Did The APA Miss A Defining Moment?

April 1, 2012

Sometimes an organization or individual facing a potential public-relations disaster can use the incident as a way to send a powerful message, as well as change the way that organization or individual is perceived.   I wonder whether the American Psychiatric Association (APA) may have missed its opportunity to do exactly that.

Several weeks ago, the CBS news program 60 Minutes ran a story with the provocative argument that antidepressants are no better than placebo.  Reporter Lesley Stahl highlighted the work of Irving Kirsch, a psychologist who has studied the placebo effect for decades.  He has concluded that most, and maybe all, of the benefit of antidepressants can be attributed to placebo.  Simply put, they work because patients (and their doctors) expect them to work.

Since then, the psychiatric establishment has offered several counterarguments.  All have placed psychiatry squarely on the defensive.  One psychiatrist (Michael Thase), interviewed on the CBS program, defended antidepressants, arguing that Kirsch “is confusing the results of studies with what goes on in practice.”  Alan Schatzberg, past APA president and former Stanford chairman, said at a conference last weekend (where he spoke about “new antidepressants”) that the APA executive committee was “outraged” at the story, glibly remarking, “In this nation, if you can attack a psychiatrist, you win a medal.”  The leadership of the APA has mounted an aggressive defense, too.  Incoming APA president and Columbia chairman Jeffrey Lieberman called Kirsch “mistaken and confused, … ideologically based, [and] … just plain wrong.”  Similarly, current APA president John Oldham called the story “irresponsible and dangerous [and] … at odds with common clinical experience.”

These are indeed strong words.  But it raises one very important question:  who or what exactly are these spokesmen defending?  Patients?  Psychiatrists?  Drugs?  It would seem to me that the leadership of a professional medical organization should be defending good patient care, or at the very least, greater opportunities for its members to provide good patient care.  The arguments put forth by APA leadership, however, seem to be defending none of the above.  Instead, they seem to be defending antidepressants.

For the purposes of this post, I won’t weigh in on the question of whether antidepressants work or not.  It’s a complicated issue with no easy answer (we’ll offer some insight in the May issue of the Carlat Psychiatry Report).  However, let’s just assume that the general public now has good reason to believe that current antidepressants are essentially worthless, thanks to the 60 Minutes story (not to mention—just a few weeks earlier—a report on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” as well as a two-part series by Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books last summer).  Justifiably or not, our patients will be skeptical of psychopharmacology going forward.  If we psychiatrists are hell-bent on defending antidepressants, we’d better have even stronger reasons for doing so than simply “we know they work.”

But why are psychiatrists defending antidepressants in the first place?  If anyone should be defending antidepressants, it should be the drug companies, not psychiatrists.  Why didn’t 60 Minutes interview a Lilly medical expert to explain how they did the initial studies of Prozac, or a Pfizer scientist to explain why patients should be put on Pristiq?  (Now that would have been fun!!)  I would have loved to hear Michael Thase—or anyone from the psychiatric establishment—say to Lesley Stahl:

“You know, Dr. Kirsch might just be onto something.  His research is telling us that maybe antidepressants really don’t work as well as we once thought.  As a result, we psychiatrists want drug companies to do better studies on their drugs before approval, and stop marketing their drugs so aggressively to us—and to our patients—until they can show us better data.  In the meantime we want to get paid to provide therapy along with—or instead of—medications, and we hope that the APA puts more of an emphasis on non-biological treatments for depression in the future.”

Wouldn’t that have been great?  For those of us (like me) who think the essence of depression is far more than faulty biology to be corrected with a pill, it would have been very refreshing to hear.  Moreover, it would help our field to reclaim some of the “territory” we’ve been abdicating to others (therapists, psychologists, social workers)—territory that may ultimately be shown to be more relevant for most patients than drugs.  (By the way, I don’t mean to drive a wedge between psychiatry and these other specialties, as I truly believe we can coexist and complement each other.  But as I wrote in my last post, psychiatry really needs to stand up for something, and this would have been a perfect opportunity to do exactly that.)

To his credit, Dr. Oldham wrote an editorial two weeks ago in Psychiatric News (the APA’s weekly newsletter) explaining that he was asked to contribute to the 60 Minutes piece, but CBS canceled his interview at the last minute.  He wrote a response but CBS refused to post it on its website (the official APA response can be found here).  Interestingly, he went on to acknowledge that “good care” (i.e., whatever works) is what our patients need, and also conceded that, at least for “milder forms of depression,” the “nonspecific [placebo] effect dwarfs the specific [drug] effect.”

I think the APA would have a pretty powerful argument if it emphasized this message (i.e., that the placebo effect might be much greater than we believe, and that we should study this more closely—maybe even harness it for the sake of our patients) over what sounds like a knee-jerk defense of drugs.  It’s a message that would demand better science, prioritize our patients’ well-being, and, perhaps even reduce treatment costs in the long run.  If, instead, we call “foul” on anyone who criticizes medications, not only do we send the message that we put our faith in only one form of therapy (out of many), but we also become de facto spokespersons for the pharmaceutical industry.  If the APA wants to change that perception among the general public, this would be a great place to start.

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