Emotional Anorexia

Most patients with anorexia nervosa (AN) experience an ostensible “loss of appetite,” if you will, for all human needs. During refeeding, some patients with AN become uncharacteristically violent and hostile towards their parents, shunning all attempts at comfort or affection. Some therapists have referred to this phenomenon as “emotional anorexia.” While I’m not aware of any empirical literature on this topic, I do have some hypotheses of my own.

Like AN and other mental illnesses, the etiology of emotional anorexia is complex and multifaceted. I believe that the factors which contribute to emotional anorexia are, in order of relevance: 1.) Genetic predisposition, 2.) Neurobiological changes associated with malnutrition and refeeding, 3.) Psychological symptoms of AN, and 4.) Developmental and familial issues. Let’s examine each of these issues in turn.

GENETIC PREDISPOSITION. Between 50%-80% of the risk of developing AN is genetic. It is very likely, then, that genes play the most significant role in the development of emotional anorexia as well. The character traits which predispose people to AN: anxiety, obsessiveness, perfectionism, and harm avoidance, are present at birth and are determined primarily by genetics. People with this character structure tend to exercise restraint not just with their food, but also in other areas of their lives. They tend to be emotionally inhibited, most likely because they tend to be overly fearful of making mistakes.

Further, recent research has demonstrated that individuals with AN have difficulty processing emotional information. They tend to misperceive others’ emotions (for example, they are likely to think someone is angry with them when in reality the person is concerned about them), and they avoid emotionally intense situations. This type of personality creates the perfect template for the development of emotional anorexia.

Brain imaging studies have shown that individuals with AN have alterations in their anterior insula, a region of the brain which is critically important for interoception (the self-awareness of internal bodily signals). During the acute phase of their illness, individuals with AN are literally unable to sense hunger, fullness, tiredness, and changes in body temperature. Additionally, they have an imbalance between circuits in the brain that regulate reward and emotion (the ventral or limbic circuit) and circuits that are associated with consequences and planning ahead (the dorsal or cognitive circuit).

This combination of difficulty processing emotional information, disrupted interoceptive awareness, and disregulated reward-emotion circuitry renders anorexics incapable of experiencing pleasure from food, rest, sex, physical affection, or fun activities the way healthy people do. A hug may feel the same as a slap in the face; a smile may look like a sneer; a piece of chocolate cake may be as punishing as a tablespoon of cod liver oil; words of encouragement may sting like salt in a wound. People with AN feel safer and calmer when they shrug off affection and shun human contact as well as food.

NEUROBIOLOGICAL CHANGES ASSOCIATED WITH MALNUTRITION AND REFEEDING. Since the Minnesota Starvation Study, we have known that malnutrition causes biochemical changes in the brain which result in dramatic personality and behavior changes, such as depression, anxiety, irritability, apathy, loss of interest, isolation, and social withdrawal. The neurobiological changes associated with re-feeding are equally profound. Because starvation numbs emotions, many patients experience a resurgence of depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, and loss of control when food is reintroduced. Dr. Walter Kaye hypothesizes that individuals with AN have a shortage of serotonin in the brain, since serotonin is derived partially from food. More serotonin receptors are created in effort to harvest the scanty amount of serotonin available. Thus, when food is reintroduced and serotonin levels rise, the large number of receptors causes too much serotonin to be taken up, making the person feel extremely agitated and irritable. This makes eating a terrible emotional ordeal. It is very difficult to give or receive love and affection when you are struggling with intolerable anxiety and irritability.

PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS OF ANOREXIA NERVOSA. So now we have a teenager with the perfect genetic template for emotional anorexia who is experiencing the profound neurobiological effects of malnutrition. In addition to these physiological effects, she is experiencing debilitating depression, feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, she has lost interest in socializing, she has withdrawn from friends and family, and she has difficulty accurately perceiving emotions. When she isolates herself, she experiences less social reinforcement, which confirms the depressive schema that she is worthless and inadequate. Her athletic performance begins to decline, she has difficulty concentrating, and she is no longer asked out on dates. Her friends are alarmed by the changes in her physical appearance and mood, so they stop talking to her. Parents, teachers, coaches, and friends express extreme concern, which she misinterprets as anger, jealousy, or criticism. All of these things reinforce her feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. I have had several patients with AN cry to me that their parents didn’t visit them at all while they were away at summer camp or college. Meanwhile, their parents confided to me that they wanted desperately to visit their daughter, but she told them not to, and they wanted to respect her autonomy. The patients insisted that they didn’t want their parents, yet lamented their absence. Clearly, there’s a disconnect here. The patient either a.) is not aware of her emotional needs, b.) doesn’t know how to express these needs, or c.) chooses not to express her needs because she is afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed. I believe that a, b, and c are all true.

