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.


84. Learning lessons from cleverer sorts of creature.


Dolphins. They don’t do SATS.

Matisse and Chase are action dogs who won Britain’s got Talent. The fact that dogs can be taught to walk across a tightrope should make the education establishment pause briefly over its tall latte. As legions of children are subjected to ever-changing methods of learning and testing, has it never occurred to teachers that all they need is a packet of food pellets and a buzzer? If not, they should try writing the learning objectives and lesson plans for a dolphin show.

The problem seems to be in the notion that learners need to ‘understand’ things.

Once you start down the road of Understanding, sooner or later, you will lose your way. As Spinal Tap observed, it’s a very thin line between clever and stupid.

The road to understanding ends with a Philosophy experiment, like how Schrodinger’s Cat can be alive and dead at the same time. The pursuit of Understanding has killed off skills learning and almost no-one can walk across a tightrope nowadays, not even Matisse if safety rules are respected. Apparently Matisse hasn’t got a great head for heights.

As I understand it – which I don’t need to – operant conditioning happens as follows: People (or dogs) blunder around randomly, certain behaviours get associated with nice or nasty experiences. This, in turn, makes it more or less likely the behaviour will be repeated. Rewarding behaviours with biscuits or fish allows trainers to create showbiz animals. It’s embarrassing to accept that operant conditioning remains the strongest determinant of our behaviour. But there are examples all around us if we look.

In front of me for instance is a jar of eucalyptus honey, which I am putting on my elbows. Although I have sat through countless hours of training in evidence – based medicine and statistics, my experiences with honey are completely homespun, not to say stupid. Like most experiments, it started randomly at a hotel somewhere. A particular constellation of circumstances occurred: sore elbows / time to waste / poor impulse control / spare sachet of honey / no-one looking / short sleeves / suspension of disbelief / random fluctuation of self limiting condition / not liking honey as a food.

Add to that perhaps the knowledge that many great discoveries really did happen by chance.

I am not saying – GMC fitness to practice committee, please note – that you should put honey on your sore places. I don’t think I should be doing it myself to be honest, since it is wrecking my reputation and my wool jumpers. And honey just does not fit into a touch-screen world.

I’m aware I am falling victim to Attribution Error. Being aware of it doesn’t stop it happening though. Placebo can still work, even if the subject is told it is a placebo. Even if there are neon lights flashing the word ‘Placebo’ in front of you and a fifty-strong male voice choir singing the word ‘Placebo’ right behind you. That’s why Understanding just isn’t necessary and might even be dangerous.

Which is also why it may not be quite as necessary to try and explain things as the current versions of User Involvement dictate. Some psychiatrists have got into trouble saying stupid things to patients in an attempts to explain how drugs work. The worst thing you can say, apparently, is ‘chemical imbalance’. It’s OK to say ‘chemical’ I think – though some people struggle with the notion that the brain is made of atoms –  it’s the ‘imbalance’ part that does the damage.

Once you start using words like ‘imbalance’ you can be sure you’re on slippery foundations. Next thing you’ll find you’ve said ‘Time’ or ‘Nature’ or ‘Rest’. Then its only a short step to mumbling something like ‘striving officiously against the inevitable darkness’ and ‘tickets to Switzerland’. If you say the words ‘balance’ or ‘imbalance’ you will hear the examiners screaming with laughter behind their one way mirror.

Psychiatrists might use the word ‘deficiency’ in the context of brain chemistry, but not ‘imbalance’. Not that deficiency (e.g. of serotonin) is a proven cause of depression. But the monoamine theory of depression did guide people’s understanding of the illness for many years. ‘Increasing’ serotonin was the simplistic explanation for how antidepressants might work, particularly those named serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.

There are reams of internet pages given over to an argument between anti-psychiatrists and the psychiatric establishment about whether any psychiatrist has actually used the phrase ‘chemical imbalance’. And indeed as to whether the monoamine theory included notions of balance.

Further reams explore whether it was a term that used to be used but has now been abandoned and the usage covered up, like documents in 1984.

