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.


Mental Illness IS Real After All… So What Was I Treating Before?

July 26, 2011

I recently started working part-time on an inpatient psychiatric unit at a large county medical center.  The last time I worked in inpatient psychiatry was six years ago, and in the meantime I’ve worked in various office settings—community mental health, private practice, residential drug/alcohol treatment, and research.  I’m glad I’m back, but it’s really making me rethink my ideas about mental illness.

An inpatient psychiatry unit is not just a locked version of an outpatient clinic.  The key difference—which would be apparent to any observer—is the intensity of patients’ suffering.  Of course, this should have been obvious to me, having treated patients like these before.  But I’ll admit, I wasn’t prepared for the abrupt transition.  Indeed, the experience has reminded me how severe mental illness can be, and has proven to be a “wake-up” call at this point in my career, before I get the conceited (yet naïve) belief that “I’ve seen it all.”

Patients are hospitalized when they simply cannot take care of themselves—or may be a danger to themselves or others—as a result of their psychiatric symptoms.  These individuals are in severe emotional or psychological distress, have immense difficulty grasping reality, or are at imminent risk of self-harm, or worse.  In contrast to the clinic, the illnesses I see on the inpatient unit are more incapacitating, more palpable, and—for lack of a better word—more “medical.”

Perhaps this is because they also seem to respond better to our interventions.  Medications are never 100% effective, but they can have a profound impact on quelling the most distressing and debilitating symptoms of the psychiatric inpatient.  In the outpatient setting, medications—and even psychotherapy—are confounded by so many other factors in the typical patient’s life.  When I’m seeing a patient every month, for instance—or even every week—I often wonder whether my effort is doing any good.  When a patient assures me it is, I think it’s because I try to be a nice, friendly guy.  Not because I feel like I’m practicing any medicine.  (By the way, that’s not humility, I see it as healthy skepticism.)

Does this mean that the patient who sees her psychiatrist every four weeks and who has never been hospitalized is not suffering?  Or that we should just do away with psychiatric outpatient care because these patients don’t have “diseases”?  Of course not.  Discharged patients need outpatient follow-up, and sometimes outpatient care is vital to prevent hospitalization in the first place.  Moreover, people do suffer and do benefit from coming to see doctors like me in the outpatient setting.

But I think it’s important to look at the differences between who gets hospitalized and who does not, as this may inform our thinking about the nature of mental illness and help us to deliver treatment accordingly.  At the risk of oversimplifying things (and of offending many in my profession—and maybe even some patients), perhaps the more severe cases are the true psychiatric “diseases” with clear neurochemical or anatomic foundations, and which will respond robustly to the right pharmacological or neurosurgical cure (once we find it), while the outpatient cases are not “diseases” at all, but simply maladaptive strategies to cope with what is (unfortunately) a chaotic, unfair, and challenging world.

Some will argue that these two things are one and the same.  Some will argue that one may lead to the other.  In part, the distinction hinges upon what we call a “disease.”  At any rate, it’s an interesting nosological dilemma.  But in the meantime, we should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the conditions we see in acutely incapacitated and severely disturbed hospital patients are the same as those we see in our office practices, just “more extreme versions.”  In fact, they may be entirely different entities altogether, and may respond to entirely different interventions (i.e., not just higher doses of the same drug).

The trick is where to draw the distinction between the “true” disease and its “outpatient-only” counterpart.  Perhaps this is where biomarkers like genotypes or blood tests might prove useful.  In my opinion, this would be a fruitful area of research, as it would help us better understand the biology of disease, design more suitable treatments (pharmacological or otherwise), and dedicate treatment resources more fairly.  It would also lead us to provide more humane and thoughtful care to people on both sides of the double-locked doors—something we seem to do less and less of these days.


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