One of the core features of AN which has persisted throughout the centuries is a sense of “needlessness,” of being “above” worldly pleasures and bodily needs. Medieval saints experienced this needlessness. They prayed for days on end without food, water, sleep, or socialization. Amongst these fasting saints, there are documented cases of what would today be diagnosed as AN. In certain non-western cultures such as China and Ghana, AN is as prevalent as it is in the US. The major difference is that patients in non-western cultures relate their starvation to profound self-control, moral superiority, and spiritual wholeness rather than to a desire to be skinny. Today’s American anorexics, like their medieval predecessors and non-western counterparts, experience some version of needlessness. Some anorexics have a grandiose sense of being “above” basic needs, including food, sleep, fun, love, and comfort. This grandiosity often stems from the extra burst of energy and euphoria that starvation brings them, coupled with the sense of pride and accomplishment that they have been able to override their body’s needs and diet to the point of emaciation. Other anorexics believe they are unworthy of food, sleep, fun, love, or comfort. These feelings stem from the debilitating depression that is triggered by malnourishment and exacerbated by body dysmorphia and self-loathing. Many anorexics vacillate between these two mind frames, but the end result is the same: emotional anorexia.

The neurobiological changes associated with refeeding cause most patients to experience intense mood swings, irritability, and anger. The psychological trauma of AN adds fuel to the fire. Eating more and gaining weight are an anorexic’s worst nightmares, and this is precisely what is required of her in order to recover. She gains weight, experiences tremendous fear as her appetite kicks into high gear once again, and she is no longer “allowed” to diet. Her body dysmorphia and self-loathing are more intense than ever. Her irritability, agitation, moodiness, and depression are at an all-time high. She withdraws and isolates herself even more, feeling as though she is “too fat” to be seen in public and undeserving of love, comfort, friends, or fun.

Enter the old-school therapist. The young patient is absolutely miserable and desperate to feel better. She has little insight into her symptoms and trusts the therapist completely. The therapist searches through the patient’s past to uncover the “root cause” of her AN. Lo and behold, it is discovered that her parents were too controlling, too overbearing, too overprotective, too critical, too mean, too distant, too neglectful, or too abusive (often some combination of the above). The patient, who is in the midst of the neurobiological hurricane that is re-feeding, becomes angry and hostile towards her parents once she “realizes” that they have caused her current misery. Her parents take her to appointments, prepare her food, and insist that she eats it, thus making her even more fat and unlovable. Her parents try to comfort her; she pushes them away. She is, at times, violently angry with them. After all, they made her anorexic, and now they are making her fat. The same pattern also develops with certain members of her treatment team. She views their interpretations as criticisms. She perceives their requirement of weight restoration as their attempts to fatten her up. Her parents and her treatment team are ruining her life as they chip away at the one thing that has ever made her feel good: the AN.

DEVELOPMENTAL ISSUES. The concept of mother is inextricably intertwined with the concept of food. As developing fetuses in our mother’s womb, we receive nourishment from her. We are born with a rooting reflex, which prompts us to suck our mother’s breast or a bottle. Without this reflex, and without a mother or other caregiver to provide the nourishment, we would die. As infants, we cry when we are hungry. Mother comes running; she holds us and feeds us. Throughout our childhood and adolescence, mother is probably responsible for most of the food shopping and meal preparation.

When a teenager develops AN, her mother is often the first to notice a problem. Mother may encourage or require her to begin treatment. Mother often prepares and serves her food during re-feeding. Mother may ask when and what she last ate, and may require that she eat just a little bit more. Is it any wonder, then, that an anorexic’s feelings about food spill over into her feelings about her mother?

Some psychoanalysts postulate that AN develops from a lack of empathic attunement between mother and child. The mother is not attuned to her child’s emotional needs, so the child is unable to meet her own needs, and this is manifested in her inability to feed herself. There are no empirical data to support the theory that lack of maternal empathic attunement causes AN, and in fact, I believe that this theory is 100% false in terms of explaining the etiology of AN. However, I can understand how this principal may operate subconsciously in the mind of an ill patient. Individuals with AN have great difficulty getting their needs met. They may be unaware of their own needs, they may feel as though they don’t deserve to have their needs met, or they may believe they are “above” having needs. This applies to emotional needs as well as nutritional ones.