Anti-psychiatrists  argue that psychiatrists concocted the notion of Imbalance with big pharma, in return for free logo pens. One of them scoured the literature to find use of the ‘I-word’ and came up with this example from a 2003 textbook:

Sometimes the explanation is as simplistic as ‘a chemical imbalance,’ while other patients and families may request brain imaging so that they can see the possible psychopathology or genetic analyses to calculate genetic risk’

As far as this paragraph goes, the stupidity of the chemical imbalance part is overshadowed by the rest of it, such as the idea of seeing psychopathology on an image of the brain. Even so, the usage seems to be an example of low-end explanatory waffle, rather than as a deliberate falsehood the board of Eli Lilley dreamed up as they circled their cauldron.

When talking about drugs, or honey, smart people know how to say ‘I don’t know’ But it’s not OK, as Ed Milliband found out at the election, to say ‘who cares?’

Just to reassure you, I am not keeping the medicinal honey anywhere near the food honey, and I have labelled it ‘Medicinal Use Only’ and ‘Not for Internal Use’, just like the Boots chemist would have done in 1965. It works by Osmosis I think, which is quite different from correcting an imbalance.

63. Being a do be, not a don’t be.


Voyeurism can be a problem for creatures that mate outdoors.


British psychiatry is a bullet-riddled corpse lying in the gutter, but people are still stopping by, from time to time, to give it another kicking.

It’s in a similar condition to other twentieth century institutions, like organised religion, nuclear power and the Co-op. They are zombies, but they are still staggering forwards, muttering incoherently.

The bullets come from many directions. No new drugs, no new therapies, massive cuts in hospital and community services. Very few medical graduates are coming forward to work in the speciality.

Attacking British psychiatry in 2014 is equivalent to laying into Workington F.C. for finishing bottom of the Conference League (North).

This time, the would-be assassins are a group called the Council for Evidence Based Psychiatry (CEP), who are attempting an anti-psychiatry re-launch, this time under an ‘evidence-based-medicine’ banner.  Some of their argument turns on the (lack of) benefits and dangers of antidepressant drugs.

None of this criticism is new, and like all negative campaigns, this one will fall victim to the ‘negative halo effect’ that surrounds mental health information. It’s guaranteed to make people hop channels. The media won’t be interested unless one of the following crops up: colourful brain scan, or samurai sword.

Like progressive rock, anti-psychiatry belongs to a former era. CEP might just as well attack any other long demised evil empire, such as the Soviet Union or the Barons, or Marlborough Man. They could still be yelling ‘Judas’ at Bob Dylan for ‘going electric’ in 1966. They are probably still worried about the fuel tanks on the Ford Pinto.

To be fair, there is a lot to be critical about in modern psychiatry. Many of the points made by CEP are manifestly true, much as the programs ‘grumpy old men / women’ make accurate observations about modern life. It’s easy to criticise and there’s so much to be critical about. But what is the aim? To rant and rave, or to get more resources for non-drug treatments? To do that, the battle has to be fought in the context of public attitudes towards mental health problems.

Back in the middle of the last century, some very creative and brave researchers attempted to find out what ‘ordinary people’ knew and felt about mental illness. There were a number of milestone studies, such as those by Shirley Star in Chicago, Cumming and Cumming in Canada, and Gatherer and Reid in England.

These studies found that people tended to stereotype the mentally unwell person as dangerous and unpredictable. They were slow and reluctant to consider someone to be mentally ill, but once they did, they tended to avoid that person. The aim of these researchers was to reduce stigma by designing public education programs. Sadly, no-one is paying attention to what they found out, which basically, was: 1. ‘stay positive’ and 2. don’t attempt to pretend that mental illness does not exist – people are hard-wired to believe that it does.

Attempts to alter people’s attitudes toward mental illness failed because of the negative halo effect. In the case of the Cummings, they were eventually forced to leave town, hence the name of their book, ‘Closed Ranks’.

The researchers attributed this to an attempt to advance the notion that mental illness was something that could happen to anyone. People just wouldn’t accept that.

Interestingly, now it is the psychiatrists and nurses who are closing ranks. The worry is that what remains of the mental health industry will turn in on itself, similar to police departments, such as the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad or LAPD after Rodney King.

