salcedo is a psychiatrist near Washington, D.C. People in this perpetual type-A convention of a town tend to have too much work, too-lofty aspirations, too high a rent, and too little time left before their evening networking event starts.
“I think it’s difficult to convince people to spend half an hour a day on exercise when they have kids, a job, and it can take months to see the benefit,” she said.
Some patients claim they can’t make time for the gym, or are adamant that they can’t afford to sleep more than six hours each night. And lawyers who work 16-hour days are not going to sit through long counseling appointments no matter how many peer-reviewed studies you wave at them.
“What do you do? Do you let them walk around depressed?” Salcedo said. “Or do you offer them a treatment that they’ll accept? Everyone has to do the thing that works for them.”
And despite its merits, exercise is not nearly as portable or painless as a tablet.
Salcedo had one patient whose mood entirely depended on her workouts. The hitch was that her exercise of choice was swimming—and the only pool she had access to was outdoors. “In the spring, fall, and winter, it wasn’t so easy,” Salcedo said.
Depressed patients are also more likely than most to feel unmotivated, so even the best-laid exercise treatment plan can be thwarted by a few days of staying in bed for an extra hour.
“Depressed patients have apathy or a lack of energy. Or they have anxiety disorders so they’re not going to go to the gym. Or they’re afraid to be seen jogging across Monument Avenue,” said Joan Plotkin Han, a staff psychiatrist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Still, she pushes it with her more intrepid patients. “I don’t want to be that intimidating or threatening, but I’m a nag. And I will nag them.”
Of course, sometimes exercise works as a multiplier, augmenting the effectiveness of an existing treatment, including drugs or therapy, or simply by helping the patient regain agency in their lives. Many patients recover from depression faster when the disease is attacked through multiple approaches simultaneously.
Ginsberg said exercise didn’t cure him, but it did give him the energy to sort through the origins of his inner turmoil. And Brittany did eventually go on SSRIs to halt her nightly panic attacks—but now that yoga has her anxiety under control, she’s tapering off the drugs once again.
Exercise, like any other treatment, won’t work for every depressed patient. But the psychiatrists who incorporate it into their practices are finding that the only way it can work is if it’s treated like real medicine.
“The issue is that exercise seems as straightforward and simple as apple pie and your mom,” Trivedi said. “Everybody knows what it is, so it’s misunderstood. It’s important to explain to patients the seriousness of the disease they have and the nuances of the intervention they need.”
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At last, a promising alternative to antipsychotics for schizophrenia
By Daniel and Jason Freeman, the authors of Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear
For many, the side-effects of antipsychotics are worse than the symptoms they’re meant to treat. No wonder some people with schizophrenia refuse to take them.
Imagine that, after feeling unwell for a while, you visit your GP. “Ah,” says the doctor decisively, "what you need is medication X. It’s often pretty effective, though there can be side-effects. You may gain weight. Or feel drowsy. And you may develop tremors reminiscent of Parkinson’s disease." Warily, you glance at the prescription on the doctor’s desk, but she hasn’t finished. "Some patients find that sex becomes a problem. Diabetes and heart problems are a risk. And in the long term the drug may actually shrink your brain … "
This scenario may sound far-fetched, but it is precisely what faces people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Since the 1950s, the illness has generally been treated using antipsychotic drugs – which, as with so many medications, were discovered by chance. A French surgeon investigating treatments for surgical shock found that one of the drugs he tried – the antihistamine chlorpromazine – produced powerful psychological effects. This prompted the psychiatrist Pierre Deniker to give the drug to some of his most troubled patients. Their symptoms improved dramatically, and a major breakthrough in the treatment of psychosis seemed to have arrived.
Many other antipsychotic drugs have followed in chlorpromazine’s wake and today these medications comprise 10% of total NHS psychiatric prescriptions. They are costly items: the NHS spends more on these medications than it does for any other psychiatric drug, including antidepressants. Globally, around $14.5bn is estimated to be spent on antipsychotics each year.
Since the 1950s the strategy of all too many NHS mental health teams has been a simple one. Assuming that psychosis is primarily a biological brain problem, clinicians prescribe an antipsychotic medication and everyone does their level best to get the patient to take it, often for long periods. There can be little doubt that these drugs make a positive difference, reducing delusions and hallucinations and making relapse less likely – provided, that is, the patient takes their medication.
Unfortunately, dropout rates are high. This is partly because individuals sometimes don’t accept that they are ill. But a major reason is the side-effects. These vary from drug to drug, but they’re common and for many people are worse than the symptoms they are designed to treat.
In addition, antipsychotics don’t work for everyone. It is estimated that six months after first being prescribed them, as many as 50% of patients are either taking the drugs haphazardly or not at all.