I suspect that there is a modest correlation (which does NOT imply causation) between a mother’s inability to provide for her child’s physical or emotional needs and the child’s development of AN. Remember, 50-80% of the risk for developing AN is genetic, so it is very likely that a patient with AN has a first-degree relative (often the mother) who also has a history of AN. If the mother is currently struggling with AN, her fear of food and intolerable anxiety may render her unable to provide for her child’s basic physical and emotional needs. Even if the mother is currently healthy but has a personal history of AN, she will likely share the biochemical and temperamental traits of her ill daughter, albeit to a lesser degree. The recovered AN mother’s deficit in interoceptive awareness may spill over onto her child. She may struggle to meet her daughter’s needs because she has difficulty sensing and meeting her own needs.

Teenagers who develop AN tend to be “model children.” They are almost universally intelligent, well-behaved, hard-working, and gifted at athletics or artistic endeavors. They follow all the rules to the letter. They have never caused a problem for their parents or teachers. The development of AN and the process of recovery leads to an examination of one’s life. The experience of having a life-threatening, soul-killing, personality-destroying illness is enough to make any teenager step back and take stock. Teenagers who are recovering from AN may begin to feel resentful that they have lived a “faked existence” and “played by everyone else’s rules.” They may realize that they have missed out on a lot of fun and excitement by being so straight-laced. With their therapist’s encouragement to express their emotions authentically, they unleash their fury onto the people who have been there through it all: their parents.

This is not a cohesive or well-articulated theory, just a compilation of related thoughts. I hope that research will shed some light onto this phenomenon in the near future.

What’s That About?

“It’s about control.”

This statement has been applied to everything from OCD to eating disorders to self-injury to domestic violence. But, really, what does this statement mean?

When I hear that X is about Y, I generally interpret this statement in one of two ways: 1.) Y is a theme of X or 2.) Y is the most salient feature of X. For example, if someone says that Romeo and Juliet is about undying love, my interpretation is that undying love is a primary theme of Romeo and Juliet. Or if someone says: “My birthday is about me,” I interpret that as “I am the most important person on my birthday” in terms of attention, presents, and deciding how to celebrate.

In regards to the cliché that a certain psychological problem is about control, both of these interpretations make sense to a certain extent. Control is both a theme and a salient feature of OCD insofar as sufferers are overly preoccupied with controlling their external environment, as well as their thoughts and actions related to their particular obsession. For example, a person with OCD may spend hours scrubbing her body and cleaning her home in order to control the spread of germs and prevent herself or others from becoming ill.

Control is both a theme and a salient feature of eating disorders insofar as sufferers become preoccupied with controlling their dietary intake, exercise, and weight. Individuals with anorexia tend to be “over-controlled,” rigid, and perfectionistic not only with food but in other areas of their lives, while individuals with bulimia experience periods of “dyscontrol” of their emotions and food intake, resulting in binge /purge episodes.

Control is both a theme and a salient feature in the lives of individuals who engage in self-injurious behaviors such as cutting. Many, though not all, individuals who cut have experienced physical or sexual abuse, which results in feeling a lack of personal control over one’s life and one’s body. People who cut usually experience overwhelming emotions that they are unable to control. Some people use self-injury as an interpersonal message with an intent to control or manipulate others.

Control is both a theme and a salient feature in cycles of domestic violence. Through subtle and overt messages, abusers control and manipulate their victims. It is easy for abusers to control their victims because the victims are usually smaller and physically weaker than they are. In most cases, abusers have financial and / or emotional control over their victims. And, sadly, victims feel a devastating loss of personal control over their own lives.

I am concerned, however, that people who claim that a mental illness or psychological phenomenon is about control have an entirely different interpretation of this phrase. For most people, I think “It’s about control” translates to “it is caused by a lack of control or a need for control.” This interpretation has no empirical backing and, when espoused by treatment professionals, leads to ineffective treatment.

For instance, many therapists believe that eating disorders are “about control,” meaning that they believe that the etiology of eating disorders is rooted in a subconscious need for control. As a result of this theory, their treatment entails helping the patient gain a sense of personal control in other areas of her life, and advising her parents to “back off” of the power struggle around meals, with the assumption that eventually the patient will no longer feel the need to control her food intake.