One sign of this is the Royal College of Pyschiatrists’ accusing itself of institutional racism, following in the footsteps (smaller size, obviously) of the Metropolitan Police. Another sign is the defensive sort of response service users get from NHS Trusts in response to queries.  There are odd attempts at ‘whistle-blowing’, but in the NHS, that’s basically a one-way ticket to the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Closing ranks is not the answer, nor is smashing the system. Everyone knows that Psychiatry is the Cinderella specialty. The neglect, in all its forms, including poor quality treatments, is down to negative public attitudes. The Turning Away, as Floydians would put it. The solution, so obviously, is better media coverage.

Here’s an example of a positive strategy: in Liverpool, The Readers Organisation has been pursuing positive mental health by setting up Reading Groups for people with Depression*.

Results have been very promising, although the evidence base would doubtless fail to satisfy the CEP. Probably they will start to identify victims of literature instead: ‘Hi, I’m Charlie. I’ve been catatonic since I read Silas Marner’.

It’s already been shown that reading challenging literature causes bits of brain to light up in bright colours. Surely its time for a controlled trial of Wordsworth versus Prozac?

Although ‘ECT versus Titus Andronicus’ was turned down by the Ethical Committee.



*An investigation into the therapeutic benefits of

reading in relation to depression and well-being: http://www.thereader.org.uk/media/72227/Therapeutic_benefits_of_reading_final_report_March_2011.pdf

59. Cutting costs to the bone and a few corners.


Behind the scenes at Boots.

While we’re on the subject of newspapers (see 58) I’m wondering if the Sunday Times shouldn’t go on the top shelf at the newsagents, along with Total Carp and Darts Illustrated (Swimwear Edition). I’m seriously wondering if its worth queuing up behind the lottery victims, paying £2.50, just to have your world view tarnished and warped.
What is happening at the Sunday Times? Has the influence of Jeremy Clarkson begun to infect the other journalists, who have failed to realise that Clarkson’s work is ironic?
World war three will probably be a fight between thin people and the obese. I wouldn’t put money on the thin people – yes they can run faster, but they can be squashed more easily and might not survive a nuclear winter. In a bid to kickstart the war, Rod Liddle wrote a vicious attack on obese people, entitled: ‘Chew on this insult, lardbucket. It’s for your own good’.
Elsewhere in the paper we learn from Prince Andrew that failure is good for you. I wonder if he’s fully understood what his therapist told him.
And, if that’s not gratuitous enough for you, Camilla Cavendish writes an article this week entitled: ‘Dr Useless says he’s busy. Fine, I’ll be off to the pharmacist then’.That’s a bit more serious, in that Camilla Cavendish is on the board of the Care Quality Commission, and usually wears a serious writing hat to comment on health services, such as contributing an influential report advocating standard training for health care assistants.
The gist of the article is that doctors are very hard to get to see, ‘just to get antibiotics’. It takes weeks to get an appointment. Whereas you can just walk into the pharmacy shop and see a very nice man in a labcoat who will give you whatever you want straight away.
Does this article suggest there is a significant lobby in favour of reducing the role of GPs in favour of pharmacy shops? Private companies have been rather slow to muscle in on the general practice market. Tesco and Morrisons often have pharmacies, but never seem to offer medical specialists, not even dermatologists.
But more recently, Tesco and Morrisons have been struggling even to run the grocery section properly. Instead of supermarkets taking over health care, it’s more likely that the GP will start selling fruit and vegetables.
If one takes the view that a slimmed down health service will confine itself to drug therapies and leave the chat to the private sector, supermarket pharmacies might become the first port of call for the health shopper.
Like Trad Jazz and CBT, pharmacists have no natural predator – no-one has a bad word to say for them. That view could change, if they take on a more central role in primary care. Pharmacy shops are businesses that make their money from selling tablets and potions. Are they likely to offer a free consultation with a professional person and advise you just to wait and see? Or will they sell you some tablets? Will they give you Paracetamol for 16p or Panadol for 89p? I think you know the answer.
While some commentators are predicting that pharmacy shops will take over from GPs, I say: why not cut out the middleman altogether? And that is where Poundland comes in.
Luckily, mental health is a field where the very cheapest tablets are as good as the luxury products. The NHS doesn’t want to spend money on mental health, and isn’t going to. Luckily, it needn’t cost you a fortune either.
Don’t tell the Royal College I said this, but a reasonably sensible person with access to google and the Poundland Pharmacy, should it ever exist, could get a months supply of an effective antidepressant or antipsychotic for 99p. You could get some free counselling from a local religious organisation or the Samaritans and have enough left over for your bus fare and a flat white. I also wonder why Poundland can’t start a Sunday newspaper that’s a bit nicer to fat people and doctors.

