Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Blame the DSM?

In the Washington Post, April 27, 2012, "Psychiatry's Bible, the DSM, is doing more Harm than Good," Paula J. Caplan writes:


About a year ago, a young mother called me, extremely distressed. She had become seriously sleep-deprived while working full-time and caring for her dying grandmother every night. When a crisis at her son’s day-care center forced her to scramble to find a new child-care arrangement, her heart started racing, prompting her to go to the emergency room.

After a quick assessment, the intake doctor declared that she had bipolar disorder, committed her to a psychiatric ward and started her on dangerous psychiatric medication. From my conversations with this woman, I’d say she was responding to severe exhaustion and alarm, not suffering from mental illness.

Caplan goes on to express her concerns with psychiatric diagnoses, the DSM, the problems with these labels that lead to the use of dangerous medications.  Oh, we've been here on Shrink Rap before, see "Diagnostic Labels That Change Lives". 

Caplan continues

In our increasingly psychiatrized world, the first course is often to classify anything but routine happiness as a mental disorder, assume it is based on a broken brain or a chemical imbalance, and prescribe drugs or hospitalization; even electroshock is still performed.


According to the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which defines the criteria for doling out psychiatric labels, a patient can fall into a bipolar category after having just one “manic” episode lasting a week or less. Given what this patient was dealing with, it is not surprising that she was talking quickly, had racing thoughts, was easily distracted and was intensely focused on certain goals (i.e. caring for her family) — thus meeting the requisite four of the eight criteria for a bipolar diagnosis.
When a social worker in the psychiatric ward advised the patient to go on permanent disability, concluding that her bipolar disorder would make it too hard to work, the patient did as the expert suggested. She also took a neuroleptic drug, Seroquel, that the doctor said would fix her mental illness.

Caplan goes on to say that because of the existence of a psychiatric label-- one she contends is wrong-- the patient lost her friends, her marriage, her home, her self-confidence, her wealth, was forced to move across the country to somewhere she was isolated, and the six weeks she spent on medication (presumably Seroquel) left her with a condition that may someday leave her blind. 

Mental health professionals should use, and patients should insist on, what does work: not snap-judgment diagnoses, but instead listening to patients respectfully to understand their suffering — and help them find more natural ways of healing. Exercise, good nutrition, meditation and human connection are often more effective — and less risky — than drugs or electroshock.


Caplan, a Harvard psychologist, goes on to discuss a complaint she is helping to file against the DSM editors on behalf of 10 patients who were misdiagnosed. "Psychiatric diagnoses," she concludes, "are not scientific and they put people at risk."
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Where do I even begin?  Please, please, I don't know the patient, I only know the presentation given, and I'm going to be very sarcastic, because the way it was presented struck me a ridiculous and it distracted from some valid points that might have been made if there wasn't the Evil, Idiot Psychiatrist Theme with a sensationalist tone.  Shame on the Washington Post for printing this.


Okay, so   I couldn't quite follow the case she presented, at first it sounds like the patient went to the ER with symptoms of a cardiac problem, or exhaustion, or a maybe a panic attack.  Perhaps, but some imbecile ER doc did a check list of symptoms, told her she had Bipolar disorder, and without even listening to her,  weighing other options, or taking into consideration the context of her life,  sent her off with Seroquel and a recommendation for  therapy.  This misdiagnosis then destroyed  her life, because  why would her husband and friends stick with her if she's got bipolar disorder?  What better time to leave your wife then when her grandmother is dying, she's stressed out and sick?  So she went to the ER because she was tired and her heart was racing.  I think they see this all the time...I think they do an EKG and perhaps make sure the patient isn't having a heart attack or arrhythmia, and if they think it's anxiety, the patient gets a dose of a benzodiazepine, and gets sent home.  Okay, but it's an ER and the docs are rushed and focused on what the patient needs now.  They make wrong diagnoses all the time, and it's not just psychiatry, and it's not just  because the doctor is sitting there with the DSM or has memorized the hundreds of possible diagnostic criteria.


Okay, but it turns out that she was on a psychiatric ward.  You can't get admitted to a psychiatric ward because you're tired, with racing thoughts, a fast heartbeat, talking fast and being distracted.  Pretty much, you need to be a danger--, suicidal, or having severe hallucinations or delusions, or be in extreme distress in some way.  This was a wealthy patient who could afford outpatient care.  All I'm sure of, is there is something more to the story. 


Finally, the patient was admitted to a psychiatry unit, so presumably there was a second doctor who met with the patient and a treatment team that observed her behavior for a few days.  Okay, I've stories of really lousy inpatient care, and I do believe the diagnosis could still be wrong and the treatment that was recommended might be wrong, or helpful at the moment but not necessary for the long-term, but I don't buy that a misdiagnosis let to the complete demise of this patient's life and a need to move across the country.  These are the types of problems one sees as a result of the behaviors a person might have because they have a mental illness, perhaps one such as bipolar disorder.


So I don't know the patient, or the diagnosis.  But I do know that the entire premise for this article is based on the idea that the patient was simply tired and stressed and perfectly normal and did not have a psychiatric disorder (the author tells us this) and this label alone destroyed her life.  The reader is not allowed to even entertain the idea that the patient had a psychiatric disorder-- that maybe the psychiatrist did get some history and make reasonable observations, and the patient really did have bipolar disorder? (Obviously, I don't know this).  There's no mention of a review of the records, discussion with family, interview of the doctor, Caplan is telling us her impression based on the patient's report only.   Maybe the patient had panic disorder, or a personality disorder, or even an adjustment disorder (perfectly possible given the stresses involved).  Oh, but then she took a bum recommendation to go on disability, and she got it!  I've seen really sick people not get disability.  It takes a lot of documentation and the government looks for ways to avoid paying this-- you don't get disability for having a psychiatric diagnosis, you have to be disabled by it.  So, somehow, this patient who  was simply exhausted and stressed, with No Psychiatric Disorder, per Dr. Caplan, managed to get admitted to a hospital and get disability benefits.


There were some valid points Caplan could have made.  The DSM is not a 'scientific manual.'  Personally, I don't find it terribly helpful in clinical practice.  I don't keep a copy in my office (I bought one to use while writing Shrink Rap), and I'm not planning to buy the DSM-V.  The overall concept is good, and it's very helpful to researchers to be certain that the groups they study have some diagnostic reliability, otherwise there is no way if knowing if a certain treatment addresses a specific group of people who can reliably be classified as having a specific illness.  This isn't all bad, but I don't need 370-400 diagnosis for my work (predicted in the new DSM-V).  And Caplan makes the statement that the editor, Allen Frances, says the work is based in science but has spread it's net too far.  If you read Dr. Frances' blog, you'll note that he is quite skeptical and opposed to many of the proposed changes for DSM-V.   It's not like the psychiatrists aren't thinking hard about these diagnostic categories and the ramifications they have.  Still, I'm skeptical about how we think about these disorders, especially Bipolar Disorder


I agree with Caplan that psychiatrists should listen more.  Fifteen-minute med checks have made a mockery of our profession.  I also tell all of my patients to exercise, eat healthy, and look for ways to solve their problems.  But to imply that these things are the answers for the majority of people who are suffering (and often too distressed, depressed, and unmotivated, to just pull up their bootstraps,  get up and exercise and cook a healthy meal )-- is an insult.  You know, sometimes those things really do work, but if people are able to do those things, they've often tried them before seeking psychiatric opinions.  To read Caplan's piece, you'd think everyone is an idiot.  And finally, ECT: it still in use because some people find it helps.


Okay, I am ranted out.