There is no scientific basis for this theory or this treatment approach, and I have never met a person who has recovered this way. I’m sure such people exist, I’ve just never seen them. I would presume that these individuals went through years of treatment, suffered numerous medical and psychological problems, and spent many thousands of dollars before finally recovering. Recent scientific evidence suggests that eating disorders are biologically-based, genetically transmitted brain diseases that are triggered by an energy imbalance and perpetuated by malnutrition. There’s no room for “control” in this etiology.

While I’m on the subject of about, there’s another use of the word about that perplexes and frustrates me. Case in point: a very well-regarded eating disorder recovery website has the following mission statement on its homepage:

“We are dedicated to raising awareness about eating disorders… emphasizing always that eating disorders are NOT about food and weight.”

What does this mean? Surely, it cannot mean that food and weight are not themes in eating disorders. Nor can it mean that disturbances in food and weight are not a salient feature of eating disorders. By definition, individuals with eating disorders manifest disturbances in eating behavior, weight loss, or excessive preoccupation with weight. I can only assume, then, that this statement means that eating disorders are not caused by food and weight (or disturbances thereof). If this is the meaning of the mission statement, then the statement is undeniably false.

The latest scientific research tells us that eating disorders are, in fact, set into motion by disturbances in eating and weight. A person with a biological predisposition to anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa will not develop the illness unless he or she experiences a disturbance in eating and/or weight. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are triggered by under-nutrition, which may initially be intentional (e.g., the decision to diet, “eat healthy,” or exercise more) or unintentional (e.g., the result of an illness, surgery, injury, medication, or another mental illness such as depression). The cycle of starvation in anorexia nervosa is maintained by malnutrition, and the illness is most severe and most deadly when the patient is underweight. The restrict/binge/purge cycle in bulimia nervosa is also self-perpetuating and is triggered or exacerbated by disturbances in eating behavior and preoccupation with weight. Full nutrition, weight restoration, cessation of restricting, bingeing, and purging behaviors, and decrease in preoccupation with weight are essential for full recovery. In conclusion, eating disorders are absolutely about food and weight. To neglect this perfectly obvious fact is to sabotage treatment.

Scientist-practitioner ranting notwithstanding, I think I do understand what that mission statement is intending to communicate. I think it is trying to convey that eating disorders are not just about food and weight; they also entail tremendous psychological suffering. I think the statement is trying to emphasize that correction of disturbances in eating and weight is not sufficient for full recovery, as psychological issues must be addressed as well. Finally, I think the statement hopes to convey that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that bear little resemblance to typical dieting and body image woes.

While I applaud the website’s attempt to convey the aforementioned messages, I think the way the statement is worded has the potential to create a misunderstanding (or, at the very least, it doesn’t bring people closer to an accurate understanding). I’m guessing that eating disorder sufferers and their families, as well as the general public, will misinterpret the message, most likely in the manner I described. The consequences of such misinterpretation can be tragic.

We have a responsibility to people with eating disorders to provide them, and their families, with accurate information. Further, we have a responsibility to educate the public about eating disorders in order to reduce stigma, garner support, facilitate early detection, and lobby for more effective treatment. To start, let’s make sure the messages about eating disorders that we send, whether in person, in print, or on the internet, are accurate, understandable, easy to interpret, and scientifically-sound.

Isn’t it about time?

Maudsley Is As Maudsley Does

Those who know me professionally are well aware that I am an advocate of the Maudsley Method of Family-Based Treatment and that I use this approach to treat my adolescent patients with eating disorders. What they may not know is that Maudsley principles pervade my treatment philosophy for eating disorder patients of all ages, regardless of the treatment approach I employ with them. For example:

• I always externalize the eating disorder and teach my patients to do the same.
• I firmly believe that patients do not choose eating disorders and that parents do not cause them. I make this point explicitly to patients and their families at the start of treatment and as many times as necessary throughout the course of treatment.
• I explanation the etiology of eating disorders as follows: We don’t know definitively what causes eating disorders, and for the purposes of this treatment, the cause isn’t terribly important right now. The most recent scientific research suggests that eating disorders are biologically-based, genetically-transmitted mental illnesses which are triggered by an energy imbalance (for example, through dieting) and perpetuated by malnutrition, with emotional stress (e.g., anxiety, OCD, depression) as an aggravating factor. I mention all of the common myths about the causes of eating disorders (e.g., the media, fear of growing up, need for control, overbearing parents) and dispute each one of them.
• At the start of treatment, I provide patients with psycho-education about the central role of full nutrition, weight restoration, and cessation of binge/purge behaviors in recovery.
• Whenever possible, I involve family members (parents, siblings, spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends) in the patient’s treatment to some extent. In some cases, family involvement may be as simple as providing family members with psycho-education, literature, and internet resources on eating disorders. In other cases, family members may participate in the evaluation or attend some therapy sessions with the patient. Regardless of the patient’s age, I like to empower those who live with her (parents, spouses, significant others) to provide meal support and help stop other symptoms such as excessive exercise, bingeing, and purging.
• I view family members as essential members of the treatment team who can provide nutritional, practical, and emotional support to the patient as she recovers.
• I make physical health (including full nutrition, weight restoration, elimination of purging and other unhealthy behaviors) the most immediate priority in treatment.
• I help patients re-learn how to eat properly on their own once they are physically healthy and psychologically prepared to assume this responsibility.
• I treat patients’ other disorders (e.g., depression, OCD, anxiety) and address their developmental, familial, and interpersonal issues after physical health has been achieved.

In my view, these principles are equally applicable for children, adolescents, college students, and adults. They apply when I am doing individual therapy using a CBT, DBT, ACT, or IPT approach. They apply when I am doing couple’s therapy when one partner has an eating disorder. And, of course, they apply when I am doing Maudsley Family-Based Therapy.

These principles are a central part of my professional identity. I stand behind them when I am giving a lecture, doing a presentation, conversing with colleagues, speaking to potential clients, talking about work with family and friends, or even answering the questions of acquaintances who are interested in what I do.

To date, the Maudsley approach has only been empirically-supported for adolescents with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. However, preliminary data suggest that Maudsley may be equally effective for pre-adolescent children and young adults. Regardless of what the eventual published data may say about broader applications of Maudsley, I will hold fast to these principles. At least until science or experience convinces me otherwise.

Jagged Little Pills

More Americans than ever before are taking psychotropic medication. The number of people on antidepressants doubled between 1996 – 2006, yet the number of people seeing mental health professionals declined during that time period. Over 80% of prescriptions for psychotropic drugs are written by primary care physicians. I find these trends a little hard to swallow.

The overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underutilization of behavioral and psychosocial treatments are disturbing on several levels. First, these trends are clearly driven by greed and profit. It serves the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies to minimize patient contact with healthcare professionals, even at the expense of quality of care. Pharmaceutical companies, with their numerous advertisements on television, on the internet, and in magazines, have the potential to reach a very large number of consumers.

Second, clients are not fully informed about all of their treatment options. More information is usually better than less information. The problem, however, is that most Americans don’t have the education and training to understand this information, nor should they. It is up to the professionals to use their knowledge and expertise, as well as their clinical judgment, to decide whether, when, and what medication to prescribe for a particular patient. That’s the way it should be. Remember the good old days when your doctor told YOU which medications you should take? Now, the commercials use cartoon neurotransmitters and wind-up dolls and present overly-simplified portraits of recovery from depression, while urging you to “Ask your doctor” how the drug du jour can help you. Another ad reads: “Taking an antidepressant? Still having symptoms of depression? Adding Abilify to your antidepressant may help.” The benefits are exaggerated and the serious side effects are downplayed. The ad does not tell you that psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, increased social support, improved nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep are also likely to help. But hey, who has time for all of that? And when is the last time you saw a TV commercial touting the benefits of Dialectical Behavior Therapy? The result of this advertising is that patients go to a psychiatrist who quickly prescribes a medication after a brief evaluation and, in most cases, does no psychotherapy whatsoever. Even worse, the majority of patients will go to their primary care physician who, after a five or ten minute conversation, prescribes the psychotropic medication that the uninformed client saw on TV last night or the one of which she has samples left over from yesterday’s drug representative’s visit. There is usually minimal, if any, follow-up care, and many of these patients are maintained on a dosage of medication that is so low that it results in no therapeutic benefit whatsoever. Except maybe a placebo effect.