37. Rejecting the Domino’s Theory.


This creature’s camouflage is poorly suited to the urban jungle that is Hull.

My iron is warmed up and the fire extinguisher is ready, but my Ironing Coach is late today. Let’s hope we can stick with simple shapes again and not attempt anything complicated like pleated trousers. I was never that good at thinking in three dimensions, which is probably why I am not a surgeon.

One of my theories is that Specialisation has been very bad for us. I can understand how such a thing came about, following the industrial revolution, the invention of production lines, and the division of labour.

But every time a specialism is created, such as Pastry Chef, Tyre Fitter, or Middle-Third-of-the-Duodenum-Surgeon, a potentially useful activity has been taken away from the rest of us.

Not only are we all deskilled, but also we now have three very bored people, doing the same thing all day. Nowadays it is possible and probably lucrative to have one very finely honed skill, particularly if it is one that has been professionally colonized and denied to amateurs.

Professionals, and by this I mean the old professions like Law, Medicine and Accountancy – I nearly said Prostitution – were the first to stitch up areas of activity which would become highly rewarded and restricted to club members.

More recently we have seen Plumbers and Electricians get in on the act. Fair enough. These are occupations that need special skills and equipment and could represent a danger to people if done carelessly. But have we overdone it? Couldn’t the plumber do the electrics and vice versa?

Couldn’t someone more like a blacksmith – a person with a large shed and no backache – do tyre fitting, along with general welding and repairing? Why for instance is the person who mends shoes uniquely the person allowed to cut keys and change watch batteries?

Dominos seem to have developed an extremely narrow niche product. It’s for people with a motivational level just above the point for making phone calls but just below the point where they can put a frozen pizza in the oven for 13 minutes. A surprisingly large section of the population inhabit precisely this energy zone.

Ivan Illich was an influential writer in the seventies. I went to see him speak once in Leicester. I mainly remember that he refused to use a microphone, because he believed this invention had stolen the power of public speaking from the non-miked. However Ivan had an extremely loud speaking voice, so hardly needed any further amplification. He was easily able to drown out his opponents, which is the essential skill for a one-liner polemicist.  His message was to criticise doctors and teachers for stealing areas of expertise away from ordinary people.

As regards Medicine, there are pros and cons in his argument. It’s true that many areas of normal life have been falsely medicalised, such as insomnia, addictions and obesity. But it’s also true that high tech procedures such as coronary artery grafts have become massively more successful, providing the person carrying them out has done a large number of them, uses the right equipment and follows a strict protocol.

This week on the front pages of our newpapers we find a report about Depression supposedly commissioned by Nuffield Health. Whatever the report actually says, what has come through the press releases are some of our favourite chestnuts:

Depression affects one in four people.(Why not one in four hundred or everybody – it depends merely on where you draw the cut off point?)

GPs dish out antidepressants by the bucketful. (Who is this Willy Nilly and why can’t we stop him?)

Exercise would be just as useful as antidepressants.(As though obese people didn’t have to carry round an extremely heavy weight all day round their tummies.)

Not surprisingly, we find that Nuffield Health has taken over a lot of gyms recently. The more thoughtful papers go on to say that a Cochrane Review has shown that the value of exercise in Depression is doubtful to modest.

No-one much has a bad word to say about exercise, but lets inject a note of caution. Exercise might be an excellent pursuit, but very few people persevere with it. Much as they don’t persevere with Cognitive Therapy. Because they are hard work.

As opposed to swallowing a small tablet once a day, which is easy work. Our problem I think is in expecting either exercise or tablets to do miracles.

At the present time we have a situation where a professional person presides over getting hold of antidepressants, whereas we are still theoretically free to run upstairs or lift bags of potatoes.

