Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Robert Spitzer and the DSM - Part II

In Part I, I mentioned how I found myself seated next to Robert Spitzer, the architect of the ground-breaking DSM-III, and the inadequacies of the earlier versions. To pick up where I left off:

In an article published in Science in 1973, Stanford University psychologist David Rosenhan described dispatching eight healthy associates to various mental hospitals, each claiming to have heard voices. All eight were admitted, seven with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, one with manic-depression.

Following admission, all eight behaved normally. Although many of the real patients suspected a ruse, hospital staff interpreted even routine behavior on the part of the impostors as pathological, such as “writing behavior.” To obtain release, the “patients” had to acknowledge their diagnosis and agree to take meds. The “patients” were held on average for 19 days.

In the second part of his experiment, Dr Rosenhan let it be known at a particular hospital that more fake patients were on the way. The hospital was aware of the results of the first experiment, and were confident they could weed out the impostors. Out of 193 patients, 41 were singled out as phonies and another 42 were considered suspect. In reality, no bogus patients had been dispatched. All the patients were genuine.

According to Dr Rosenhan: “Any diagnostic process that lends itself too readily to massive errors of this sort cannot be a very reliable one.”

A year later, Robert Spitzer MD of Columbia University drew the assignment of leading a new revision of the DSM, the so-called diagnostic Bible that no one paid any attention to at the time.

Dr Spitzer drew his inspiration from the pioneering German diagnostician, Emil Kraepelin (pictured here), who was born the same year as Freud. It was Kraepelin who coined the term, manic-depression and separated out the illness from schizophrenia, thus giving psychiatry a basic navigating system. Kraepelin believed that mental disorders were best understood as analogues of medical disorders.

In other words, you don’t treat a heart attack as if it were cancer, or as if the two were somehow related. For one, an individual in the throes of cardiac arrest and someone with a specific organ system under siege have entirely different symptoms.

But psychiatry, which back in the seventies was still in thrall to Freud, viewed things totally differently. To Freud’s followers, symptoms (such as depression) were merely maladaptive reactions to inner turmoil. You didn’t treat the depression; you dug deeper to root out the underlying neurosis. To a Freudian, diagnostics didn’t matter.

The old-timers have no end of horror stories. At the 2004 APA in New York, I heard Jack Barchas MD of Cornell University - the man who pioneered research into serotonin’s connection to behavior - relate how an early mentor actually challenged one of his ideas on these grounds: “How is this justified in the writings of Freud?”

Dr Spitzer lined up support from the one university of the day not under the spell of the Wizard of Id, Washington University (St Louis), an outpost of intellectual sanity fairly crawling with Kraepelinians. In 1972, John Feigner, then a resident there, came up with a classification scheme that Spitzer adopted as the template to block out a first draft, which was completed in a year. In addition, Spitzer used his unlimited administrative control to establish 25 committees peopled with psychiatrists who despised Freudian dogma and who viewed themselves as scientists.

The catch was that there was precious little that could pass for psychiatric science at the time. Meetings often degenerated into free-for-alls where the loudest voices tended to prevail. Nevertheless, a working draft was thrashed out, which was tested by the NIMH for reliability. In other words, if presented with a basic set of symptoms, could different psychiatrists agree on the diagnosis? Or, at least, kinda come close?

One problem in the past was that one psychiatrist’s view of depression could be very different from that of another psychiatrist. Dr Spitzer’s solution was the “checklist,” something we all take for granted these days. (For instance, a diagnosis of major depression requires checking off at least five of nine listed symptoms.)

Something else we take for granted: ADD, autism, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, panic disorder, and PTSD - these illnesses and others debuted during Spitzer’s watch, and no one these days seriously challenges their legitimacy.

Finally, a “multi-axial” system separated out major mental illnesses (such a depression, bipolar, anxiety, and schizophrenia) from personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (which made its debut in the DSM-III).

The draft copy that got circulated amongst the profession totally eliminated that Freudian article of faith, “neurosis.” To Spitzer and his task force, neurosis was an emperor with no clothes. Basically, if depression were a reaction to neurosis, then show me the neurosis. The depression was visible, tangible, treatable. But what was this underlying neurosis crap? Where was the scientific evidence?

By the end of the seventies, Freudians were in retreat, but they still had the clout to sabotage Spitzer’s efforts. The term, neurosis, was restored, but relegated to parenthesis. In 1979, following some more strategic compromises, the DSM-III came up for approval before the APA. According to an eyewitness account from an article by Alix Spiegel in the Jan 3, 2005, New Yorker:

“People stood up and applauded. Bob’s eyes got watery. Here was a group that he was afraid would torpedo all his efforts, and instead he gets a standing ovation.”

The DSM-III became an instant runaway success worldwide. Finally, no more Freudian muck. Clinicians, researchers, and other stakeholders had a common language, could actually talk to one another. Patients for the first time could enter a clinician’s office with the reasonable expectation of an accurate diagnosis and the appropriate treatment. Imagine that.

And here was the man responsible for it all - arguably the most influential psychiatrist of all time - seated right next to me. What do I say?

To be continued ...


cretin said...

This has been tremendously interesting. Waiting for the next installment. Thanks for giving us a history lesson.

John McManamy said...

HI, Cretin. Coming up soon. Stay tuned ...