Third – and this point is closely related to my first and second points – clients are not getting adequate, quality mental health care. For many mental illnesses, such as panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, mild depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD, certain forms of psychotherapy are more effective than medication. For other mental illnesses, such as recurrent major depression, the combination of psychotherapy and medication generally produces the best outcome. In many cases, adding psychotherapy to medication treatment allows clients to take fewer medications and lower doses of medication. Clients who receive a combination of psychotherapy and medication are less likely to relapse when the medication is discontinued, compared to clients who are treated with medication alone. The benefits of good psychotherapy are long-lasting and, in some cases, curative. In contrast, medication is merely palliative, and its benefits usually fade once it is discontinued. For certain conditions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and recurrent major depression, medication is clearly indicated as a necessary component of treatment and should be started immediately after diagnosis. Even in these cases, medication alone is often insufficient. Clients’ symptoms can be reduced even further, and their quality of life improved even more, when psychotherapy is combined with medication.

Finally, the fact that psychotropic medication is grossly over-prescribed and over-marketed seems to trivialize the experience of people who genuinely need psychiatric medication. Many times, I have raised the issue of psychiatric medication with clients whom I think can benefit from it. Many times, they have responded: “Oh, no. I don’t want to take a happy pill.” Or “No, I don’t want to use medication as a crutch.” Or “I don’t want to become dependent on something.” Or “That’s the easy way out.” I believe that our society’s nonchalance regarding psychotropic medication is directly responsible for some clients’ aversion to it. However, the fact that psychotropic medication is prescribed at the drop of a hat does not negate the reality that some people genuinely need it and some people truly benefit from it.

My own experience as a therapist has reinforced what I have learned by studying the research. My views on psychotropic medication can be summarized as follows: medication can be a very helpful adjunct to psychotherapy for clients who clearly need it. In other words, while I am by no means anti-medication, I am somewhat conservative in my approach to it. Case in point: although virtually all of my clients have a diagnosed mental illness, only half of them are taking psychotropic medication. For most clients, the first form of treatment should be psychotherapy focused on improving self-care, making lifestyle changes, acquiring coping skills, improving symptoms, and dealing with interpersonal issues. Medication may be introduced as an adjunct to therapy if the client does not make substantial improvement with therapy alone. I have seen many clients make marked improvements or recover completely without ever taking psychotropic medication. With clients for whom medication is clearly indicated (e.g., those with bipolar disorder), I will refer them to a psychiatrist immediately while also emphasizing that therapy, behavioral interventions, and self-care are important aspects of treatment as well. I don’t like my clients to take psychotropic medication prescribed by their family doctor for all of the reasons mentioned above. If a client comes to me on a psychotropic medication prescribed by their family doctor, I explain the importance of seeing a psychiatrist (e.g., they have specialized training in psychiatric illnesses and are more knowledgeable about psychotropic medication, they provide more thorough evaluations and better follow-up care than general practitioners) and I provide them with psychiatric referrals.

In order to rectify this situation, I believe that the following things must happen:

1.) Primary care physicians should not prescribe psychotropic medications. Instead, they should identify those patients who may have a mental illness and refer them to a psychologist or a psychiatrist for treatment.
2.) Psychiatrists should fully inform patients about the risks and benefits of taking medication, the risks and benefits of not taking medication, and scientifically-sound information on the effectiveness of medication. In addition, psychiatrists should inform patients about the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy, either in lieu of medication or in addition to medication. Psychiatrists should only prescribe medication to patients who are also in therapy.
3.) Psychologists and other therapists should be conservative in referring patients for psychiatric treatment and in recommending psychiatric medication.
4.) The pharmaceutical companies should stop advertising to consumers. They can still market themselves to physicians and mental health practitioners, since these professionals have the training and knowledge to use this information appropriately.
5.) Insurance companies should provide coverage for psychotherapy that is equal to the coverage they provide for psychotropic medication. Likewise, insurance companies should reimburse psychologists and other therapists at the same rate as psychiatrists.
6.) Every American should have access to local, affordable, quality, evidence-based psychotherapy.

Optimistic? Yes. Idealistic? Yes. Impossible? Absolutely not. It may not happen anytime soon, but for now, I can practice what I preach and apply my philosophy to my own clinical work.

Biologically-Based Mental Illnesses

As a result of the Mental Health Parity Act, many health insurance companies are now providing the same coverage for biologically-based mental illnesses as they provide for other medical illnesses. A biologically-based conceptualization of mental illness allows advocates to frame parity legislation as antidiscrimination legislation. Using PET scans and MRI’s, researchers have testified before Congress and state legislatures that mental illness is directly linked to brain dysfunction. In light of such evidence, policy makers have been persuaded to admit that certain mental illnesses are brain disorders (Peck & Scheffler, 2002). I see this as a double-edged sword.

