Tuesday, February 17, 2009
In my last blog, I urged that we consider issues in terms of "smart vs dumb" rather than "pro vs anti." In the final analysis, dumb psychiatry and dumb antipsychiatry serve the same master. Let me give you an example:
For at least three decades, it has been widely accepted that prescribing an antidepressant (with no mood stabilizer) to someone with bipolar runs a strong risk of flipping a patient into mania or speeding up the cycle or both. The American Psychiatric Association in it's 2002 Practice Guideline for treating bipolar issues a blanket warning against this practice.
The catch is that it is often difficult to distinguish unipolar depression from bipolar depression. The result is that too many of us with bipolar are misdiagnosed with unipolar depression and prescribed meds that make us worse.
There is an additional twist to this catch: Many people experience "recurrent" and "highly recurrent" depressions that come and go in a pattern very similar to bipolar cycling. The pioneering diagnostician Emil Kraepelin observed this phenomenon way back in the early twentieth century.
When Kraepelin coined the term, manic-depression, he wasn't merely referring to bipolar. He also included those with recurrent depression. This was the widely accepted view until the DSM-III in 1980 separated out bipolar and lumped recurrent depression with "chronic" depression.
The result is that doctors tend to treat all depressions alike - with predictably disastrous results. This is an example of "dumb" psychiatry, the indiscriminate prescribing of antidepressants to anyone who happens to say they're depressed.
Reformers in the profession, such as former head of the NIMH Frederick Goodwin MD and Nassir Ghaemi MD of Tufts, have long urged that psychiatrists think twice before prescribing antidepressants. The best way to turn certain unipolars into bipolar, they would argue, is to prescribe an antidepressant.
Dr Goodwin and a good many others have campaigned for years to realign the next DSM so that it is more closely in tune with Kraepelin's original conception of manic-depression. This would get doctors to rethink their prescribing practices.
We don't know if change will happen. But no doubt the task force charged with issuing an updated DSM is considering the matter. Indeed, the possibility of a new "bipolar III" diagnosis was the basis of a blog post last week from Furious Seasons, fairly typical of antipsychiatry sentiment:
"I think it's been a boon to doctors - who get a patient for life - and Big Pharma - which gets a long-term customer - but I have my doubts about how useful the depression-is-bipolar thing is for patients who wind up on an atypical and an anti-seizure drug when they are dealing with something that's not even in the ballpark of mania."
To respond in brief:
Yes, big pharma would love a customer for life, but to make a case for a drug industry conspiracy one would have to bend time a hundred years. Kraepelin wrote his classic text, "Manic-Depressive Insanity and Paranoia," decades before drug manufactures came up with the first psychiatric meds, and psychiatrists have been arguing ever since where best to carve nature at its joints.
Moving on, bipolar is more accurately a cycling illness, not a polar illness. So is recurrent depression. Thus "something that's not even in the ballpark of mania" is irrelevant. The purpose of treatment is to manage the cycle, bring it under control, not necessarily treat symptoms at one pole or the other.
An antidepressant may work in some patients with recurrent depression. But a logical first option is to consider using a mood stabilizer such as lithium or Depakote or Lamictal.
Once the cycle is under control, it may be possible to consider low-meds or no-meds options in conjunction with cultivating cognitive skills such as mindfulness.
Admittedly, Lamictal had a lot to do with drawing attention to "soft bipolar" several years back, and GSK profited handsomely. But these days the drug has gone generic, along with lithium and Depakote. Thus GSK and others have no financial stake in pushing for an expanded bipolar diagnosis.
If anything, an expanded diagnosis would significantly reduce antidepressant sales. This is why you don't see drug companies sponsoring clinical trials to prove Drs Goodwin and Ghaemi right.
No doubt, some manufacturer will try to jump on the bandwagon with some implausible claim trumpeting the virtues of their house antipsychotic, only to be laughed out of town. But this would be an example of opportunism, not hatching a conspiracy.
As for psychiatrists wanting a patient for life: The best indication is that psychiatrists are driving away their patients. Only a small minority of patients adhere to their meds over the long term. Matching the right meds to the right diagnosis might change this.
So now we return to the issue of smart vs dumb. Dumb psychiatry treats all depressions as the same. So does dumb antipsychiatry. Dumb psychiatry favors preserving psychiatry's status quo. So does dumb antipsychiatry. Ironic, isn't it?