Whatever Works?

January 29, 2012

My iPhone’s Clock Radio app wakes me each day to the live stream of National Public Radio.  Last Monday morning, I emerged from my post-weekend slumber to hear Alix Spiegel’s piece on the serotonin theory of depression.  In my confused, half-awake state, I heard Joseph Coyle, professor of psychiatry at Harvard, remark: “the ‘chemical imbalance’ is sort of last-century thinking; it’s much more complicated than that.”

Was I dreaming?  It was, admittedly, a surreal experience.  It’s not every day that I wake up to the voice of an Ivy League professor lecturing me in psychiatry (those days are long over, thank Biederman god).  Nor did I ever expect a national news program to challenge existing psychiatric dogma.  As I cleared my eyes, though, I realized, this is the real deal.  And it was refreshing, because this is what many of us have been thinking all along.  The serotonin hypothesis of depression is kaput.

Understandably, this story has received lots of attention (see here and here and here and here and here).  I don’t want to jump on the “I-told-you-so” bandwagon, but instead to offer a slightly different perspective.

A few disclaimers:  first and foremost, I agree that the “chemical imbalance” theory has overrun our profession and has commandeered the public’s understanding of mental illness—so much so that the iconic image of the synaptic cleft containing its neurotransmitters has become ensconced in the national psyche.  Secondly, I do prescribe SSRIs (serotonin-reuptake inhibitors), plus lots of other psychiatric medications, which occasionally do work.  (And, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve taken three of them myself.  They did nothing for me.)

To the extent that psychiatrists talk about “chemical imbalances,” I can see why this could be misconstrued as “lying” to patients.  Ronald Pies’ eloquent article in Psychiatric Times last summer describes the chemical-imbalance theory as “a kind of urban legend,” which no “knowledgeable, well-trained psychiatrist” would ever believe.  But that doesn’t matter.  Thanks to us, the word is out there.  The damage has already been done.  So why, then, do psychiatrists (even the “knowledgeable, well-trained” ones) continue to prescribe SSRI antidepressants to patients?

Because they work.

Okay, maybe not 100% of the time.  Maybe not even 40% of the time, according to antidepressant drug trials like STAR*D.  Experience shows, however, that they work often enough for patients to come back for more.  In fact, when discussed in the right context, their potential side effects described in detail, and prescribed by a compassionate and apparently intelligent and trusted professional, antidepressants probably “work” far more than they do in the drug trials.

But does that make it right to prescribe them?  Ah, that’s an entirely different question.  Consider the following:  I may not agree with the serotonin theory, but if I prescribe an SSRI to a patient with depression, and they report a benefit, experience no obvious side effects, pay only $4/month for the medication, and (say) $50 for a monthly visit with me, is there anything wrong with that?  Plenty of doctors would say, no, not at all.  But what if my patient (justifiably so) doesn’t believe in the serotonin hypothesis and I prescribe anyway?  What if my patient experiences horrible side effects from the drug?  What if the drug costs $400/month instead of $4?  What if I charge the patient $300 instead of $50 for each return visit?  What if I decide to “augment” my patient’s SSRI with yet another serotonin agent, or an atypical antipsychotic, causing hundreds of dollars more, and potentially causing yet more side effects?  Those are the aspects that we don’t often think of, and constitute the unfortunate “collateral damage” of the chemical-imbalance theory.

Indeed, something’s “working” when a patient reports success with an antidepressant; exactly why and how it “works” is less certain.  In my practice, I tell my patients that, at individual synapses, SSRIs probably increase extracellular serotonin levels (at least in the short-term), but we don’t know what that means for your whole brain, much less for your thoughts or behavior.  Some other psychiatrists say that “a serotonin boost might help your depression” or “this drug might act on pathways important for depression.”   Are those lies?  Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo write that “telling a falsehood to patients … is a serious violation of informed consent.”  But the same could be said for psychotherapy, religion, tai chi, ECT, rTMS, Reiki, qigong, numerology, orthomolecular psychiatry, somatic re-experiencing, EMDR, self-help groups, AA, yoga, acupuncture, transcendental meditation, and Deplin.  We recommend these things all the time, not knowing exactly how they “work.”

Most of those examples are rather harmless and inexpensive (except for Deplin—it’s expensive), but, like antidepressants, all rest on shaky ground.  So maybe psychiatry’s problem is not the “falsehood” itself, but the consequences of that falsehood.  This faulty hypothesis has spawned an entire industry capitalizing on nothing more than an educated guess, costing our health care system untold millions of dollars, saddling huge numbers of patients with bothersome side effects (or possibly worse), and—most distressingly to me—giving people an incorrect and ultimately dehumanizing solution to their emotional problems.  (What’s dehumanizing about getting better, you might ask?  Well, nothing, except when “getting better” means giving up one’s own ability to manage his/her situation and instead attribute their success to a pill.)

Dr Pies’ article in Psychiatric Times closed with an admonition from psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi:  “We must not be drawn into a haze of promiscuous eclecticism in our treatment; rather, we must be guided by well-designed studies and the best available evidence.”  That’s debatable.  If we wait for “evidence” for all sorts of interventions that, in many people, do help, we’ll never get anywhere.  A lack of “evidence” certainly hasn’t eliminated religion—or, for that matter, psychoanalysis—from the face of the earth.

Thus, faulty theory or not, there’s still a place for SSRI medications in psychiatry, because some patients swear by them.  Furthermore—and with all due respect to Dr Ghaemi—maybe we should be a bit more promiscuous in our eclecticism.  Medication therapy should be offered side-by-side with competent psychosocial treatments including, but not limited to, psychotherapy, group therapy, holistic-medicine approaches, family interventions, and job training and other social supports.  Patients’ preferences should always be respected, along with safeguards to protect patient safety and prevent against excessive cost.  We may not have good scientific evidence for certain selections on this smorgasbord of options, but if patients keep coming back, report successful outcomes, and enter into meaningful and lasting recovery, that might be all the evidence we need.

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