The conventional treatment for this most severe of psychiatric illnesses, then, is expensive, frequently unpleasant, and not always effective even for those who carry on taking the drugs. But it is what we have relied upon – which helps to explain why the results of a clinical trial, recently published in The Lancet, have generated so much interest and debate.
A team led by Professor Anthony Morrison at the University of Manchester randomly assigned a group of patients, all of whom had opted not to take antipsychotics, to treatment as usual (involving a range of non-pharmaceutical care) or to treatment as usual plus a course of cognitive therapy (CT). Drop-out rates for the cognitive therapy were low, while its efficacy in reducing the symptoms of psychosis was comparable to what medication can achieve.
So what exactly is CT for schizophrenia? At its core is the idea that the patient should be encouraged to talk about their experiences – just as they would for every other psychological condition. Psychosis isn’t viewed as a biological illness that one either has or does not have. Instead, just like every other mental disorder, psychotic experiences are seen as the severest instances of thoughts and feelings – notably delusions and hallucinations – that many of us experience from time to time.
Working together, the patient and therapist develop a model of what’s causing the experiences, and why they’re recurring. These factors will vary from person to person, so what is produced is a bespoke account of the individual’s experience, which is then used to guide treatment. For example, a person so worried by paranoid fears that they won’t set foot outside might be helped to trace the roots of their anxiety to past experiences; to gradually test out their fearful thoughts; and to learn to manage their anxiety while getting on with the activities they enjoy. An individual troubled by hearing voices will be helped to understand what’s triggering these voices, and to develop a more confident, empowering relationship with them.
These are early days. Nevertheless, most of the meta-analyses of CT’s efficacy for psychosis, when added to standard treatment, have indicated definite (albeit modest) benefits for patients, with the latest showing that CT is better than other psychological treatments for reducing delusions and hallucinations. The latest guidelines from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommend it for those at risk of psychosis and, when combined with medication, for people with an ongoing problem.
But not everyone is convinced, and although the research published in The Lancet is encouraging, it was small scale. CT for psychosis is still evolving, and we think that evolution should prioritise three key areas.
First, we must focus on understanding and treating individual psychotic experiences. As we’ve reported in a previous post, there is increasing reason to doubt the usefulness of the diagnosis “schizophrenia”. The term has been used as a catch-all for an assortment of unusual thoughts and feelings that often have no intrinsic connections, and aren’t qualitatively different from those experienced by the general population. Each psychotic experience may therefore require a tailored treatment.
Second, we must build on the recent transformation in understanding the causes of psychotic experiences, taking one factor at a time (insomnia, say, or worry), developing an intervention to change it, and then observing the effects of that intervention on an individual’s difficulties.
And finally, we must listen to what patients want from their treatment – for example, by focusing on improving levels of wellbeing, which tend to be very low among people with schizophrenia.
What about costs compared with drug treatment? A course of CBT is typically just over £1,000, but if it leads to a reduction in the amount of time patients spend in hospital and their use of other services, or a return to work, then it easily pays for itself.
The Nice guidance on psychosis and schizophrenia, updated this year, is unequivocal:
"The systematic review of economic evidence showed that provision of CBT to people with schizophrenia in the UK improved clinical outcomes at no additional cost. This finding was supported by economic modelling undertaken for this guideline, which suggested that provision of CBT might result in net cost savings to the NHS, associated with a reduction in future hospitalisation rates."
If the real promise of cognitive therapy can be fulfilled, we may at last have a genuinely effective, relatively cheap, and side-effect-free alternative to antipsychotics for those patients who don’t wish to take them.
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Parkinsonism a Major Mortality Risk Factor in Schizophrenia
By Daniel M. Keller, PhD
There may be differences between different antipsychotic medications and their possible contribution. ”Specific treatments with clozapine or olanzapine could be related to more comorbidity and mortality,”
Compared with control individuals, patients with schizophrenia have significantly more physical comorbidity, including the novel finding that Parkinsonism is a major risk factor for inhospital mortality in this population, new research shows.
A case-control study of general hospital admissions showed that the most common comorbidity among patients with schizophrenia was type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM). Twenty more physical diseases were also more prevalent, many of them associated with diabetic complications. Interestingly, Parkinsonism was a major risk factor for inhospital mortality in schizophrenia.
The research was a collaboration between investigators in Germany and the United Kingdom. Speaking here at the 22nd European Congress of Psychiatry (EPA), Dieter Schoepf, MD, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University Hospital of Bonn, Germany, said that the study population comprised all admissions to 3 general hospitals in Manchester, United Kingdom (N = 369,488) between January 1, 2000, and June 30, 2012.
It included 1418 patients who met diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia at initial admission according to the tenth revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10). Control patients were 14,180 age- and gender-matched hospital patients at initial admission.
