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The Illusions of Psychiatry

Like most other psychiatrists, Carlat treats his patients only with drugs, not talk therapy, and he is candid about the advantages of doing so. If he sees three patients an hour for psychopharmacology, he calculates, he earns about $180 per hour from insurers. In contrast, he would be able to see only one patient an hour for talk therapy, for which insurers would pay him less than $100. Carlat does not believe that psychopharmacology is particularly complicated, let alone precise, although the public is led to believe that it is:

Patients often view psychiatrists as wizards of neurotransmitters, who can choose just the right medication for whatever chemical imbalance is at play. This exaggerated conception of our capabilities has been encouraged by drug companies, by psychiatrists ourselves, and by our patients’ understandable hopes for cures.

His work consists of asking patients a series of questions about their symptoms to see whether they match up with any of the disorders in the DSM. This matching exercise, he writes, provides “the illusion that we understand our patients when all we are doing is assigning them labels.” Often patients meet criteria for more than one diagnosis, because there is overlap in symptoms. For example, difficulty concentrating is a criterion for more than one disorder. One of Carlat’s patients ended up with seven separate diagnoses. “We target discrete symptoms with treatments, and other drugs are piled on top to treat side effects.” A typical patient, he says, might be taking Celexa for depression, Ativan for anxiety, Ambien for insomnia, Provigil for fatigue (a side effect of Celexa), and Viagra for impotence (another side effect of Celexa).

As for the medications themselves, Carlat writes that “there are only a handful of umbrella categories of psychotropic drugs,” within which the drugs are not very different from one another. He doesn’t believe there is much basis for choosing among them. “To a remarkable degree, our choice of medications is subjective, even random. Perhaps your psychiatrist is in a Lexapro mood this morning, because he was just visited by an attractive Lexapro drug rep.” And he sums up:

Such is modern psychopharmacology. Guided purely by symptoms, we try different drugs, with no real conception of what we are trying to fix, or of how the drugs are working. I am perpetually astonished that we are so effective for so many patients.

While Carlat believes that psychoactive drugs are sometimes effective, his evidence is anecdotal. What he objects to is their overuse and what he calls the “frenzy of psychiatric diagnoses.” As he puts it, “if you ask any psychiatrist in clinical practice, including me, whether antidepressants work for their patients, you will hear an unambiguous ‘yes.’ We see people getting better all the time.” But then he goes on to speculate, like Irving Kirsch in The Emperor’s New Drugs, that what they are really responding to could be an activated placebo effect. If psychoactive drugs are not all they’re cracked up to be—and the evidence is that they’re not—what about the diagnoses themselves? As they multiply with each edition of the DSM, what are we to make of them?

In 1999, the APA began work on its fifth revision of the DSM, which is scheduled to be published in 2013. The twenty-seven-member task force is headed by David Kupfer, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, assisted by Darrel Regier of the APA’s American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education. As with the earlier editions, the task force is advised by multiple work groups, which now total some 140 members, corresponding to the major diagnostic categories. Ongoing deliberations and proposals have been extensively reported on the APA website (www.DSM5.org) and in the media, and it appears that the already very large constellation of mental disorders will grow still larger.

In particular, diagnostic boundaries will be broadened to include precursors of disorders, such as “psychosis risk syndrome” and “mild cognitive impairment” (possible early Alzheimer’s disease). The term “spectrum” is used to widen categories, for example, “obsessive-compulsive disorder spectrum,” “schizophrenia spectrum disorder,” and “autism spectrum disorder.” And there are proposals for entirely new entries, such as “hypersexual disorder,” “restless legs syndrome,” and “binge eating.”

Even Allen Frances, chairman of the DSM-IV task force, is highly critical of the expansion of diagnoses in the DSM-V. In the June 26, 2009, issue of Psychiatric Times, he wrote that the DSM-V will be a “bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry but at a huge cost to the new false positive patients caught in the excessively wide DSM-V net.” As if to underscore that judgment, Kupfer and Regier wrote in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), entitled “Why All of Medicine Should Care About DSM-5,” that “in primary care settings, approximately 30 percent to 50 percent of patients have prominent mental health symptoms or identifiable mental disorders, which have significant adverse consequences if left untreated.”6 It looks as though it will be harder and harder to be normal.

