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Mind Over Meds
By DANIEL CARLAT
Published: April 19, 2010
One day several years ago, I was reaching the end of my first visit with a patient, J.J., who had come to see me for anxiety and insomnia. He was a salesman for a struggling telecommunications company, and he was having trouble managing the strain on his finances and his family. He was sleeping poorly, and as soon as he opened his eyes in the early morning, the worries began. “I wake up with a list of things to worry about,” he said. “I just go through the list, and it seems to get longer every day.”
Each of J.J.’s answers provided me with a clue, closing off one possibility while opening up others. At its best, when you are working with an intelligent, insightful patient, the process is fun, involving a series of logical calculations, much like working a Sudoku puzzle. Finally, toward the end of the hour, I felt confident that I had arrived at J.J.’s diagnosis. “I think you have what we call ‘generalized anxiety disorder,’ ” I told him.
“I’m going to write you a prescription for a medication called Zoloft,” I said, picking up my prescription pad. He asked what was causing his anxiety, and I began one of the stock neurochemical explanations that psychiatrists typically offer patients about low serotonin levels in the brain. The treatment involved “filling up the tank” by prescribing a medication like Zoloft, Celexa or Paxil.
“So Dr. Freud, the causes are all in the brain? Isn’t there some explanation in my childhood?” It was a good-natured tease.
“I specialize in prescribing medications,” I said with a smile. I was a psychopharmacologist and specialized in medication rather than psychotherapy. “I can refer you to a good therapist in the area if you’d like.”
After J.J. left my office, I realized, uncomfortably, that somehow, over the course of the decade following my residency, my way of thinking about patients had veered away from psychological curiosity. Instead, I had come to focus on symptoms, as if they were objective medical findings, much the way internists view blood-pressure readings or potassium levels. Psychiatry, for me and many of my colleagues, had become a process of corralling patients’ symptoms into labels and finding a drug to match.
…I majored in psychology at U.C. Berkeley, and at U.C. San Francisco I labored through medical school’s rites of passage in order to qualify for a psychiatric residency. Eventually, on a steamy July day in 1992, I stood on a Boston street, far from home, gazing at Massachusetts General Hospital (known as M.G.H.), where I was about to start my training.
This was a momentous time at M.G.H. Prozac was introduced four years earlier and became the best-selling psychiatric medication of all time. Zoloft and Paxil, two similar medications, were in the pipeline, and many of the key clinical trials for these antidepressants were conducted by psychiatrists at M.G.H. who were to become my mentors. M.G.H. and other top programs were enthralled with neurobiology, the new medications and the millions of dollars in industry grants that accompanied them. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the drug approach to treatment.
Psychopharmacology was infinitely easier to master than therapy, because it involved a teachable, systematic method. First, we memorized the DSM criteria for the major disorders, then we learned how to ask the patient the right questions, then we pieced together a diagnosis and finally we matched a medication with the symptoms.
But learning the formal techniques of therapy was like navigating without a compass. While I learned how to form an alliance with my patients and begin a good dialogue, becoming a skillful therapist requires much more practice than busy psychiatry residencies allow.
A result is that psychiatry has been transformed from a profession in which we talk to people and help them understand their problems into one in which we diagnose disorders and medicate them.
While it is tempting to blame only the biologically oriented psychiatrists for this shift, that would be simplistic. Other forces are at work as well. Insurance companies typically encourage short medication visits by paying nearly as much for a 20-minute medication visit as for 50 minutes of therapy. And patients themselves vote with their feet by frequently choosing to see psychopharmacologists rather than therapists. Weekly therapy takes time and is arduous work. If a daily pill can cure depression and anxiety just as reliably, why not choose this option?
In fact, during my 15-to-20-minute medication visits with patients, I was often gratified by the effectiveness of the medications I prescribed. For perhaps a quarter of them, medications worked so well as to be nearly miraculous. But over time I realized that the majority of patients need more.
One young woman I saw was referred to me by a nurse practitioner for treatment of depression that had not responded to several past antidepressants. She was struggling to raise two young children and was worried that she was doing a poor job of it. Her husband worked full time and was rarely available to help. She cried throughout our initial interview. I started her on Effexor and referred her to a social-worker colleague. She improved initially, but over the years since, her symptoms have waxed and waned. When she reports a worsening of her anxiety or depression, my first instinct is to do one of three things — switch medications, increase her dosage or add another. Over the course of 15 or 20 minutes, this is about all I can offer.
But over the past few years, research studies have shown that therapy is just as effective as medications for many conditions, and that medications themselves often work through the power of placebo. In one study, for example, researchers did a meta-analysis of studies submitted by drug companies to the F.D.A. on seven new antidepressants, involving more than 19,000 patients. It turned out that antidepressants are, indeed, effective, because on average patients taking the pills showed a 40 percent drop in depression scores. But placebo was also a powerful antidepressant, causing a 30 percent drop in depression scores. This meant that about three-quarters of the apparent response to antidepressants pills is actually due to the placebo effect.
Nobody knows exactly how the mysterious placebo effect works,
but it is clear that it has impacts on the brain that can be seen as clearly as medication effects. In one study conducted by pain researchers at the University of Michigan, subjects were given an ache-inducing injection of saline into their jaws and were placed in a PET scanner. They were then told that they would be given an intravenous pain treatment, but the “treatment” was merely more saline solution, acting as a placebo. The PET scan showed that the endogenous endorphin system in the brains of the subjects was activated. The patients believed so strongly that they were receiving effective treatment that their brains followed suit. Presumably, a corresponding brain change occurs when depressed patients are given placebo pills.
Like placebo, psychotherapy has typically been considered a “nonbiological” treatment, but it has become clear that therapy, like placebo, also leads to measurable changes in the brain. In an experiment conducted at U.C.L.A. several years ago, with subjects suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, researchers assigned some patients to treatment with Prozac and others to cognitive behavior therapy. They found that patients improved about equally well with the two treatments. Each patient’s brain was PET-scanned before and after treatment, and patients showed identical changes in their brain circuits regardless of the treatment.
After I saw J.J., I decided that I wanted to try to change my approach to treatment. I gradually began to carve out room in my schedule for longer visits with my patients.
I endeavored to do what’s called “supportive” therapy, a technique favored by many therapists and involving basic problem solving and emotional support. It is a bit like what a friend would do for another friend offering advice in times of trouble, but more elaborate and with an accompanying raft of studies endorsing its effectiveness in psychiatry.
When I started to probe my patients, I realized I barely knew most of them.
I had exuberantly documented their moods, sleep habits, energy levels and whether they had suicidal thoughts, but I didn’t know what made them tick as people. For example, I had treated Jane (her middle name), a health care administrator in her 40s, for depression and bulimia for many years, focusing on a complicated combination of medications like Effexor, Provigil and Xanax. Then she had a depressive relapse. This time, rather than simply adjusting her medication, I asked her what was going on in her life. I found out that her boss had recently given her an impossible assignment to complete and had berated her when the results were not to his liking. It seemed clear to me that her depression was partly triggered by the fact that she blamed herself for her boss’s poor communication skills and managerial lapses. I encouraged her to question that assumption each time it popped into her mind. Over the next few visits, she improved — relating better to her boss, able to take his criticism with a grain of salt and feeling more confident.
Daniel Carlat is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the publisher of The Carlat Psychiatry Report. His book, “Unhinged: the Trouble With Psychiatry,” will be published in May.