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.

Military Suicides

When American men and women make the courageous choice to join the armed forces, they realize that they may sacrifice their lives for their country. What they may not realize is that they are now more likely to commit suicide than they are to die in military combat.

The incidence of suicide in the military has increased steadily since the Iraq war began in 2003. There were 67 suicides in 2004, followed by 85 in 2005, 102 in 2006, and 115 in 2007. The 2008 statistic – 128 suicides – is the highest we’ve seen since record keeping began in 1980. Shockingly, military suicides outnumbered combat fatalities during the month of January 2009.

A recent APA Online article entitled Uncertainty about Military Suicides Frustrates Services describes the military’s attempt to understand this devastating suicide epidemic and how they plan to address it.

I am frustrated and saddened, though not surprised, to learn about the alarmingly high rate of military suicides. A combination of circumstances has created the perfect storm for suicides in the military. Consider the following:

• Service members are usually between the ages of 18-24. Neurological changes, developmental issues, and psychosocial stressors make individuals in this age group particularly vulnerable to mental illness.

• Service members are separated from their family, friends, and natural support systems for many months at a time. These extended absences contribute to homesickness, loneliness, depression, financial strain, marital problems, and infidelity.

• Service members are exposed to horrific violence on a daily basis. Their lives are constantly in jeopardy, and many are wounded in the line of duty. They witness their friends being shot, maimed, and killed.

• Service members are fighting a protracted, poorly managed, generally unpopular war with no clear end in sight.

• Military leaders and medical personnel are insufficiently trained in identification of psychological problems.

• There is a huge stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment amongst service members. The stigma often prevents service members from seeking the care they need.

• Service members are worried, often justifiably, that seeking mental health services may have a detrimental impact on their military career.

• Service members do not have sufficient access to adequate psychological services.

• Excessive drinking is deeply engrained in military culture.

• Service members have easy access to deadly weapons.

Given these conditions, it is not at all surprising that suicide is a problem in the military.

Lieutenant Justin D’Arienzo, Psy.D., a naval psychologist, described these systemic problems in a recent issue of the APA’s Monitor on Psychology. When D’Arienzo was serving on an aircraft carrier, he was solely responsible for the mental health of 8,000 people. He quickly discovered that he did not have time to see everyone who needed his services. In comparison, the ship carried 5 physicians, 4 dentists, and 40 medical assistants. To make matters worse, military psychologists are poorly compensated in comparison to other healthcare professionals in the service. The salary for a navy psychologist is about half that of a navy physician. This scenario sends the following not-so-subtle messages: psychologists are less valuable than physicians and dentists, psychologists are not needed as much as physicians and dentists, and service members’ physical health and dental health are more important than their psychological wellbeing. None of these messages are true.

The recent increase in military suicides is just one of many factors that points to the glaring need for improved mental health care for our service members. I have a few ideas as to how to improve this situation. Let me preface this by noting that, as an optimist and an idealist, I often have ideas that are less than practical. Nonetheless, here are my thoughts:

• The military hires more psychologists so that the number of military psychologists is commensurate to the number of military physicians. This will ensure that there are enough psychologists to meet the mental health needs of all service members.

• Military psychologists are paid the same salary as military physicians. Let’s face it: money talks. Higher salaries will increase the competition for these jobs and attract the best and brightest psychologists in the field. It also sends a clear message that soldiers’ mental health is valued as much as their physical health and dental hygiene.

• Every service member is required to attend weekly therapy sessions before, during, and after deployment. If all service members are required to attend therapy as a matter of course, this will eliminate the inner conflict troubled soldiers experience when considering whether to seek help, and it will remove the stigma of seeking mental health services. Further, mandatory weekly therapy is a preventative measure – soldiers can process their emotions and learn healthy coping skills before they reach the point of major depression or full-blown PTSD. Soldiers go through mandatory physical training to ensure that they are in top shape for combat. Mandatory therapy will help the troops stay psychologically fit for duty.