At the end of the article by Kupfer and Regier is a small-print “financial disclosure” that reads in part:

Prior to being appointed as chair, DSM-5 Task Force, Dr. Kupfer reports having served on advisory boards for Eli Lilly & Co, Forest Pharmaceuticals Inc, Solvay/Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson; and consulting for Servier and Lundbeck.

Regier oversees all industry-sponsored research grants for the APA. The DSM-V (used interchangeably with DSM-5) is the first edition to establish rules to limit financial conflicts of interest in members of the task force and work groups. According to these rules, once members were appointed, which occurred in 2006–2008, they could receive no more than $10,000 per year in aggregate from drug companies or own more than $50,000 in company stock. The website shows their company ties for three years before their appointments, and that is what Kupfer disclosed in the JAMA article and what is shown on the APA website, where 56 percent of members of the work groups disclosed significant industry interests.

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Give me the first thing that comes to hand’; lithograph by Grandville, 1832

The pharmaceutical industry influences psychiatrists to prescribe psychoactive drugs even for categories of patients in whom the drugs have not been found safe and effective. What should be of greatest concern for Americans is the astonishing rise in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in children, sometimes as young as two years old. These children are often treated with drugs that were never approved by the FDA for use in this age group and have serious side effects. The apparent prevalence of “juvenile bipolar disorder” jumped forty-fold between 1993 and 2004, and that of “autism” increased from one in five hundred children to one in ninety over the same decade. Ten percent of ten-year-old boys now take daily stimulants for ADHD—“attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder”—and 500,000 children take antipsychotic drugs.

There seem to be fashions in childhood psychiatric diagnoses, with one disorder giving way to the next. At first, ADHD, manifested by hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and impulsivity usually in school-age children, was the fastest-growing diagnosis. But in the mid-1990s, two highly influential psychiatrists at the Massachusetts General Hospital proposed that many children with ADHD really had bipolar disorder that could sometimes be diagnosed as early as infancy. They proposed that the manic episodes characteristic of bipolar disorder in adults might be manifested in children as irritability. That gave rise to a flood of diagnoses of juvenile bipolar disorder. Eventually this created something of a backlash, and the DSM-V now proposes partly to replace the diagnosis with a brand-new one, called “temper dysregulation disorder with dysphoria,” or TDD, which Allen Frances calls “a new monster.”7

One would be hard pressed to find a two-year-old who is not sometimes irritable, a boy in fifth grade who is not sometimes inattentive, or a girl in middle school who is not anxious. (Imagine what taking a drug that causes obesity would do to such a girl.) Whether such children are labeled as having a mental disorder and treated with prescription drugs depends a lot on who they are and the pressures their parents face.8 As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive. It is more generous than welfare, and it virtually ensures that the family will also qualify for Medicaid. According to MIT economics professor David Autor, “This has become the new welfare.” Hospitals and state welfare agencies also have incentives to encourage uninsured families to apply for SSI payments, since hospitals will get paid and states will save money by shifting welfare costs to the federal government.

Growing numbers of for-profit firms specialize in helping poor families apply for SSI benefits. But to qualify nearly always requires that applicants, including children, be taking psychoactive drugs. According to a New York Times story, a Rutgers University study found that children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured children to receive antipsychotic medicines.

