90. Spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of warhead.


Keeping the doctor away: one apple and three bottles of Cipramil.


2016 is turning out to be the year of the internal saboteur, but the abbreviation I.S. is already taken. Examples are all around us of people deliberately choosing to inhibit their functioning.

In this town, people are dying their own hair green and getting misspelled tattoos like ‘No Regerts’. New buildings are getting fewer parking spaces than needed, not enough to discourage people from using cars, but just enough to inconvenience everyone. The Royal Bank of Scotland has told us to sell everything and put the cash in the freezer disguised as a chicken korma.

On a national level our politicians are fighting amongst themselves in each party. Jeremy Corbyn is suggesting running the Trident subs without the nukes on board. There’s a doctors’ strike that no-one can fully understand. And, in an unbelievable U turn, the chief medical officer says alcohol is really bad for you after all.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, David Bowie has died.

Psychoanalysts were good at explaining this kind of thing, examining the metaphorical bullets that people fired into their metaphorical feet, but they are gone, replaced by computerised CBT and web-based expressive writing.

There’s a theme to this: Medical Nemesis, which was the name of a book by Ivan Illich. Ivan’s idea was that doctors had medicalised significant areas of normal life and were set to colonise all human experience, by deeming everything to be Medical. Illich felt there was an inevitability to this process, much as he felt Communism would conquer the world, domino by domino. He also pointed out that a large amount of medical activity was counter-productive, so that the net effect of modern health care was marginal and in due course would become detrimental on balance.

Medical Nemesis was published in 1975, which was the year I went to medical school and David Bowie released Young Americans. Eerily and probably coincidentally, the rise and fall of Psychiatry as a successful enterprise has run in parallel with Bowie’s career. Studying the two timelines, the Bowie discography versus the history of psychiatry, there is a broadly positive correlation, with a slow decline after 1983. I expected to see something significant in 1990, to coincide with the launch of Clozapine, but there is only Tin Machine. No model is perfect.

The theme to our current medical nemesis is this: the counterproductive effects of medicine have been escalated so that they now outweigh the positive effects. After a brief period of medical effectiveness – basically the  few weeks that followed shutting down the cholera pump on Broad Street – we are back to doing harm to people.

It’s a bit complicated to say why, but we’re talking about the net effect. There is no doubt that some medical activities are helpful, such as removing marzipan and toy animals that children have accidentally stuck in their ears. But a lot of the old certainties, like spraying the countryside with antibiotics, are over.

Even in 1975, we were taught that the increasing life expectancy that occurred in the twentieth century was mainly due to improvements in hygiene and public health, rather than laser surgery and machines that went beep. Now it is possible that life expectancy is set to reduce. It is already reducing for those who are now in later life, particularly women.

Some of the factors that have inhibited the usefulness of medicine came from outside the profession, such as the food and alcohol industries. Some have come from health industry predators, such as management consultants. Mostly however, the bullets fired into the soft underbelly of medicine have been fired by doctors themselves. For those who like acronyms, the health industry has fallen victim to the 3 P’s, namely: Pomposity, Pretension and Ponderousness. These are the outward signs that medicine has gone where it doesn’t belong, ‘medicine gorn mad’ as Dr Allenby would have said.

Focussing on Mental Health for a moment, we are living through a very unhappy period. Round about the time that Illich wrote Medical Nemesis and Bowie became the thin white Duke, the treatment of mental illness was hitting a purple patch. Psychiatrists still worked out of large mental hospitals with hundreds of beds. About a third of the beds were occupied by patients with poor-outcome psychosis, the ones we pretend now don’t exist. Another third were allocated to elderly patients with dementia. Hospitals had wards that could deal with acutely disturbed psychotic patients, without bundling them into a van and sending them to a private hospital two hundred miles away.  But most of the patients were already in the community and there were satellite clinics and community nurses in most towns. Drug therapy, with the exception of Clozapine, had already peaked, using typical antipsychotics and tricyclic antidepressants. Medical training still revolved around the ‘firm’ model, each firm belonging to a Consultant. Trainees learned all the German words for mental phenomena and sat a proper exam with essays and a long case. There was no purchaser provider split. Hospitals were administered, not managed, by a triumvirate of administrator, nurse and doctor.