On the positive side, it is wonderful that individuals with certain mental illnesses are now getting the insurance coverage they so desperately need. I am a huge proponent of equitable services for all people with mental illnesses. Additionally, I am pleased to see that the tide is beginning to turn in regards to society’s attitudes about psychiatric problems. This is undoubtedly a good start. But it is only a start.

There are a number of problems with the concept of biologically-based mental illnesses as defined by insurance companies:

1.) They are creating a false dichotomy by differentiating between biologically-based and non-biologically based mental illnesses. Empirical evidence challenges the discriminant validity of the “biologically based mental illness” construct. Psychotherapy and medication yield similar changes in brain function when effective. Drug and brain imaging studies show that psychological and biochemical phenomena can be manipulated reciprocally (Seidel, 2005). The truth is, ALL mental illnesses are biologically-based because all mental functioning is biologically-based. Western society clings to the 17th century notion of Cartesian dualism; that is, the idea that mind and body are separate. But let’s take a closer look. The word “mind,” as used today, refers to intellect and consciousness, manifested as combinations of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will, and imagination, including all of the brain’s conscious and unconscious cognitive processes. And where do these cognitive processes originate? In the brain, which is part of our biology! Every thought and feeling we have, every perception and wish and behavior, has a corresponding neurobiological substrate.

2.) The insurance company’s decisions about which mental illnesses to classify as biologically-based seem rather arbitrary. Some insurance companies only classify schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and OCD as biologically-based, while other insurance companies cover other disorders as well. For example, one major health insurance company defines biologically-based mental illness as “a mental or nervous condition that is caused by a biological disorder of the brain and results in a clinically significant psychological syndrome or pattern that substantially limits the functioning of the person with the illness.” This insurance company classifies the following as biologically-based mental illnesses: Schizophrenia, Schizo-affective Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Paranoia and other Psychotic Disorders, OCD, Panic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Autism, and Alcohol Abuse Disorders. This same insurance company defines non-biologically-based mental illness as conditions that “display symptoms that are primarily mental or nervous in nature. The primary treatment is psychotherapy or psychotropic medication.” I don’t understand this distinction at all. All of the biologically-based mental illnesses they listed are “mental or nervous in nature” and treatment for all of them includes behavior therapy, psychotherapy and / or psychotropic medication. Further, why is alcoholism considered biologically based, whereas are addictions to substances other than alcohol considered “non-biologically based?” And why is anorexia nervosa, which has numerous biological features and complications, a heritability estimate as high as that of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, considered a non-biologically based mental illness?

3.) The erroneous classification of certain mental illnesses as non-biologically based serves to increase stigma and discrimination against individuals with these illnesses. There is a subtle implication that so-called non-biologically based mental illnesses are not as serious, not as legitimate, or not as real as so-called biologically-based mental illnesses. Further, there is an even subtler implication that non-biologically-based mental illnesses are somehow the patient’s fault or the patient’s choice. It is as if they are saying: “It’s all in your head.” Well, yes, but so are Alzheimer’s Disease and brain cancer!

4.) I’m not sure why illnesses of the brain, whether they are classified as “biologically-based” or not, should be considered any different from illnesses of the heart, lungs, liver, or kidneys. Is it because environment and lifestyle, rather than biology, are presumed to be the cause? The development of heart disease, Type II diabetes, skin cancer, and AIDS are all heavily influenced by environment and lifestyle choices, and no one would argue that these diseases are not biologically-based. People with these diseases are not discriminated against in insurance coverage.

Informed Consent

The American Psychological Association’s ethical guidelines require that psychologists obtain informed consent for treatment from all patients and parents of minor patients. But what does it mean for consent to be truly informed?

In standard practice, informed consent generally amounts to a frazzled patient or harried parent signing a consent form after a perfunctory glance. Patients and parents are often in crisis when they first present for treatment, and signing the form is just one more hoop to jump through before getting into therapy. Most therapists’ consent forms cover business procedures and confidentiality issues. This is important information, but does it amount to truly informed consent?

I don’t think so.

I believe that the APA’s ethical guidelines should be revised to require full disclosure in informed consent for psychological treatment. Specifically, therapists should be required to disclose 1.) The patient’s diagnoses and explanations of these diagnoses, 2.) What factors caused or contributed to the patient’s illness, as evidenced by the most recent empirical research and the clinician’s informed judgment, 3.) What treatment methods are available for treating the patient’s condition, 4.) Which of these methods are evidence-based, 5.) Which method(s) the therapist will use, 6.) Why the therapist has selected these methods, 7.) The anticipated course of treatment and prognosis, based upon recent empirical research, and 8.) Scientifically informed, practical resources (e.g., books, articles, websites) on the patient’s condition and the type of therapy that will be used. For patients under 18, all of the above should be explained to the parents and to the child, using language appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level. Finally, parents should be provided with guidance as to how they can help their child recover. I’m talking about specific recommendations, not just blanket statements like “be supportive.”

