My Own Bipolar Kerfuffle

August 5, 2012

I have a confession to make.  I don’t know what “bipolar disorder” is.  And as a psychiatrist, I’ll admit that’s sort of embarrassing.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating when I say that I don’t know what bipolar disorder is.  Actually, if you asked me to define it, I’d give you an answer that would probably sound pretty accurate.  I’ve read the DSM-IV, had years of training, took my Boards, treated people in the midst of manic episodes, and so on.  The problem for me is not the “idea” of bipolar disorder.  It’s what we mean when we use that term.

I recognized this problem only recently—in fact, just last month, as I was putting together the July/August issue of the Carlat Psychiatry Report (now available to subscribers here).  This month’s issue is devoted to the topic of “Bipolar Disorder,” and two contributors, faculty members at prestigious psychiatry departments, made contradictory—yet perfectly valid—observations.  One argued that it’s overdiagnosed; the other advocated for broadening our definition of bipolar disorder—in particular, “bipolar depression.”  The discrepancy was also noted in several comments from our Editorial Board.

Disagreements in science and medicine aren’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, when two authorities interpret a phenomenon differently, it creates the opportunity for further experimentation and investigation.  In time, the “truth” can be uncovered.  But in this case, as with much in psychiatry, “truth” seems to depend on whom you ask.

Consider this question.  What exactly is “bipolar depression”?  It seems quite simple:  it’s when a person with bipolar disorder experiences a depressive episode.  But what about when a person comes in with depression but has not had a manic episode or been diagnosed with bipolar disorder?  How about when a person with depression becomes “manic” after taking an antidepressant?  Could those be bipolar depression, too?  I suppose so.  But who says so?  One set of criteria was introduced by Jules Angst, a researcher in Switzerland, and was featured prominently in the BRIDGE study, published in 2011.  His criteria for bipolarity include agitation, irritability, hypomanic symptoms for as short as one day, and a family history of mania.  Other experts argue for a “spectrum” of bipolar illness.

(For a critique of the BRIDGE study, see this letter to the editor of the Archives of General Psychiatry, and this detailed—and entertaining—account in David Allen’s blog.)

The end result is rather shocking, when you think about it:  here we have this phenomenon called “bipolar disorder,” which may affect 4% of all Americans, and different experts define it differently.  With the right tweaking, nearly anyone who comes to the attention of a psychiatrist could be considered to have some features suggestive of someone’s definition of bipolar disorder.  (Think I’m kidding?  Check out the questionnaire in the appendix of Angst’s 2003 article.)

Such differences of opinion lead to some absurd situations, particularly when someone is asked to speak authoritatively about this disorder.  At this year’s APA Annual Meeting for example, David Kupfer (DSM-IV Task Force Chair) gave a keynote address on “Rethinking Bipolar Disorder,” which included recommendations for screening adolescents and the use of preventive measures (including drugs) to prevent early stages of the illness.  Why was it absurd?  Because as Kupfer spoke confidently about this disease entity, I looked around the packed auditorium and realized that each person may very well have has his or her own definition of bipolar disorder.  But did anyone say anything?  No, we all nodded in agreement, deferring to the expert.

This problem exists throughout psychiatry.  The criteria for each diagnosis in the DSM-IV can easily be applied in a very general way.  This is due partly to fatigue, partly to the fact that insurance companies require that we give a diagnosis as early as the first visit, partly because we’re so reluctant (even when it’s appropriate) to tell patients that they’re actually healthy and may not even have a diagnosis, and partly because different factions of psychiatrists use their experience to create their own criteria.  It’s no wonder that as criteria are loosened, diagnoses are misapplied, and the ranks of the “mentally ill” continue to grow.

As editor of a newsletter, I’m faced with another challenge I didn’t quite expect.  I can’t come out and say that bipolar disorder doesn’t exist (which wouldn’t be true anyway—I have actually seen cases of “classic,” textbook-style mania which do respond to medications as our guidelines would predict).  But I also can’t say that several definitions of “bipolar” exist.  That may be perceived as being too equivocal for a respectable publication and, as a result, some readers may have difficulty taking me seriously.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, I may be experiencing what our field’s leadership must experience on a regular basis.  Academic psychiatrists make their living by conducting research, publishing their findings, and, in most cases, specializing in a given clinical area.  It’s in their best interest to assume that the subjects of their research actually exist.  Furthermore, when experts see patients, they do so in a specialty clinic or clinical trial, which reinforces their definitions of disease.

This can become a problem to those of us seeing the complicated “real world” patients on the front lines, especially when we look to the experts for answers to such questions as whether we should use antipsychotics to treat acute mania, or whether antidepressants are helpful for bipolar depression.  If their interpretations of the diagnoses simply don’t pertain to the people in our offices, all bets are off.  Yet this, I fear, is what happens in psychiatry every day.

In the end, I can’t say whether my definition of bipolar disorder is right or not, because even the experts can’t seem to agree on what it is.  As for the newsletter, we decided to publish both articles, in the interest of maintaining a dialogue.  Readers will simply have to use their own definition of “bipolar disorder” and “bipolar depression” (or eschew them altogether)—hopefully in ways that help their patients.  But it has been an eye-opening experience in the futility (and humility) of trying to speak with authority about something we’re still trying desperately to understand.

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Is The Joke On Me?

May 12, 2012

I recently returned from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.  I had the pleasure of participating on a panel discussing “psychiatrists and the new media” with the bloggers/authors from Shrink Rap, and Bob Hsiung of dr-bob.org.  The panel discussion was a success.  Some other parts of the conference, however, left me with a sense of doubt and unease.  I enjoy being a psychiatrist, but whenever I attend these psychiatric meetings, I sometimes find myself questioning the nature of what I do.  At times I wonder whether everyone else knows something I don’t.  Sometimes I even ask myself:  is the joke on me?

Here’s an example of what I mean.  On Sunday, David Kupfer of the University of Pittsburgh (and task force chair of the forthcoming DSM-5) gave a talk on “Rethinking Bipolar Disorder.”  The room—a cavernous hall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center—was packed.  Every chair was filled, while scores of attendees stood in the back or sat on the floor, listening with rapt attention.  The talk itself was a discussion of “where we need to go” in the management of bipolar disorder in the future.  Dr Kupfer described a new view of bipolar disorder as a chronic, multifactorial disorder involving not just mood lability and extremes of behavior, but also endocrine, inflammatory, neurophysiologic, and metabolic processes that deserve our attention as well.  He emphasized the fact that in between mood episodes, and even before they develop, there are a range of “dysfunctional symptom domains”—involving emotions, cognition, sleep, physical symptoms, and others—that we psychiatrists should be aware of.  He also introduced a potential way to “stage” development of bipolar disorder (similar to the way doctors stage tumors), suggesting that people at early stages might benefit from prophylactic psychiatric intervention.

Basically, the take-home message (for me, at least) was that in the future, psychiatrists will be responsible for treating other manifestations of bipolar disorder than those we currently attend to.  We will also need to look for subthreshold symptoms in people who might have a “prodrome” of bipolar disorder.

A sympathetic observer might say that Kupfer is simply asking us to practice good medicine, caring for the entire person rather than one’s symptoms, and prevent development or recurrence of bipolar illness.  On the other hand, a cynic might look at these pronouncements as a sort of disease-mongering, encouraging us to uncover signs of “disease” where they might not exist.  But both of these conclusions overlook a much more fundamental question that, to me, remains unanswered.  What exactly is bipolar disorder anyway?

I realize that’s an extraordinarily embarrassing question for a psychiatrist to ask.  And in all fairness, I do know what bipolar disorder is (or, at least, what the textbooks and the DSM-IV say it is).  I have seen examples of manic episodes in my own practice, and in my personal life, and have seen how they respond to medications, psychotherapy, or the passage of time.  But those are the minority.  Over the years (although my career is still relatively young), I have also seen dozens, if not hundreds, of people given the diagnosis of “bipolar disorder” without a clear history of a manic episode—the defining feature of bipolar disorder, according to the DSM.

As I looked around the room at everyone concentrating on Dr Kupfer’s every word, I wondered to myself, am I the only one with this dilemma?  Are my patients “special” or “unique”?  Maybe I’m a bad psychiatrist; maybe I don’t ask the right questions.  Or maybe everyone else is playing a joke on me.   That’s unlikely; others do see the same sorts of patients I do (I know this for a fact, from my own discussions with other psychiatrists).  But nobody seems to have the same crisis of confidence that I do.  It makes me wonder whether we have reached a point in psychiatry when psychiatrists can listen to a talk like this one (or see patients each day) and accept diagnostic categories, without paying any attention to the fact that they our nosology says virtually nothing at all about the unique nature of each person’s suffering.  It seems that we accept the words of our authority figures without asking the fundamental question of whether they have any basis in reality.  Or maybe I’m just missing out on the joke.

As far as I’m concerned, no two “bipolar” patients are alike, and no two “bipolar” patients have the same treatment goals.  The same can be said for almost everything else we treat, from “depression” to “borderline personality disorder” to addiction.  In my opinion, lumping all those people together and assuming they’re all alike for the purposes of a talk (or, even worse, for a clinical trial) makes it difficult—and quite foolish—to draw any conclusions about that group of individuals.

What we need to do is to figure out whether what we call “bipolar disorder” is a true disorder in the first place, rather than accept it uncritically and start looking for yet additional symptom domains or biomarkers as new targets of treatment.  To accept the assumption that everyone currently with the “bipolar” label indeed has the same disorder (or any disorder at all) makes a mockery of the diagnostic process and destroys the meaning of the word.  Some would argue this has already happened.