In December 2006 a four-year-old child named Rebecca Riley died in a small town near Boston from a combination of Clonidine and Depakote, which she had been prescribed, along with Seroquel, to treat “ADHD” and “bipolar disorder”—diagnoses she received when she was two years old. Clonidine was approved by the FDA for treating high blood pressure. Depakote was approved for treating epilepsy and acute mania in bipolar disorder. Seroquel was approved for treating schizophrenia and acute mania. None of the three was approved to treat ADHD or for long-term use in bipolar disorder, and none was approved for children Rebecca’s age. Rebecca’s two older siblings had been given the same diagnoses and were each taking three psychoactive drugs. The parents had obtained SSI benefits for the siblings and for themselves, and were applying for benefits for Rebecca when she died. The family’s total income from SSI was about $30,000 per year.9

Whether these drugs should ever have been prescribed for Rebecca in the first place is the crucial question. The FDA approves drugs only for specified uses, and it is illegal for companies to market them for any other purpose—that is, “off-label.” Nevertheless, physicians are permitted to prescribe drugs for any reason they choose, and one of the most lucrative things drug companies can do is persuade physicians to prescribe drugs off-label, despite the law against it. In just the past four years, five firms have admitted to federal charges of illegally marketing psychoactive drugs. AstraZeneca marketed Seroquel off-label for children and the elderly (another vulnerable population, often administered antipsychotics in nursing homes); Pfizer faced similar charges for Geodon (an antipsychotic); Eli Lilly for Zyprexa (an antipsychotic); Bristol-Myers Squibb for Abilify (another antipsychotic); and Forest Labs for Celexa (an antidepressant).

Despite having to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle the charges, the companies have probably come out well ahead. The original purpose of permitting doctors to prescribe drugs off-label was to enable them to treat patients on the basis of early scientific reports, without having to wait for FDA approval. But that sensible rationale has become a marketing tool. Because of the subjective nature of psychiatric diagnosis, the ease with which diagnostic boundaries can be expanded, the seriousness of the side effects of psychoactive drugs, and the pervasive influence of their manufacturers, I believe doctors should be prohibited from prescribing psychoactive drugs off-label, just as companies are prohibited from marketing them off-label.

The books by Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat are powerful indictments of the way psychiatry is now practiced. They document the “frenzy” of diagnosis, the overuse of drugs with sometimes devastating side effects, and widespread conflicts of interest. Critics of these books might argue, as Nancy Andreasen implied in her paper on the loss of brain tissue with long-term antipsychotic treatment, that the side effects are the price that must be paid to relieve the suffering caused by mental illness. If we knew that the benefits of psychoactive drugs outweighed their harms, that would be a strong argument, since there is no doubt that many people suffer grievously from mental illness. But as Kirsch, Whitaker, and Carlat argue convincingly, that expectation may be wrong.

At the very least, we need to stop thinking of psychoactive drugs as the best, and often the only, treatment for mental illness or emotional distress. Both psychotherapy and exercise have been shown to be as effective as drugs for depression, and their effects are longer-lasting, but unfortunately, there is no industry to push these alternatives and Americans have come to believe that pills must be more potent. More research is needed to study alternatives to psychoactive drugs, and the results should be included in medical education.

In particular, we need to rethink the care of troubled children. Here the problem is often troubled families in troubled circumstances. Treatment directed at these environmental conditions—such as one-on-one tutoring to help parents cope or after-school centers for the children—should be studied and compared with drug treatment. In the long run, such alternatives would probably be less expensive. Our reliance on psychoactive drugs, seemingly for all of life’s discontents, tends to close off other options. In view of the risks and questionable long-term effectiveness of drugs, we need to do better. Above all, we should remember the time-honored medical dictum: first, do no harm (primum non nocere).

This is the second part of a two-part article.

Letters

The Illusions of Psychiatry’: An Exchange August 18, 2011

  1. 6

    David J. Kupfer and Darrel A. Regier, “Why All of Medicine Should Care About DSM-5,” JAMA, May 19, 2010. 

  2. 7

    Greg Miller, “Anything But Child’s Play,” Science, March 5, 2010. 

  3. 8

    Duff Wilson, “Child’s Ordeal Reveals Risks of Psychiatric Drugs in Young,” The New York Times, September 2, 2010. 

  4. 9

    Patricia Wen, “A Legacy of Unintended Side-Effects: Call It the Other Welfare,” The Boston Globe, December 12, 2010. 

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