Five Major Findings
The study produced 5 major findings related to comorbidities affecting hospitalized patients with schizophrenia. First, they had a nearly 2-fold increased hospital-based mortality rate (18.0%) compared with control patients (9.7%) during the observation period. And the schizophrenic patients died at a younger mean age (64.4 ± 1.0 vs 66.2 ± 0.4 years, respectively).
Second, "schizophrenics as compared to controls had a more severe course of illness and a shorter survival after their initial hospitalization," Dr. Schoepf reported. For the entire group of schizophrenic patients, survival averaged 1895 ± 35.1 days vs 2161 ± 11.6 days for all control patients. For deceased patients in each group, survival averaged 951.4 ± 62.9 vs 1030 ± 28.0 days, respectively.
Third, patients with schizophrenia had substantially more physical diseases. Among 21 diseases with increased prevalence among the study population compared with control patients, odds ratios (ORs) ranged from 5.3 for fracture of the femur neck to 1.3 for asthma.
"T2DM was the most common disproportionally increased physical comorbidity," Dr. Schoepf said. Its prevalence among schizophrenic patients was double that of the control patients (17.4% vs 8.5%; OR = 2.3; 95% confidence interval [CI], 2.0 - 2.6).
The fourth major finding was that among schizophrenic patients who died, T2DM was the most common physical comorbidity, contributing to about one third (31.4%) of those deaths, compared with 16.9% of deceased control patients.
Parkinsonism affected 1.6% of the study group vs 0.4% of control patients (OR = 4.7; 95% CI, 2.8 - 7.7). It was present in 5.5% of deceased study group patients but in only 1.5% of control patients who died.
Excluding Parkinsonism, a major risk factor for death among the schizophrenic group, the researchers developed a model that identified 9 other mortality risk factors that “had an equal impact on inhospital death in schizophrenics as compared to controls,” Dr. Schoepf reported.
Although the prevalence of these risk factors differed between the 2 groups, their impact on inhospital mortality did not differ when these comorbidities were present in patients in either group. The comorbidities were as follows: T2DM, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, bronchitis, iron-deficiency anemia, type 1 diabetes, ischemic stroke, nonspecific renal failure, and alcoholic liver disease.
Speaking with Medscape Medical News, session chair Guillermo Lahera Forteza, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Alcalá, Spain, who was not involved in the study, praised it as "impressive…especially the relationship between Parkinsonism and mortality in patients with schizophrenia. I was really shocked about this figure." He added that the relationship between T2DM and mortality has been well known, but the finding about Parkinsonism is something new.
Dr. Lahera Forteza said he has questions about the causes of death in cases in which comorbidities exist. There may be differences between different antipsychotic medications and their possible contribution.
"Specific treatments with clozapine or olanzapine could be related to more comorbidity and mortality," he said, but Dr. Schoepf noted that there are not enough data from this study on this point.
Dr. Lahera Forteza advises physicians “to restudy every treatment when the patient has this kind of comorbidity ― to re-evaluate and reassess the pharmacological treatment in every patient.” In addition, physicians should recognize the impact of lifestyle on these patients, who often smoke, drink alcohol, and do not get enough exercise. Negative symptoms, cognitive impairment, and social stigma can all affect lifestyle and contribute to or exacerbate physical comorbidities.
Dr. Schoepf and Dr. Lahera Forteza report no relevant financial relationships. The study had no commercial funding.
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Utah has highest rate of mental illness in U.S., study says
By Natalie Crofts
Utah has the highest rate of mental illness in the nation, according to a new survey.
About 22.4 percent of the adult population in Utah experienced a mental disorder in the past year, according to recently released statistics. Out of those people, 5.14 percent had a severe mental disorder that interfered with their daily activities.
The study was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The study estimated 42.5 million people over the age of 18 in the U.S. have experienced a mental illness in the past year, at a rate of 18.2 percent. Severe mental illness affected 9.3 million people, at a rate of 4 percent.
"The presence of Severe Mental Illness and Any Mental Illness in every state reinforces that mental illness is a major public health concern in the United States," researchers wrote. "Factors that potentially contribute to the variation are not well understood and need further study."
The state with the lowest rate of mental illness was New Jersey, with 3.1 percent of the adult population experiencing a severe mental illness and 14.2 percent experiencing any mental illness.
The statistics were based on findings from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is sponsored by SAMHSA. They conducted interviews with a representative sample of 92,400 people aged 18 or older.
States with Highest Rate of Mental Illness:
Utah (22.4 percent)
Oklahoma (21.9 percent)
West Virginia (21.4 percent
Oregon (20.9 percent)
Washington (20.8 percent)
States with Lowest Rate of Mental Illness:
New Jersey (14.7 percent)
Illinois (15.9 percent)
Nevada (16.1 percent)
Connecticut (16.7 percent)
North Carolina (16.8 percent)
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