Can it be possible, 40 years later, with all the endeavour that has gone into research, reorganisation and regulation, all the millions of hours people have spent in committee meetings and working parties, all the billions of pounds spent on management consultants, that our services have actually deteriorated?

Making such an assertion, one is quickly accused of being a grumpy old man or woman. Suffice it to say that not everything a senior or experienced person says should be discounted automatically (just most of it).

There are many examples however of monumental enterprises that fail. The best known are IT projects like ‘Connecting for Health’ which was wound up in 2013, having spent more than £14 billion. The audit office concluded that ‘it was not demonstrated that the financial value of the benefits exceeds the cost of the Programme’. A scenario right out of Illich’s book.

Not only does medicine go where it doesn’t belong. Often it abandons areas where it does belong. For example, ECT. Without wishing to denigrate ECT, the evidence base for its usefulness is quite limited. Suffice it to say it probably works for certain types of acute psychotic condition, mainly the ones that it’s not used for. A lack of evidence that ECT was effective at all did not stop the Royal College setting up a complex system of training and accreditation, called ECTAS. It’s guidelines, along with those written by NICE, were stringent enough to put most ECT units out of business, much to the delight of those opposed to ECT, which is practically everyone.

Now, newer types of electrical and magnetic stimulation are coming out of the closet which are not evidence based or regulated or subject to the protective effects of the mental health act. For better or worse, ECT was regulated to death, but my tip is to hang on to those electrodes for now, pending the development of ‘swimming with electric eels’ holidays.

If Illich’s theory was correct, we would arrive at a point where medicine – in terms of its beneficial effect on society –  is taking exactly 100 steps backwards for every 100 it takes forwards. What is unclear is whether we have entered the recession yet. How will we know when the oil tanker of medicine has reached a standstill relative to the sea bed?

A possible indication of such a low point would be, say, identifying a medical condition that has recently been invented, by annexing an aspect of normal life. A condition that has escalated dramatically, filling thousands of outpatient clinics. A condition that can’t be treated effectively by health services. A condition where treatments are poorly evidenced and have clear harmful effects, like stunting growth. You know where I’m heading: by 2003, nearly 8% of American children were diagnosed ADHD. By 2011 this figure is said to have reached 11%, with a large increase in girls diagnosed with the disorder. As with life expectancy, and as Bowie would have noted, girls are the new boys.

In the metaphorical history of psychiatry then, ADHD falls into the long dark period, somewhere between Reality and The Next Day.


54. Looking at parallax, from a slightly different angle.


Electric horses – the next big thing in personal transportation.

A man talks to a phone-in show on Piccadilly Radio. He says the TV aerials in the next street are of an unusual type and point a different way, not towards the transmitter. Finally he mutters the word, ‘aliens’. The radio host asks him whether he has checked for seed pods under the stairs. The joke is a bit lost on those unfamiliar with ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’. The host finally grows inpatient and cuts off the most interesting guest of the day, before I can get an impression of whether he is psychotic or not.

One of the intriguing questions in public health is how many psychotic people there are hidden away who have no contact with the NHS. Surveys suggest that 1% of people have schizophrenia, which is a much higher number than we see in clinics. Have these surveys over-included a lot of people who, on the face of it, seem deluded, but on closer examination, simply share widely held beliefs about conspiracy?

On a long plane flight this week I read a book by Andy Thomas, called ‘Conspiracies – the facts, the theories, the evidence’. One of many questions that occurred to me, was why had this book suddenly been reduced in price from £6.99 to 99p? It’s hard to believe that Amazon doesn’t form part of the New World Order, the secret power said to be behind many attempts to deceive us. Maybe this book is in itself a diversionary tactic, or a tiny wink of knowingness that Big Brother gives us from time to time.

