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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.

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