• More frequent therapy (e.g., 2-3 times per week) is available for those who are having great difficulty coping or who are beginning to show signs of mental illness.

• Confidentiality is maintained in the same manner as it is for civilian therapy clients.

• The length of deployment is shortened for all service members.

• Troops who develop major depression, PTSD, or other psychiatric problems are sent home to their families for more intense treatment with no adverse effect on their military career.

• Military leaders and military medical personnel are provided with more training on how to spot mental health issues in troops.

Regardless of my political beliefs and personal views on this war, I have tremendous respect for the brave men and women of our armed forces. The troops deserve high-quality, accessible mental health care. They have risked their lives serving and protecting our country. Isn’t it about time we serve and protect them?

1. Military Suicide Rate. Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2008.
2. Army says suicides among soldiers at highest level in decades. Paula Jelinek, Boston Globe, January 30, 2009.
3. Army Official: Suicides in January ‘Terrifying.” Barbara Starr & Mike Mount, CNN.com, February 5, 2009.
4. Uncertainty about military suicides frustrates services. APA Online. July 31, 2009.
5. Pentagon: Military’s Mental Health Care Needs Help. CNN.com. June 15, 2007.
6. The Military’s War on Stigma. Sadie F. Dingfelder. APA Monitor on Psychology. June 2009.
7. Stahre et al. (2009). Binge Drinking Among US Active-Duty Military Personnel. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Volume 36, Issue 3.

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.

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed

Unless we are mindful and deliberate in leading lives of conscious action, our fate is determined largely by our inborn temperament; that is, what we find rewarding. The majority of people live lives of unconscious reaction. They are not mindful of their thoughts, feelings, or actions, or the consequences thereof.

For people living with mental illness, this tendency is particularly devastating and self-reinforcing. To the person suffering from alcoholism, it is far more rewarding to pick up a bottle than to endure painful withdrawal symptoms, seek treatment for underlying psychological issues, confront the emotional baggage that led to drinking, part ways with drinking buddies, and essentially create a whole new life. To the person with major depression, it is far more rewarding to curl up in bed all day than to muster the Herculean strength it takes to drag through yet another meaningless day. To the person with borderline personality disorder, it is far more reinforcing to engage in numbing, soothing self-injury than it is to learn and utilize distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills, to come to grips with the abuse history and self-loathing that fuels urges to self-injure. To the person with anorexia nervosa, it is far more rewarding to fast and restrict. The avoidance of discomfort, the physiological euphoria, psychological sense of mastery, and the brief respite from the torturous inner voice make restricting and fasting far more rewarding than consuming a normal quantity of food and keeping it down. To the person with OCD, it is far more reinforcing to engage in compulsions and rituals that create a sense of safety and security than it is to sit with the incredible discomfort that arises from not engaging in these behaviors.

Most people never have to face their greatest fears consistently, repeatedly, and for prolonged periods of time in order to move through hell into the realm of so-called health and normality. This is why recovery from mental illness is so difficult and so heroic. Psychotherapy can help to illuminate patterns in a person’s life and help her come to grips with her own unique neurochemistry, temperament, and life history in a way that is empowering and useful. Psychotherapy can teach coping skills and psychological tools to help people deal with their unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Psychotherapy can provide a supportive, nurturing, unbiased relationship in which personal issues can be explored and understood. Psychotherapy helps to rewire neural pathways, setting into effect new patterns of thinking and feeling and acting.

And as for the rest of us? It is far easier to live lives of unmindful, unconscious reaction than it is to create deliberate, mindful lives of conscious action. It is far easier to absorb the beliefs and ideas of our parents, our teachers, our bosses, our political leaders, our priests and ministers and rabbis, than it is to think and speak for ourselves. It is far easier to assimilate passively the so-called truth we are fed by the media than it is to think critically and creatively. It is far easier to conform to societal norms, to agree with popular opinion, to be complicit and docile, than it is to be the change we wish to see in this world.

Join me in stepping off the beaten path. Join me in blazing a new trail and guiding others to come along. Do you dare?

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?