However, the fitness lobby has made significant progress in colonising exercise-taking. Are we seeing the development of what could be called Big Exercise, where gym companies, sports gear and food manufacturers team up with coaches and personal trainers to create a new orthodoxy of fitness?

I predict that we will soon be able to buy antidepressants in Tesco, but if we want to take any exercise we will need expert supervision. Much like Ironing. It’s going Corgi-registered soon.

4. Getting over the mind brain problem


What it looks like inside your mind.

One of the biggest barriers to tackling Depression is getting hung up on the Mind / Body, or more specifically the Mind / Brain problem. Its the mind part that’s the issue. As soon as the word ‘mental’ comes into play, people get all upset.

Its hard to adjust to the fact that we may be nothing more, or nothing less, than very clever machines. Its also hard to believe that consciousness can emerge gradually from a wiring network, providing that network is large enough.

Surely, if all you needed for consciousness was a massive wiring system, then British Telecom would be a god like super-creature bent on world domination. Hmm…

So can consciousness, or the mind, be considered a separate entity from the body? This argument still hangs heavily for many when they think about mental health problems.

The mind / brain issue did preoccupy philosophers for many centuries and still occupies a large section of Wikipedia. Some philosophers thought that mind and body were entirely separate devices. This idea is called ‘dualism’ and tends to persist in the way people think about the human control system.

If mind and body were different ‘dual’ entities altogether, like sound and light, then how could they interact? Some kind of transducer device, as proposed in the pineal gland by Descartes? Or simply, (cheating really) bringing God into it to solve the problem, God acting as a cosmic DJ, operating the twin turntables of mind and brain, making sure they were synchronised properly at all times?

(This school of thought was termed ‘occasionalism’ and probably did not influence the Faithless song ‘God is a DJ’ nor even Pink’s cover version. Pink was yet unknown in ninth century Iraq).

Glossing over Philosophy and Religion for a short moment, there is a lot to support the argument that the brain is a very sophisticated computer system.

For instance, nerve cells which make up the brain are long and thin and transmit electrical charge, just like wiring. The nerve pathways in the brain look a lot like the wiring loom in your Honda Civic. Damage to part of the wiring system, such as after a stroke, can clearly bring about symptoms, like loss of movement to a limb.

Higher up the brain, the nerve networks get more complicated and seem to provide for various different types of mental activity. There is the completely automatic type that controls basic physical functions like the operations of the lungs, heart and gut. Then there’s the largely automatic thinking system that does things like drive you to work and make toast. And then there is the reflective part of the mind that chooses what to think and do, or thinks it does, or you think it does.

Computer speak has given us a new ‘dualist’ model to consider, the division between hardware and software. Sometimes it can be helpful to think of the brain as the computer and the mind as the operating system. As an analogy it is both helpful and unhelpful.

The plus points are that factors such as social learning and experiences and memory can be seen as software, running within the brains basic wiring network, which starts off as a largely empty system and gradually fills up. The mind’s ability to process information and store it, or create actions, are similar to an operating system.

There is also a nice computer analogy to be made between the mind’s two main memory systems, long term and short term. Stored memory can be seen as similar to a computer’s hard drive, whereas short term or ‘working memory’ has features similar to RAM. Working memory is far more limited than long term and easily exceeded by multiple or complex tasks, such as chewing gum and walking at the same time.

Many memory problems, such as those found in Depression, occur within the process of moving memory between the two systems. Depression very often reduces the power of concentration, which is needed to retrieve information from the storage system, and also to file memories away.

Against the software / hardware model however is the following problem; the brain is not a fixed system like your PC or Mac. It can create, remove or change its physical structure as it goes along. The changes are not just electrical, as in hardware, or even just chemical – the brain is continually creating new connections. This is why the brain is called ‘Plastic’ – the term is used to mean flexible and open to structural change.

In babies and children there is a huge and continuous rebuilding program of nerve cells. In adults there is a much more limited program of nerve cell slum clearance but sadly not much in the way of inner city regeneration. Depressed people may lose their ability to generate new nerve connections in certain parts of the brain. In fact an attractive theory of antidepressant therapy (both drugs and psychological therapy) is that these may work by stimulating nerve cell growth in certain key areas.