But then again, maybe I’m the only one who sees it this way.  No one at Kupfer’s talk seemed to demonstrate any bewilderment or concern that we might be heading towards a new era of disease management without really knowing what “disease” we’re treating in the first place.  If this is the case, I sure would appreciate it if someone would let me in on the joke.


Is The Criticism of DSM-5 Misguided? Part II

March 14, 2012

A few months ago, I wrote about how critics of the DSM-5 (led by Allen Frances, editor of the DSM-IV) might be barking up the wrong tree.  I argued that many of the problems the critics predict are not the fault of the book, but rather how people might use it.  Admittedly, this sounds a lot like the “guns don’t kill people, people do” argument against gun control (as one of my commenters pointed out), or a way for me to shift responsibility to someone else (as another commenter wrote).  But it’s a side of the issue that no one seems to be addressing.

The issue emerges again with the ongoing controversy over the “bereavement exclusion” in the DSM-IV.  Briefly, our current DSM says that grieving over a loved one does not constitute major depression (as long as it doesn’t last more than two months) and, as such, should not be treated.  However, some have argued that this exclusion should be removed in DSM-5.  According to Sidney Zisook, a UCSD psychiatrist, if we fail to recognize and treat clinical depression simply because it occurs in the two-month bereavement period, we do those people a “disservice.”  Likewise, David Kupfer, chair of the DSM-5 task force, defends the removal of the bereavement exclusion because “if patients … want help, they should not be prevented from getting [it] because somebody tells them that this is what everybody has when they have a loss.”

The NPR news program “Talk of the Nation” featured a discussion of this topic on Tuesday’s broadcast, but the guests and callers described the issue in a more nuanced (translation: “real-world”) fashion.  Michael Craig Miller, Editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, referred to the grieving process by saying: “The reality is that there is no firm line, and it is always a judgment call…. labels tend not to matter as much as the practical concern, that people shouldn’t feel a sense of shame.  If they feel they need some help to get through something, then they should ask for it.”  Bereavement and the need for treatment, therefore, is not a yes/no, either/or proposition, but something individually determined.

This sentiment was echoed in a February 19 editorial in Lancet by the psychiatrist/anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, who wrote that the experience of loss “is always framed by meanings and values, which themselves are affected by all sorts of things like one’s age, health, financial and work conditions, and what is happening in one’s life and in the wider world.”  Everyone seems to be saying pretty much the same thing:  people grieve in different ways, but those who are suffering should have access to treatment.

So why the controversy?  I can only surmise it’s because the critics of DSM-5 believe that mental health clinicians are unable to determine who needs help and, therefore, have to rely on a book to do so.  Listening to the arguments of Allen Frances et al, one would think that we have no ability to collaborate, empathize, and relate with our patients.  I think that attitude is objectionable to anyone who has made it his or her life’s work to treat the emotional suffering of others, and underestimates the effort that many of us devote to the people we serve.

But in some cases the critics are right.  Sometimes clinicians do get answers from the book, or from some senseless protocol (usually written by a non-clinician).  One caller to the NPR program said she was handed an antidepressant prescription upon her discharge from the hospital after a stillbirth at 8 months of pregnancy.  Was she grieving?  Absolutely.  Did she need the antidepressant?  No one even bothered to figure that out.  It’s like the clinicians who see “bipolar” in everyone who has anger problems; “PTSD” in everyone who was raised in a turbulent household; or “ADHD” in every child who does poorly in school.

If a clinician observes a symptom and makes a diagnosis simply on the basis of a checklist from a book, or from a single statement by a patient, and not on the basis of his or her full understanding, experience, and clinical assessment of that patient, then the clinician (and not the book) deserves to take full responsibility for any negative outcome of that treatment.  [And if this counts as acceptable practice, then we might as well fire all the psychiatrists and hire high-school interns—or computers!—at a mere fraction of the cost, because they could do this job just as well.]

Could the new DSM-5 be misused?  Yes.  Drug companies could (and probably will) exploit it to develop expensive and potentially harmful drugs.  Researchers will use it to design clinical trials on patients that, regrettably, may not resemble those in the “real world.”  Unskilled clinicians will use it to make imperfect diagnoses and give inappropriate labels to their patients.  Insurance companies will use the labels to approve or deny treatment.  Government agencies will use it to determine everything from who’s “disabled” to who gets access to special services in preschool.  And, of course, the American Psychiatric Association will use it as their largest revenue-generating tool, written by authors with extensive drug-industry ties.

To me, those are the places where critics should focus their rage.  But remember, to most good clinicians, it’s just a book—a field guide, helping us to identify potential concerns, and to guide future research into mental illness and its treatment.  What we choose to do with such information depends upon our clinical acumen and our relationship with our patients.  To assume that clinicians will blindly use it to slap the “depression” label and force antidepressants on anyone whose spouse or parent just died “because the book said so,” is insulting to those of us who actually care about our patients, and about what we do to improve their lives.


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