Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rerun - My Top Mental Health Stories

The near-end to both a year and a decade is a good time to repost this piece, originally published in May. Had the President signed into law a version of health care reform in the interim, I would have expanded this to a Top Eleven list. Hopefully, a Presidential signature will lead a new Top Ten list for the upcoming decade. Enjoy ...

Following is what I view as the ten most significant events or trends affecting all of mental health in my ten years researching and reporting on my illness. Obviously, had I been reporting on say schizophrenia rather than bipolar my list would be different. Then again, only one entry here is bipolar-specific. So, without further ado, in no particular order:

Recognition of child bipolar

Ten years ago, virtually everyone thought you had to be of voting age to qualify for a bipolar diagnosis. A lot of the credit for changing that misconception goes to the parents, who have taken it upon themselves to educate clinicians and educators. There has been a noisy public backlash over labeling and medicating kids, but the alternative of turning your back on them is totally unthinkable.

Key people: Demitri and Janice Papolos, authors of "The Bipolar Child"; Joseph Biederman, Harvard child psychiatrist and paradigm-shifter.

Bottom line: A child who jumps out of a moving vehicle has something very serious going on. Finally, we have woken up and are doing something about it.

Coming of age of borderline personality diagnosis

Surely, the thinking went, there could be no biological basis to this Freudian artifact. Guess what? The brain scans tell a different story. The scientific evidence, coupled with proof that interventions such as DBT work, not to mention the realization that borderline may be one reason why many so-called bipolar patients do not get better, is slowly shaking psychiatry out of its denial and raising public awareness.

Key people: Marsha Linehan, developer of DBT; Paul Mason and Randi Kreger, authors of "Stop Walking on Eggshells."

Bottom line: Countless individuals currently living tortured lives can look forward to a fresh start.

Brain science research

Where to start? The mapping out of stress-vulnerability and thought and modulation pathways, new revelations about plasticity and brain cell growth, new discoveries into how neurons work, new insights into how the brain interacts with the environment, the emergence of brain development as an explanation for mental illness, plus a host of candidate illness genes and the mapping the human genome ...

Key people: Eric Kandel, Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard, who shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work in how neurons communicate.

Bottom line: Very smart people are changing the way we think, and - eventually - how we live.

Validation of talking therapies

CBT, interpersonal therapy, and other short-term therapies focusing on the here and now have been around since at least the seventies. But only in the last decade do we have the studies to prove just how useful these interventions are. Their popularity is growing, along with new applications, including CBT for schizophrenia (once regarded as a waste of time).

Key people: Aaron Beck and David Burns, founder and popularizer of CBT, respectively.

Bottom line: Growing numbers are learning to actively take charge of their own brains.

The spectrum concept

It's not whether you have bipolar - it's how much bipolar you may have. In other words, your depression may be more than just depression. In addition, the spectrum concept is encouraging researchers and clinicians to more closely examine various relationships between supposedly separate illnesses such as schizophrenia and autism - not to mention how such things as temperament and illness interact - and come up with original insights.

Key people: Hagop Akiskal, bipolar spectrum proponent; Robert Cloninger, personality pattern-spotter and paradigm-shifter.

Bottom line: The brain is not organized according to the DSM. Thank heaven for that.

Recovery movement

Earth to psychiatry: We want to get well, not just stable. We want to have lives, not just subsist as over-medicated zombies. In response, patients have taken matters into their own hands, with a growing grass roots recovery movement that trains peer specialists and encourages patients to take positive steps to move their lives forward.

Key people: Mary Ellen Copeland, proponent of WRAP; Daniel Fisher, recovery rabble-rouser; Eugene Johnson, founder of Recovery Innovations.

Bottom line: Psychiatry makes us stable. Only we can make ourselves well.

Patients and loved ones figure out the internet

Suddenly, we weren't alone and isolated. We could talk to each other online, support each other, learn, organize, and advocate. In addition, we could find information on our own from expert sources, then become our own experts. The downside, of course, is what happens with this tool in the hands of the ignorant and unprincipled.

Key people: Martha Hellander, founder of the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation, the first internet-based mental health advocacy organization; Peter Frishauf, founder of Medscape; Deborah Gray, founder of "Wing of Madness," the template for many patient sites to follow.

Bottom line: For better and worse, the internet is where most of us go to for information and support.

Beginning of the end of drug companies

Everything seemed to happen at once: Patients and doctors seeing through the Pharma hype, blockbuster meds losing their patent protection, and no new meds coming out of the pipeline. No longer with any financial interest in influencing psychiatry, Pharma virtually backed out of the game. And with mega lost revenues from loss of patent protection, Pharma may lack the resources to ever get back in it.

Bottom line: Due to their arrogance and stupidity, Pharma fully deserves what's coming, but do we?

Deterioration in services

Not being able to afford meds and the doctors who prescribe them is only a small part of the problem. Lack of access to costly and time-consuming services is major. You name it - long-term therapy, psychiatric rehabilitation, higher education, crisis intervention, social services, vocational training, jail diversion, decent housing - not only is the money not there; the system is seemingly designed to fail us.

Bottom line: In this economy, things are only going to get worse.

Returning vets mental illness time bomb

Vets are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with high rates of mental illness, or at high risk of mental illness, including PTSD and depression. Add to that the challenges in fitting back into society, then consider what many do to cope, such as drugs and alcohol.

Bottom line: Vietnam vets account for a large percentage of the homeless. Unless we act fast and plan long term, a new generation of vets will join them.

Big story of the next ten years: The current economic crisis

Whichever way events play out, society's most vulnerable will be the hardest hit, and those better off aren't immune either. Nevertheless, before we predict a pandemic of stress-related mental illness, the data shows that people actually experience better health and live longer when times are bad. Something to do with a return to core values?

Bottom line: However we come out of this, nothing is ever going to be the same again.

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