Very early in my blogging career, I wrote about The Top 10 Mistakes in Eating Disorders Treatment. Bad treatment, however, is not limited to eating disorders. Here are the most common mistakes I have observed in the treatment of other mental illnesses:
1. Failure to conduct a thorough assessment at the beginning of treatment. This contributes to missed diagnoses, incorrect diagnoses, and ultimately to ineffective or inappropriate treatment.
2. Failure to assess for behavioral, lifestyle, and environmental factors that may be contributing to the patient’s symptoms. This generally corresponds with the failure to recommend simple lifestyle changes which have a powerful impact on psychological wellbeing. Sleep deprivation, excess alcohol or caffeine intake, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and increased stress at work, school, or home create symptoms that appear identical to those of depression and anxiety. For many people, these symptoms can be alleviated by making behavioral changes. For others, psychotherapy and medication may be necessary.
3. Lack of basic, scientifically-sound education for patients and their families regarding the patient’s disorder(s) and the efficacy of various treatment options. It never ceases to amaze me how many patients and families come to me, after months or years of therapy, without a basic science-based explanation of their mental illness, and without ever being informed that evidence-based treatment exists. Perhaps the most common example of this phenomenon is the patient whose four years of previous therapy focused on the “why” or the “root cause” of her mental disorder without providing any symptom relief. Insight is important, but insight itself does not cure mental illness. These patients are not provided with the simple (and in my mind, very liberating) explanation that mental illnesses are caused by certain biological and genetic vulnerabilities which are often expressed when certain environmental circumstances are present. They are not told that, regardless of the reasons why they developed their illness, they can learn skills to help them manage their symptoms and feel better.
4. Failure to use effective, evidence-based psychological treatments (EBT’s). For the majority of mental illnesses, there is research demonstrating which treatments are most effective. The problem is that the majority of therapists do not use EBT’s. There are several reasons for this: A.) Some therapists have not been trained in evidence-based treatments. This is the result of a three-pronged failure: on the part of the graduate programs which do not teach EBT’s, on the part of the therapists who do not take the initiative to keep up with the literature or seek out the proper continuing education courses, and on the part of the state licensing boards, which do not require that therapists learn about or practice EBTs. B.) Some therapists have been trained in EBT’s but choose not to use them because they value their own clinical judgment more than they value science. This is faulty logic, because research shows that statistical prediction consistently outperforms clinical judgment. Translation: therapists are far more effective when they select their interventions on the basis of scientific research (e.g., what works best for most people with this particular disorder) rather than using their own judgment to decide how to help a patient. C.) Some therapists protest: “But EBT’s don’t work for everyone.” Well, of course they don’t. Nothing works for everyone. But if research consistently shows that treatment A is effective for 80% of people with OCD, while treatment B is effective for 25% of people with OCD, and treatment C is based upon a psychological theory but has never been studied scientifically, it’s a no brainer. Use treatment A with OCD patients unless you have a specific, convincing reason not to. It makes no logical, mathematical, ethical, or scientific sense to do otherwise.
5. Insufficient amount or intensity of psychological treatment. Sessions may begin too late in the course of a mental illness; sessions may be held less frequently than needed; treatment may be terminated before the patient is fully recovered; patients may not receive the level of care (e.g., hospitalization, residential treatment, day treatment) that they need in order to recover. Financial issues and insurance limits are largely to blame for this problem. However, our attitudes about mental illness and personal autonomy play a major role as well. I don’t believe in the “least restrictive environment” criterion. I do not believe that a person should have to be imminently suicidal, homicidal, or floridly psychotic to warrant inpatient treatment. I do not believe that residential and day treatment programs should be reserved for those who have had multiple failed attempts at outpatient treatment. I believe that providing intensive, aggressive treatment at initial diagnosis (which often requires more than your typical weekly therapy sessions) would greatly reduce the severity and duration of mental illnesses.
6. Focusing on “underlying issues” rather than symptoms early in treatment. It makes no sense to do intensive psychotherapy with a drug addict while she is high or while she is actively using drugs. Her mental state is too compromised for her to do meaningful psychological work, and the psychological work detracts time and attention away from the most glaring, life-threatening problem: the drug use. This patient would need to go through detox and rehab before she could really benefit from psychotherapy. Similarly, if a person is severely depressed, severely anxious, or engaging in self-injurious behavior, it makes no sense to spend the therapy hour processing inner conflicts or exploring childhood memories. She cannot think rationally or process emotional information accurately while such acute symptoms are present. The first step must be to alleviate the symptoms. To do otherwise simply serves to delay her recovery and prolong her misery.
7. Failure to address underlying issues, if they exist, later in treatment. Once symptoms are under control, it is important to assess for and treat any underlying issues which could make the patient vulnerable to relapse. I do not mean to imply that every patient has deep, dark secrets of trauma or major internal conflicts. Many patients have simpler underlying problems, such as poor communication skills, unhelpful relationship patterns, low self-esteem, perfectionism, unhealthy core beliefs, or overly stressful jobs or home lives. Regardless of the nature of the patient’s issues, they must be treated if the patient is to heal fully and maintain a lasting recovery. Disclaimer: It is a huge mistake for therapists to presume that all patients have serious underlying issues that must be addressed in treatment. This assumption leads to endless exploration of the past, digging around for some buried treasure that often does not exist. This can be a waste of time and money, can lead to over-focus on the past at the exclusion of full engagement in the present, and can actually make patients feel worse. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
8. Over-prescribing, or inappropriately prescribing, psychotropic medication. A lot of this has to do with insurance companies and financial issues: it is cheaper to medicate than to treat holistically with psychological therapy, at least in the short term. We know that for many mental illnesses, certain evidence-based psychological treatments are more effective than medications (i.e., DBT for borderline personality disorder, CBT, ACT, and exercise for mild to moderate depression, exposure and response prevention for OCD, behavior therapy for panic disorder, CBT-E for bulimia nervosa). And yet many patients are medicated for these illnesses without being offered psychological treatment, and without being informed that certain psychological treatments for certain conditions are actually superior to medication. Recent statistics show that 80% of prescriptions for psychotropic medications are written by general care physicians (internists and pediatricians). This appalls me. While GPs are allowed to prescribe psychotropic medication, they lack specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The ideal situation is for a psychiatrist to prescribe the psychotropic medication, follow up with the patient regularly to monitor her response to the medication, and remain in close contact with the patient’s GP and therapist in order to ensure seamless coordination of care.
9. Failure to involve family members in a young patient’s treatment. Yes, the primary developmental task of adolescence is separation / individuation. But this developmental reality in no way precludes involving family members in an adolescent’s treatment. I believe that a child or adolescent’s treatment works best when family members are fully informed and actively involved. The patient may be with the therapist for 1 hour a week, but she is with her family for the other 167 hours. Therapists are most effective when they strengthen a family unit (rather than weakening it by pointing the finger of blame), communicate openly with parents (rather than hiding behind the cloak of confidentiality), and provide them with tools to help their children (rather than urging them to back off). Therapy is temporary; family is forever.
10. Blaming patients, either subtly or overtly, for their mental illnesses. This causes so much harm. Many therapists are of the opinion that if patients just tried a little harder, dug a little deeper, or stayed in therapy just a few months (or years) longer, they would get better. Patients are often held responsible for their own lack of therapeutic progress (Remember the old joke – “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change”). As a result, patients blame themselves when they do not recover. Guilt is paralyzing and depressing and disempowering. In what other illness would a patient be held responsible for her lack of improvement? Obviously, therapy is a collaborative process which requires tremendous courage and dedication from the patient. That said, the therapist is responsible for providing the patient with effective treatment and guiding her towards recovery.