In my consent for therapy forms, which patients (and parents of minor patients) read and sign before meeting with me, I specify the types of treatment I use, all of which are evidence-based. After the evaluation, I provide patients(and parents of adolescent patients) with empirical research on their particular disorder, as well as information on the efficacy of various types of treatment and who recommends these treatments (e.g., APA, Society for Adolescent Medicine, etc.). I explain the type of treatment I recommend for them, why I have selected this type of treatment, how it works, and what to expect on the road to recovery. If there is a type of treatment that is likely to be effective for the patient but that I do not offer (e.g., psychiatric medication, residential treatment), I provide them with referrals to these types of treatments and explain why I think they would be beneficial. At this point, the patient has all of the information she needs to make an informed choice about treatment.

Most patients seeking therapy, and most parents seeking therapy for their children, are not aware that there are different types of psychological treatments with varying degrees of efficacy. I think most people outside of the field assume that therapy is therapy and that therapists are pretty much interchangeable, like dentists or surgeons. Many people assume that as long as you like your therapist and feel comfortable with her, that’s all that matters. While the therapeutic relationship is undoubtedly a critical aspect of treatment, there are other factors to consider in selecting a therapist. Often times, people want to see a psychologist with decades of experience. This is an understandable, albeit unreliable, method of seeking good treatment. The older, more experienced therapists were trained decades ago in theories that have since been discarded, in therapeutic methods with no scientific backing. Sometimes they become set in their ways of practicing, clinging to old theories like religious dogma in spite of evidence to the contrary. Granted, many experienced therapists have kept up with recent developments in the field and have educated themselves. Sadly, many have not.

Informed consent in therapy is complicated by the fact that different professionals have vastly different, and often contradictory, views on the causes of various mental disorders and how best to treat them. To make matters worse, the public has access to a tremendous amount of information on mental health issues through the internet, much of which is either unsubstantiated or patently false. Consequently, many patients arrive in our offices with deeply entrenched false beliefs about their illnesses. As professionals, it is our job to set the record straight.

I have had a number of patients come to me seeking therapy for the first time after being unsuccessfully treated for anxiety or depression by their primary care physician. I use the term “treated” very loosely here – their doctor spoke with them for a few minutes and wrote them a prescription for a low dose of antidepressants or sleeping pills, only to follow up with them a year later. They were not informed about evidence-based psychological treatments. They were not informed about behavioral methods of treating insomnia. And of course, they were not informed that their dose of Prozac is far too low to have any therapeutic benefit. Similarly, I have had patients come to me after years of therapy for depression or self-injury who have done endless amounts of exploration into the supposed causes of their supposed issues, without ever learning the skills they need to recover.

Parents of eating disordered children have come to me for Maudsley family-based therapy after months or years of unsuccessful therapy, after multiple hospitalizations and stints in residential treatment. These families were never informed about the Maudsley Method by any of their child’s previous treatment providers. These parents, desperate to help their children, did their own research on the internet late at night, sifting through the mounds of information to try to find the one thing that would save their child’s bright future. I’ve seen patients, who have been through years of eating disorder treatment with other professionals, who have never once been told that they have a biologically-based, genetically-transmitted mental illness which is neither their fault nor their choice.

Parents of eating disordered children have a right to be informed about the Maudsley Method at the time of diagnosis. The research is clear that Maudsley is the most effective treatment for adolescents with a short duration of illness who are still living at home with their families. For various reasons, Maudsley is not the best choice for every patient or family. Nonetheless, families have the right to know it exists and to decide for themselves whether they wish to pursue it. Patients with depression, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders have the right to be informed about evidence-based treatments such as CBT, DBT, and ACT. Many lives, many years of chronic illness, and many dollars spent on ineffective treatments could be saved if patients and parents were fully informed about evidence-based treatment options from the outset. If a patient has cancer, it is her physician’s duty to inform her of the various life-saving treatment options, some of which may be available in that physician’s office or the local hospital, and some of which are only available in the nearest major city. Why should psychology be any different?