A surprisingly large number of people believe that Princess Diana was murdered or that the twin towers were brought down by some faction within the USA. In fact a surprising number of people believe both that Diana was murdered and that she is still alive. Chalk that one up to cognitive dissonance theory.

If some or all of these theories turn out to be true, it would definitely change a person’s view of the world, from that of a relatively safe place to a dark, dangerous and threatening one.

The fact that there are so many people who believe in conspiracy, and that certain conspiracies, such as Watergate, turned out to be true, raises a lot of interesting questions for clinicians.

As psychiatrists, we are taught not to get delusions mixed up with religion, politics or superstition. To be called delusional, a belief has to show a clean break in its logical development. Conspiracy theorists work with an alternative chain of logic, rather than a deluded person’s new canvas of meaning. Though many people who are psychotic suffer from persecutory type ideas, it is very rare to confuse a psychotic person with a ‘truth seeker’, as conspiracy theorists are now known, despite some very bizarre truth seeking theories, such as thinking the royal family are lizards.

There is probably very little point in trying to work out why people develop strong beliefs. The answer is ‘all sorts of reasons’. As far as delusional beliefs go, the best answer we have come up with is ‘because of a disease process’. Although delusions are held strongly, most non-delusional belief is held lightly and easily changed in the face of further inquiry. For instance, it is reported that when faced with medical need, many catholics will opt for a termination of pregnancy and that many Jehovah’s witnesses will change their minds in favour of blood transfusion. Most opinion surveys test only the topsoil of belief, and are designed to do so, by whatever vested interest is controlling the survey.

Psychiatrists are not in a hurry to identify beliefs as delusional, and despite what is said about the old Soviet Union etc, it has not been necessary for oppressive regimes to use tame psychiatrists to label dissidents as psychotic. Oppressive regimes are able to lock people up or have them disappear without pretending they are ill.

While psychiatrists don’t seem to be playing much part in locking up dissidents, they may be complicit in some more sophisticated subversions. In particular, psychiatrists play a major role in the drugs pipeline, the one that runs from a chemical works in Hull to your meso-limbic system and mine.

For instance, a steady stream of people come to outpatient clinics ‘wanting the diagnosis’ of bipolar disorder. (See Post 28). The exponential growth in the Bipolar Industry has been well described by David Healy, in his book, Mania: A Short History of Bipolar Disorder. Tellingly, this book has not been reduced by Amazon, so it probably contains some sinister truths we are not supposed to hear.

The key parts of this conspiracy are as follows: No useful new drugs have been developed in mental health for 20 years. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry has chosen to expand the market for drugs already on the market. Hence we saw a complete re-branding of ‘manic depressive disorder’ into ‘bipolar disorder’, massively expanding the diagnostic concept by including so called ‘bipolar II’ and ‘bipolar spectrum disorder’.

The outcome was a massive increase in the numbers of people with miscellaneous temperamental problems being given so called ‘mood stabilisers’, either atypical anti-psychotics or anticonvulsants, both being items from Boots’ ‘fat and sleepy’ aisle.

It took a lot of time and money to do this, and large numbers of psychiatrists collaborated in the process. There is a strange relationship between certain academics and clinicians and the drug companies and by strange relationship I mean free lunch – in Belgium.

In fuddy-duddy Britain, there is now endless conflict between psychiatrists and wannabe bipolar patients, but the signs are that the psychiatrists are surrendering. The customer is always right, especially if he is persistent, sharp-elbowed and well-googled.

We saw the same pattern in children’s mental health services. Once upon a time it was extremely rare to be diagnosed with Hyperactivity in the UK. A child had to be hyperactive all the time, not just between 4pm and KFC time. Even then, the use of psycho-stimulants like Ritalin was rare, and couched in cautionary warnings, like ‘use only as part of a carefully controlled therapy package, including social and family interventions’. Today’s community paediatricians basically fly crop dusting planes over the countryside, spraying Ritalin wherever they see a school.