And this brings us, a little early, to the punch line. Which is that structure and function are inseparable features of our control system. They are so interactive that it make no sense to identify two entities called Mind and Brain.

In practical thinking this dilemma presents itself frequently in thinking about mental disorders. For instance in thinking of some illnesses as either mind based or brain based. In particular illnesses that were once considered to be ‘psychosomatic’ such as bowel or fatigue syndromes. Within Fatigue Syndrome there have been heated arguments by some sufferers that they should not be regarded as mental health patients, even though CBT may well be very helpful, as it can be in ‘physical’ illnesses like chronic pain.

The law has frequently got itself into a pickle by trying to separate what is due to the mind and what is due to the brain. We have seen concepts such as ‘non insane automatism’ invented to illustrate this area. The newish Mental Capacity Act speaks of a disorder of ‘mind or brain’, to get over the possible argument about which one was disordered. Could one ever be disordered without affecting the other?

Within Education, we have seen concepts such as ‘Brain Based Learning’, or ‘Mind Brain Constructivism’ as it is more properly known. Here again the proponents are careful to use the term mind/brain as a portmanteau concept. Strangely, educators have been rather uncritical about the supposed ‘Brain’ aspects, such as improving food and water consumption for students. The ‘healthy mind in a healthy body’ notion has been about for a long time in schools. Before Michael Gove, and in fact before even Socrates, neither of whom would have seen the mind as a wiring loom.

One of the more interesting findings from Brain Imaging has been the recognition that psychotherapy may bring about structural brain changes. For instance, changes have been found to the mid-brain serotonin transporter system, after psycho-dynamic psychotherapy. A much larger number of studies have shown changes to nerve cell functioning during and after therapy.

It could be argued that these sorts of changes are not actually ‘causal’ but rather just a secondary indicator of mood change. Nevertheless, there is clearly a mood control system in the brain that is represented in physical structures.

So we have the Fatigue Syndrome lobby who resent being considered as having a mental health problem, and we have the ‘anti-psychiatry’ lobby who hate the so called ‘biological’ model of Depression.

The fatigue lobby would be delighted if one day a clear biological cause is shown for the illness – presumably then it becomes like MS or any other ‘proper’ illness?

And the anti- psychiatrists would be delighted if absolutely no biological change could be found in the brains of depressed people. They have been similarly delighted by the findings that antidepressants are not as effective as people used to think. Their response is not at all to suggest finding a more effective antidepressant, but rather to debunk the whole concept of Depression.

If you need to ask how can simple chemicals substances change the way people think and behave, then you have (wisely) not visited Nottingham city centre at 11pm. If you doubt that faults can occur in complicated electronic control systems, and that such faults are impossible to diagnose and treat, try using a 10 year old Beko washing machine. It has a mind of its own.

It seems the learning point is never to try and assign a problem to mind / or body, and always to recognise that the two are one. If that makes us just a brilliant machine or merely thirty nine dollars worth of chemicals dressed in a suit of similar value, so what?

Well, for one thing, less stigma, and less guilt. If we have defective mood control systems, whatever the basis, then this is a health problem and not shameful.

I was taught by Irish Nuns that ‘man thou art dust and to dust you will return’. (Its the kind of thing Rugby Forwards say to each other before a game). The dust cost less than thirty nine dollars in those days.

And if God is really acting as DJ, is he playing enough soul?

2. Where will the war take place?

The war against Depression begins with an attempt at building a strategy (unlike some recent wars I could mention).

Firstly we must identify the enemy. Then we must identify our resources. Then we must deploy our resources to where the enemy is weakest.

And we must look at where previous similar campaigns have come unstuck.

A few years ago, the UK Royal Colleges of Psychiatrists and GPs ran a campaign called ‘Defeat Depression’. Traditional campaigns designed to improve public health usually involve screening – trying to detect cases of the illness that have not been discovered. For a successful campaign the following ingredients are needed:

We have a way of discovering cases using some kind of test.

We have a treatment option to offer those found to be suffering.

The treatment option is effective enough to cover the costs of running the program.

The Defeat Depression campaign was based on the notion that a large number of depressed people were undiagnosed and suffering in relative silence. If they were diagnosed, using simple screening tests, they could be given antidepressants and/or therapy that would improve their condition.

Recent types of antidepressants such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, (SSRI) seemed to be effective, non – addictive and low in side effects. So the balance had tipped in favour of prescribing them, if not exactly spraying the countryside with them.

Sure enough, there has been an enormous increase in the diagnosis and treatment of depression in  the UK. GPs use a screening tool called PHQ-9 to uncover cases. For moderate or severe depression, antidepressants are recommended, starting with an SSRI, either Fluoxetine (Prozac) or Citalopram (Cipramil).

Possibly, one day, SSRIs will become ‘over the counter’ remedies rather than prescription only. After all, you can now buy own – brand Ranitidine at hardware stores. Its not that long since Ranitidine was ‘Zantac’, and available only from proper doctors in white coats and half- moon glasses, probably after an endoscopic exam or barium x ray.

People used to warn that taking Ranitidine might mask the symptoms of more serious stomach problems, delay people seeking medical advice, and thus prove harmful. Such fears seem to have been overly pessimistic, but doctors and pharmacists are always going to want to steer the medicines trolley.

Making antidepressants freely available in Lidl, or Boots at least, might have a greater impact than any other measure, if we are seeking to get the greatest number of people on to antidepressant medication. Yet there has been no campaign to make this happen. Why?

Is it because antidepressants can be harmful if not carefully monitored? For instance they need to be taken for several weeks at least rather than as and when we feel like it.

Or is it because we are reluctant to see medication as the answer to Depression? Or maybe because existing antidepressants have a relatively poor benefit to risk ratio?

The defeat depression campaign attracted a fair amount of criticism behind the scenes. On the one hand there was something of a doubt over how effective antidepressants really were.

Also they had side effects that were troubling, some real and some imaginary. It was suggested that they could make some people more impulsive and – in the case of teenagers – more suicidal. Some of them seemed to have ‘discontinuation effects’ causing flu like symptoms a day or two after stopping treatment. Their effect of reducing libido was more common than people recognized.

People warned that the Depression concept was being stretched to include unhappiness, ‘medicalising’ peoples responses to social ills such as call centres and poor quality sausages .

Some people even went as far as suggesting the depression industry was part of a capitalist conspiracy to make people feel dissatisfied with their lot in life. It was alleged that such dissatisfaction would serve to fuel consumer demand and get the proletariat back on the treadmill of purposeless consumption, indebtedness and hard labour.

In the background, a few psychiatrists remained highly skeptical about the effectiveness of newer antidepressants, even preferring older drugs that had a better evidence base.

It looked to many as though the Royal Colleges had been swept along by the SSRI companies, without thinking the strategy through. Two favorite stereotypes for Psychiatrists are Dr Dippy and Dr Evil. So, not looking clever, and seeming to be in cahoots with drug companies, damaged our image. When the Prozac bubble burst within the liberal consensus, British psychiatry was badly splattered.

The most deadly germs are those that can change their form and structure. The same is probably true of terrorist organizations. By adapting to different situations they can often go undetected. Germs can pretend to be other organisms, or part of your own body.

Terrorists can pretend to be religious men. Gangsters can pretend to be politicians.  A lot of it is down to packaging and presentation. Depression is an entity that resorts to camouflage in response to a conventional attack.

In response to the Defeat Depression campaign many people remained in denial. Few were convinced that Depression could be treated in the same way as a germ based illness. Few were convinced it was easy to identify and treat. And even fewer trusted psychiatrists and GPs to tackle the problem.

Lots more antidepressants were finding their way into our sewerage systems one way or another, (often cutting out the middle man), but was anyone much happier?

There is a lot of conflicting thinking about Depression – whether it exists within society, and whether it exists in an individual. It can hide within a heap of what looks like unhappiness. It can hide within what looks like a life crisis or drink problem. It can hide within a cranky view of the world.

Essentially, all this needs to be tackled on a personal level. Depression exists in individuals, not in towns or countries. All that matters is what Depression means for you.This means that the battle against Depression will take place mainly in your kitchen. Luckily, you choose the weapons.


At exactly 0600 we go over the wall.