5. Knowing what to call things

Image

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).

Advertisements

1. The War on Depression Starts Today

Car parks can be beautiful if you look at them the right way

 Don’t be frightened – it’s only a car park.

 

The War on Depression: where is the enemy weak?

These pages are mainly about Depression. The starting point is to understand how Depression comes about and the finishing point is dealing with it better.

As an individual psychiatrist it may not be possible to make much of an impact on the wider problem of Depression, which affects so many millions of people.

But there are many fronts to fight on, outside the hospital.

There are a few themes to these pieces. One is to do with how toxic modern life has become. One is to do with how the mind works and in particular how people make choices. And a third one is to explain how health systems such as the NHS operate for (or sometimes against) people with mental health problems.

However we regard Depression, as an illness, as wear and tear, as a reaction to loss or as a social barometer, there is always another perspective to take.

Rather than ask the question, ‘why do some people get depressed?’ we might just as well ask why everyone isn’t depressed all the time.

Lets get the bad news out of the way right now: people get older. Generally when they get older they get more ill, and (don’t say it, please) eventually die.

In some ways that fact, the D word, is a potential party – pooper, even when we are young and have a fabulous future to look forward to.

Worse than that, even younger people can get ill, and they certainly can be subjected to terrible events (such as school).

Its been said that all political careers end in failure. Partly that’s because of the scoring system in politics, which tends to be ‘sudden death’, either by way of an election, or by way of sudden death.

But the same is not true of most sportsmen and women, who are somehow able to retire at the right time. In boxing, that’s while the brain is still working. For the rest of us, its a matter of recognising changes and adjusting to them .

If we adjust too much too quickly we are hypochondriacs and wimps. If we adjust too late we are foolhardy and in denial.

Life is very complicated and dangerous and a lot of us don’t make it, either in terms of quality or quantity of life. Some of us spend a lot of time ‘off the road,’ on the hard shoulder of life, but that doesn’t make us burned out ruins.

In seeing Depression as a wear and tear or stress related illness, we are not really explaining it very much. I prefer to see it as a natural phenomenon that is also an enemy, like rust. Or, at times, Gravity. Black ice. Wind. Electricity. Biscuits. Etc

All necessary but dangerous when out of control.

Depression happens when the system that controls mood is defective. The system has failed to calibrate correctly, or feed back on itself, or stay at a level. Most of what we do in treating Depression, one way or another, is to try and get the control system working better.

Often that’s a matter of seeing the situation differently: reflecting, reframing, resetting, recalibrating. (4 Rs. Much better than 3.)

The way we see Depression, in its widest contexts, affects very much how we deal with it. Depression is a very isolating experience, both in terms of reduced social contact, and reduced range and quality of thinking.

But if Depression was inevitable, or even an overwhelming likelihood, why is it that many people never get depressed, whatever happens? Do they have a very sophisticated chemical control mechanism? Or do they reflect upon the world in a different way? Or do they have some protective factor, like a guardian angel?

After this length of time, over 50 years of antidepressant and drug therapy, it doesn’t look as though we have a breakthrough solution, at least by way of a tablet. It would be nice to think a magic bullet would get discovered, much as saltwater killed the Triffids in one of the Day of the Triffids films, or the Common Cold killed the Martians in War of the Worlds.

While we wait to find the enemy’s weak spot, we continue to fight on all fronts. Depression’s Achilles Heal is in fact the thing that makes it strong, its incoherence as a diagnostic concept.

Could Depression fall apart under the weight of its own complexity, like the coalition government?

More to follow.