Does someone have an agenda that includes more and more people taking mind altering drugs? It’s hard to imagine that a proper dictator would like to see cohorts of drunk women staggering round York on Friday nights, or lines of people queuing up for methadone outside Boots every morning. But then its hard to work out why the existing drug laws are not enforced, or why more and more heroin came out of Afghanistan despite the war in that country, or why our ward has a filing cabinet full of confiscated ‘legal highs’. Is it feasible that legal highs cannot be controlled by legislation, when there is legislation that makes Tesco throw away half its food, and legislation that stops me from connecting a gas fire?

Would a genuinely repressive regime be happy for millions of its citizens to take antidepressants, in some misguided hope that they would become more docile or cheerful in times of adversity? Marx is quoted as saying religion is the opiate of the masses, but perhaps the word he actually used was Ritalin.

The culture of propaganda has a lot to do with the rise of conspiracy theory. In the public sector we are routinely spun false statistics and like to pretend we are providing an excellent service. In mental health Trusts we want to pretend we are offering psychotherapy, when really we are offering only a nice chat, checklists and tablets. Its a kind of cover up, but we’re not in Jason Bourne territory. It’s obviously a lot cheaper to fiddle the statistics than to provide real therapists or policemen.

My colleagues are probably sitting tight, waiting for the Bipolar II epidemic to subside. Just like the Ritalin kids, the new wave ‘bipolar twos’ will soon be be stuffing their tablets behind the radiator. At the moment some people view a diagnosis of bipolar disorder as a get-out-jail-free card, in case of a minor indiscretion. These will get devalued if more people use them, instead of throwing doubles or paying £50 . Even now, fewer celebrities are coming forward purporting to have Bipolar II, and they are probably going back to having narcissism instead.

The conspiracy between Big Pharma and eminent psychiatrists will find a new condition supposedly amenable to antipsychotic drugs, such as food intolerance, or somatic symptom disorder. Then the experts and drug reps will be back in their Audis again at another round of conferences.

Sadly, most conspiracies don’t involve lizards or the CIA. Nor even do they involve a secret Mister Big, played by Morgan Freeman . They are just about drumming up trade. How boring is that? The new world order is just business as usual.

5. Knowing what to call things


An early classification system for depression, using cake.

Doctors and psychologists have invented a huge vocabulary of jargon. The downside of this enterprise is that non- experts are artificially excluded from participating. The upside is that at least we have a name for practically everything that might happen.

For instance – what do we call that thing – you know, in catatonic patients, where you pull their finger gently and you tell them to resist your pulling, but they follow your pull anyway without resistance, is there a word for that? How about mitgehen?

What about that thing where people mix up a coincidental event with a causal event? How about attribution error?

What’s that part of the wrist called at the base of the thumb? How about the anatomical snuff box?

How can we describe a loose pattern of findings that might include aspects of subjective history, observed behaviours and objective measurements, without necessarily implying a causal agent? How about a syndrome?

Depression has been described and categorised in so many different ways. We had reactive, endogenous, melancholia, major, minor, neurotic  and many more types. We have dysthymia and neurasthenia, we have bipolar 1 and 2. As stated by medical man, comedian and philosopher, Harry Hill, and an excellent catch phrase and running gag: ‘you’ve got to have a system’.

We are often accused of inventing diseases, for instance ‘medicalising’ ordinary human problems such as poor attention. More accurately though, we try and classify problems rather than invent them.

Classification is hugely important to doctors, partly because we have a geeky fondness for lists and tables, but mainly because all of medicine operates through a process of Pattern Recognition.

What we call each pattern doesn’t fundamentally matter, but it may matter a lot for social or political reasons. For instance if we diagnose ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome, rather than identify a certain kind of character, that might mean extra funding and help at school for someone. Diagnosis could make the difference as to whether someone who offended got sent to jail or hospital.

These issues largely flow from the way society is organised and what part the medical community has come to play within the processes of maintaining social order, rather than whether the Pattern is a genuine entity.

There are lots of ways of describing Patterns of behaviour. If there is a recognisable Pattern then there are a few things we need to say about it. Take a simple example, no, lets take a really complicated example – Anorexia Nervosa.

Psychiatrists have defined this illness so that there are three necessary components -the person should have lost a lot of weight, stopped having menstrual periods (if they had them before), and have a certain set of views about their body size. Both the first two aspects are easy to measure, the third one not too difficult to find out if the person will speak to you.

Anorexia seems to be both a valid and reliable diagnosis. By valid, we mean there is a real problem that we can identify and measure, by reliable we mean that people would agree on whether someone suffered from Anorexia Nervosa.

But is there truly an illness called Anorexia Nervosa? Only perhaps in as far as that is what we agree to call a certain type of problem. Diagnoses in Psychiatry, for the most part, are conventions between us regarding what Patterns should be called.  Are there people we meet who seem to fit the criteria for Anorexia Nervosa? Yes.

Our health system, be it the NHS or private sector, will demand that we make a diagnosis. We have to use a system such as the International Classification of Disease or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. In the UK we tend to use the ICD10. That will give you a number code, such as F10, if you drink too much alcohol. The codes can be quite detailed if we use more digits, e.g. F10.4 if we drink too much alcohol, stop drinking for a day or two and get delirious. If we had an epileptic seizure during this we will get F10.41.

Are there people we meet who get Delirium Tremens some of whom have a seizure? Yes.

But why bother to label certain types of life problem and include them in a list of supposed Psychiatric conditions?’ I am not a number, I am a human being’, yelled Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner. ‘Pigeon holing everyone’ – that is something Psychiatrists are accused of all the time, along with another favourite: ‘pumping people full of drugs’.

Ironically the interest in tightening up diagnosis in Psychiatry came as a result of a fascinating series of studies, the international pilot study of schizophrenia, or IPSS. The IPSS looked at the use of the term Schizophrenia in different countries including USA, USSR, UK, India and Nigeria.  This study seemed to find that a larger number of people were receiving the diagnosis of schizophrenia in certain countries (USA and USSR).  The American and Russian psychiatrists were calling a larger proportion of their patients schizophrenic.

At that time popular belief in the West was that the Soviets were falsely calling political dissidents mentally ill and locking them up in asylums. Whereas in the USA the disparity was put down to the way Psychiatrists traditionally understood the concept of schizophrenia.

It was soon recognized that it would be pretty difficult to do research into the causes or treatment of any disease if we could not even agree who suffered from it in the first place. Hence a huge amount of work sorting out a valid and reliable diagnostic system – DSM in the USA and ICD for the rest of world. The current versions – ICD10 and DSM4 are very similar in day to day use. So we can be reasonably sure that someone with Anorexia Nervosa in Milan has got a similar type of  problem to someone with Anorexia Nervosa in Birkenhead. So if we find Cause X or Therapy Y in one place, it might prove useful in any other place. Such is globalization.

Much  of the criticism of diagnosis in Psychiatry is based on what happens to people, and society, as a result of diagnosis happening. But criticizing diagnosis itself is as foolish as suggesting that it is impossible to classify colours of the rainbow or garden flowers.

The point is, sound diagnosis can be liberating as well as restrictive, it all depends on what we do with it. The danger is in poor quality diagnosis, or the misuse of diagnosis. These are the same dangers that occur with any tool, cordless curling tongs in particular.

How does this affect the depressed person in their kitchen?

Your subjective experience needs putting into words if you have to tell another person how you are feeling. You are free to create your own diagnostic scheme for Depression, but to be useful it needs to chime with someone else’s scheme.

In the case of Depression, even experts who normally know exactly what to call things, have failed to create much of a system. The ICD10 for instance gives up on classification much beyond the level of severity:  Mild/Moderate/Severe. Its unlikely that mass protest and civil disorder will break out in response to this categorisation.

There is only one thing worse than labelling people, as Oscar Wilde definitely didn’t say, and that’s not labelling people.

And there’s only one thing worse than pumping people full of drugs… (an inquiry was told).