Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Earlier installments in this series framed the creation of the modern DSM in terms of Kraepelin vs Freud. But is that truly accurate?
Robert Spitzer’s achievement represents a Nobel-worthy leap forward in the history of psychiatry, but his DSM-III was only meant to be a first installment to a work-in-progress, not frozen in time as psychiatry’s diagnostic Bible. Its present incarnation as the DSM-IV-TR of 2000 is essentially the same old 1980 book in a new cover.
There are many dangers to this. One of them is that the universal success of the DSM has entrenched its original errors. What may have started out in 1980 as a descriptive trial balloon by 1984 was unaccountably accepted as scientific fact, which by 1990 was regarded as wisdom of the ages. Now, in 2009, thanks to all the stake-holders invested in the status quo - insurance companies and so on - undoing these mistakes borders on the impossible.
For instance, a pharmaceutical company with billions riding on a new antidepressant does not suddenly want to find out that depression no longer means what it used to mean.
Previously, I pointed out that Spitzer was inspired by the pioneering German diagnostician Emil Kraepelin, who was born the same year as Freud. Unfortunately, Kraepelin was undoubtedly rolling over in his grave when the DSM-III was published. This is not an esoteric debate. The health and safety of anyone who has ever been depressed is riding on an accurate diagnosis, and unfortunately the DSM guarantees that won’t happen for a good many people.
It was Kraepelin who coined the term, manic-depression, but what he meant by the term was not a simple synonym for what we later called bipolar disorder. By manic-depression, Kraepelin also meant what we now call unipolar depression. Unipolar and bipolar could not so easily be separated out.
A later generation of researchers (including Jules Angst) did find a sizable exception. These were individuals who suffered from long-term and relentless “chronic” depression. These depressions contrasted with those who cycled in and out of their shorter-term “recurrent” depressions. To Kraepelin, recurrent depression and what we now call bipolar were part of the same manic-depressive phenomenon.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, an astute clinician does not need evidence of a manic episode to suspect bipolar in a patient. A history of recurrent depression is cause to probe for further indicators. Keep in mind, a patient never walks into a psychiatrist’s office complaining that he is feeling better than usual. Also keep in mind that when depressed, our brains trick us into forgetting what is was like to feel good, or, for that matter, too good for our own good.
Thus, unless a family member is present to remind her loved one to tell the doctor about the time he got a speeding ticket driving home from karaoke night with someone who wasn’t his wife, all the clinician has to go on is the patient’s current condition, along with his tale of woe.
During the seventies, expert opinion - led by Frederick Goodwin and David Dunner and others - favored Kraepelin’s approach. No matter how one chose to slice and dice manic-depression, the thinking went, it was crucial to draw a line between chronic and recurrent depression, and to recognize recurrent depression, at the very least, as a close cousin of bipolar.
So what happened? Spitzer and company did the unthinkable. They separated out recurrent depression from bipolar and lumped it with chronic depression. In addition, unless an individual cycled up into an extreme mania, he or she was deemed to have unipolar depression. (It took 14 years to get “bipolar II” with its less stringent hypomania threshold included in the DSM, and a strong body of expert opinion contends this does not go nearly far enough. Today, ironically there is extremely misinformed commentary that bipolar II is some form of new and unauthorized "expanded" version of bipolar. )
The result is that unless a patient is bouncing off the walls and ceilings, he or she is bound to be incorrectly diagnosed with major depression and be prescribed an antidepressant (this happened to me), which tends to worsen the condition. For those with bipolar II, a correct diagnosis is virtually impossible. Their lot is typically the frustration of years of antidepressants that don’t work or make them feel worse.
As for those with recurrent depression, forget about it. So might a mood stabilizer work on this population? Decades ago, lithium pioneer Mogens Schou found promising evidence. But thanks to the DSM, further research in this direction has been strongly discouraged, with pharmaceutical companies typically viewing all depressions as the same. (A notable exception was GSK testing Lamictal on a recurrent population.) Thus, we know that any given antidepressant will have some benefit on 50 percent of those who are depressed. The catch is we have no idea which 50 percent.
We can go on and on about all the DSM screw-ups just within the depression-bipolar sphere - its highly restrictive view of “mixed” states, its failure to account for anxiety symptoms, its bias toward finding depression in women - but let’s stop here. It’s enough to say the DSM, for all its good intentions, fails much of those deemed mentally ill much of the time.
Go to nearly any mental health website (not mine), and you will be treated to descriptions of depression and bipolar based on DSM-IV criteria (as in the screenshot on top). Read a book, glance at a brochure, take an online test, talk to your doctor - all DSM all the time. Spitzer, in the end, proved far too successful for our own good. But the fault lies with his successors, who failed to take corrective action, not necessarily with Spitzer.
Spitzer was a mold-breaker who inadvertently created a dogma as stifling as the Freudian Reign of Error he overthrew. What we now need to break the stranglehold of the Spitzer legacy is another mold-breaker - another Spitzer.
To be continued ...
Previous installments in this series: