May 19th, 2013
I heard from my ex-wife today. She was very kind, but also pretty upset about a thoughtless comment I made about her at an event that was recorded and podcast. A man in the audience was recounting how he had once been married to a woman with borderline personality disorder. I cracked wise–that I had also met that fate. That was totally uncalled for, and I regret having said it.
She and I did have a pretty bad marriage. We picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off, left each other alone, and got on with better lives. There was no reason for me to dredge any of that up.
Oddly enough, her note came on the same morning that Andrew Scull diagnosed me with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So there may be justice in the universe after all.
Curiouser and Curiouser
May 19th, 2013
I awoke here in Portland (where it is of course raining, and where I will be conversing with Will Hall at 730 at Powell’s) to a chunky, satisfying LA Review of Books review of Book of Woe by Andrew Scull. The book is paired with Hippocrates Cried, written by neuropsychiatrist Michael Taylor.
It is a relief for once for Book of Woe not to be reviewed along with Saving Normal, which for all its other virtues, doesn’t present critics (or readers) with what is strangest about the DSM-5 backlash: the way that even ardent defenders of psychiatry are despairing about descriptive psychiatry, and deeply worried about the professional empire erected upon it. An astute reading my BOW and SN together will yield the bromance, maybe even the rivalry between Allen Frances and me, and will have two easily detectable sides to pit against one another: his, which defends psychiatric diagnosis by viewing the DSM-5 as an outlier, and mine, which argues that the DSM-5′s weaknesses are only the latest instance of a problem that underlies the whole DSm project.
But by putting together my book with Taylor’s, a jeremiad by a mainstream psychiatrist who agrees with me nearly entirely about what’s wrong with DSM, Scull hits on the way that the DSM-5 debacle has made for strange, to say the least, bedfellows. Or to put it in a way that will no doubt reinforce Scull’s notion that I am narcissistic and preening, the way that writing this book has ended up putting me in bed with the most unexpected paramours, and I take that as a sort of compliment.
By the way, I think Scull is trying to be droll when he suggests that Taylor and I both suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder and thus points out one of the least appreciated uses of the DSM: as a dictionary of insult. (And as the guy who once called DAvid Brooks’s book the love child of Kilgore Trout and Malcolm Gladwell, I can hardly complain when someone takes a cheap shot. ) But what is interesting about his comment, and about the review that ensues once he gets the name-calling out of the way is the way it captures this strange bedfellows phenomenon. I don’t know Michael Taylor, although I am pretty sure that he’s the same guy who coauthored the proposal to put melancholia into the DSM-5, which I report about in BOW. But the fact is that Andrew Scull thinks that we are cut from the same cloth, and at least in one sense I have to agree.
Of course, that’s not the psychopathological sense. I don’t know about Taylor (or Scull for that matter) but it would be ridiculous to deny I’m self-regarding. I am a writer, for crying out loud. On the other hand, it’s not just self-regard. Like a therapist’s, a writer’s self-regard is (or should be) countered by unremitting doubt, which is in turn nurtured by a continuous infusion of self-directed misanthropy. I suppose a good writer is someone whose self-regard edges out his self-loathing often enough to allow whatever talent he has, and whatever message, to emerge in words. And even Scull has to admit that my “constant need to inject [myself] into the story” doesn’t stop the book from being a “serious indictment.” (He is probably correct that my “self-consciously populist” approach “distracts the reader from the seriousness of the underlying issues,” but that’s probably a question of who the reader is. To an intellectual like Scull who is very familiar with this history and has taken it seriously enough to devote much of his career to, I’m sure it’s really annoying. To a lay reader who has only the vague idea that there’s something wrong with this whole business, the fact that I set out to entertain might actually be helpful in informing his or her antipathy.)
But the sense in which I think Scull’s observation about the likeness between Taylor and me (and, as he points out late in the essay, between Thomas Insel of the National Institute of Mental Health and me) is valuable is the way it highlights the direness of psychiatry’s predicament. In Scull’s words:
We’re stuck. Descriptive psychiatry is a shambles, as both Taylor and Greenberg’s books help to show, and as the events of this month (May 2013) have made even more dramatically obvious. But, at present, it has no plausible rival.
When a man who believes, as Taylor does, that psychiatry is poised to provide the answers we need, if only it would abandon the remnant of the Freudian shibboleths, agrees with a man like me, who believes that the total eradication of at least one of those shibboleths–thgat mental suffering is not the same as physical–then you know you’re down the rabbit hole.
Of course, this is where Taylor and I (at least according to Scull) part ways. Indeed, it the cracker-eating that leads all my odd bedfellows to give me the heave-ho–or, in the case of Allen Frances, to come to regret they ever took a tumble with me in the first place. I want to take the fact that psychiatry is in a shambles seriously enough to wonder whether we can do more than just plod along with a system that no one likes, all the while waiting for it to be replaced by a system–brain-based diagnosis–that I’m guessing only the drug companies will like. (Not that this matters right now, because brain-based diagnosis, its ontological problems aside, is a long long way off.)
So the question for everyone is what to do, now that the curtain is being drawn back. Taylor (and Tom Insel) thinks we should put pedal to metal on the brain research. Frances thinks we should let psychiatry limp along on its admittedly flawed foundation and in the meantime to keep quiet about those flaws, so that people can continue to benefit from it. I think we should just get honest. As Scull points out, I do propose a solution, what he, quoting from Book of Woe, calls a thought experiment.
What would happen if [psychiatrists] told you that they don’t know what illness (if any) is causing your anxiety or depression, or agitation, and then, if they thought it was warranted, told you that there are drugs that might help (although they don’t really know why or at what cost to your brain, or whether you will be able to stop taking them if you want to; nor can they guarantee that you (or your child) won’t become obese or diabetic, or die early), and offer you a prescription [for these substances
Seems simple and straightforward enough, right? But there is a problem with this proposal, at least Scull thinks so:
Psychiatry’s status is precarious enough as it is. One can only guess to what depths it might sink in such a transparent world.
Perhaps on reflection both doctors and patients would prefer to cling to their illusions. But it seems they may not be able to do so for much longer. And then what?
Scull earlier talks about psychiatry as a con game (a point I make in the book, although he doesn’t cite it, by quoting from Melville’s The Confidence-Man). Confidence underlies the effectiveness of all healing, mental and otherwise. But it generally doesn’t survive the unmasking of its specious basis, any more than the Wizard’s authority in Oz could survive Toto’s indiscretion. Does that mean that psychiatry can’t survive? The Wizard masterfully turned his unmasking into a triumphal exit, leaving while he was still loved. But that means he left when the people were still duped. And this is what I can’t figure out about people who worry as Scull does about the future of psychiatry once the con game is up: do they have this little confidence in people, in our ability to use our trust judiciously? What exactly are they worried about?
More About Rats
May 16th, 2013
The rat motif continues. First, with this post at the New Yorker’s elements blog, called The Rats of NIMH, because who could resist?
Then with Allen Frances’s response, which came soon after the blog was posted.
As usual, I find your take irresponsibly Szaszian. Any dummy can point out the limitations of psychiatric dx- I have been doing it for 30 yrs. But it takes a callous indifference to pt welfare not to balance this in every single piece with a statement of its value for those who really need it. Donna really pegged you- ‘a plague rat who climbed on to the ship’. Please try to be a responsible trustee of pt welfare, not just a clever cheap shot artist. I fear for your immortal soul. You can be better than this.
[Donna is Frances's wife, Donna Manning. To be fair to me for a second, I did report her comment in my book.]
I’m guessing that Frances is being a little facetious when he says he fears for my immortal soul; he has often accused me of believing in such a thing, and offered the counsel that my belief reflects an unbecoming naivete,so I think he’s trying to get double mileage out of that tweak. But I am sure he thinks I can be better than this. He may even wish that I was, given the extent to which he participated in my book.
More to the point, he is surely not being facetious when he says that it is irresponsible (and juvenile, he has said elsewhere) of me not to point out the value of psychiatric diagnosis whenever I point out its flaws. He’s absolutely right that I don’t do that. That may indeed be because I am a “clever cheap shot artist” with no regard for the public welfare. But on the other hand, a virtue that has to be reiterated at every turn is awfully fragile, and after a while, it just begins to sound like protesting too much.
But shorn of the condescension, I suppose it’s a fair criticism. Psychiatry, maybe more than other specialties, relies on confidence to be effective. Mental health treatments, drug and otherwise, hinge on the placebo effect, and there’s no question that this DSM-5 episode is undermining that confidence and thus may vitiate effectiveness. Perhaps I am a rat for saying this out loud. But I have to say even if that’s true, then I don’t think I’m the only plague rat on the ship, or the squeakiest.
The Bromance Continues
May 10th, 2013
I’ve been having a pretty good time on book tour. I’ve been able to share a stage with a couple of friends–Mitch McCabe in DC, and last night in Cambridge, Errol Morris, who, as Mitch filmed, graciously did not upstage me. My mother was there. So were a bunch of friends, old and new. Ben Nugent, the guy who figured out that Allen Frances and I had a bromance going, showed up. So I had fun.
I’m not sure the audience, which was overflow, did. Or at least a segment of the audience. That’s because they are disappointed that I am not an antipsychiatrist. That is to say, they feel that I don’t go far enough in my critique. I don’t say all psychiatrists are avaricious sociopaths, or that all psychiatric drugs are poison for all people, or that psychiatry is a criminal conspiracy to turn us all into Shrink McNuggets. I just think that their diagnostic system stinks, and in this many psychiatrists, including the head of the National Institute of Mental Health, agree with me. I’m not sure what we should do about that, which is the source of another complaint I’ve been hearing–that I don’t offer a solution. I have to say I don’t understand that. HOw did it get to be my job to reimagine psychiatric diagnosis? Why isn’t it enough to show what is wrong with it and how it got to be that way? Do we need happy endings that badly?
Anyway, the fact that I am getting thrashed by the antipsychiatrists will probably not persuade Allen Frances that I am not one of them. I don’t care all that much what Frances thinks of me, but as his bromantic partner I do care about how he feels, and sometimes it would appear that he might regret having gotten in so deep with me. He says not, but I’m not so sure.
I’ll let you be the judge. He sent me his review of my book. He promised not to publicize it, but he didn’t say I couldn’t. So here it is.
Thanks for ‘book of woe’. Here is my review of your ‘unmaking of psychiatry’. This is just between us and donna- I won’t ever do an unmaking of the unmaking of psychiatry
Reportage A+ Thorough, well organized, entertaining, accurate, lively. You missed your calling.
Writing style B+ The book is a good fast read- you are constitutionally incapable of ever writing a dull sentence or an uninteresting paragraph. But you were right to worry that this doesn’t sparkle as much as your usual.
Originality C: I marveled at how much I learned from all your previous books and articles . This one seemed pretty much to skim the surface- it doesn’t take any great genius to trumpet the limitations of psychiatric dx. I know- I have been doing it for 30 yrs. .
Moral compass D: Too many conspiracy theory pot shots and wise guy cracks that disregard the possible harm inflicted on patients- which is mentioned only in 1 quick inconclusively reflective paragraph at the end. Unlike the creator of Liebowitz you go really easy on yourself after bombing Caseno. The human element of patient suffering and need is remarkably missing and you totally lack a plan B. You do scorched earth- I don’t.
I know your narrow focus on unmaking psychiatry is just the scorpion being a scorpion, but this is why Plato decided that comedians and poets were dangerous to the Republic.
I certainly have no regrets re time spent with you- both because on a personal level you are so much fun and because it is possible that your portrait of psychiatry might have been even more fun house distorted without our dialogues.
But I can’t answer positively to the one utilitarian question that matters so much more to me than it does to you- does this book make the world a better place for patients to find peace and hapiness?
Of course, your counter argument could easily be that with APA and NIMH as its friends, psychiatry doesn’t need enemies. You would be right- the self inflicted harm and harm to patients inflicted by APA and by the recent bone-headed NIMH announcement are orders of magnitude worse than you at your worst. Not much consolation though. You call it a noble lie when I defend psychiatry so as to encourage those who very much need it not to lose trust- I call it adult responsibility.
So maybe it’s not a bromance after all. Maybe it’s an Oedipal thing.
Fiction vs. Lies
May 8th, 2013
I was going to post this as a reply to a comment left by Barney Carroll, but then I realized–hey, it’s my blog. i can make a new post if I want. The original comment is here
It’s the one that isn’t about my being a “self-serving pompous self-promoter,” which is pretty hard to argue against when you’re out on the hustings trying to sell your book. So bravo to that guy for his perspicacity.
The one I’m talking about is the one from my frenemy Barney Carroll. Too bad you weren’t at at my book event last night, Barney. You woulda thought I was channeling you, telling people that diagnostic uncertainty is the norm in medicine. My example was about two radiologists differing over whether an MRI revealed a stroke, a diagnosis that could only be confirmed by the neurologist doing the clinical exam. But I could have used any other, including some of the examples you cite. My point was to say that psychiatry, far from being a laggard or misfit, might be a harbinger of the time when the magic bullet model of disease—one pathogen, one diagnosis, one treatment—has run its course, and we no longer have the unreasonable expectation that the bacteriological paradigm has left us with.
Here I think we agree. Where we disagree, near as I can make out, and where I become tiresome to you is in what we can and should make of this fact. In your view, if I understand you, the uncertain nature of medical diagnosis should just be accepted as the way things are. We should recognize we will always be stuck with probability rather than dead certainty, and we (or should I say I?) should stop slinging arrows at psychiatry for failing to live up to a standard that is so ignorant of the way disease really works, and that the rest of medicine doesn’t live up to either. (I also think this is your gripe with RdoC, that for all its apparent sophistication, it’s still a reductively materialistic view of things. ) And then we should get on with the business of making a nosology (and using it) based on how the world really works rather than the way we wish it would work.
I don’t disagree with you about this either. But where we part ways, I believe, is over my sense that we can’t just say that the paradigm is irrational, doesn’t work, etc., and then leave it at that. Because for now, regardless of how realistic it is, the bacteriological model, as I have said elsewhere, has become a myth, meaning a story that controls the way we understand the world. In this case, it is the myth that gives medicine its power. I’m not sure you understand me when I say this, but when I talk about psychiatric diagnosis as being fictive, this is how I mean it—not that it is a lie or a fraud, but that it is also not a fact. Bayesian analysis, which I do not pretend to understand except at the broadest conceptual level, seems to me to be a way of trying to negotiate this middle ground between outright falsehood and bedrock truth by focusing on probabilities. My interest is elsewhere—in the way the myth functions epistemologically and, ultimately, how it can shape our sense of ourselves.
When I talk about this, I think you hear me suggesting that because psychiatry can’t point to biological findings, etc., that it is a failure and maybe even a scandal. I also think you believe that when I make this criticism, it is based on my feeling that until and unless psychiatry can find that elusive schizococcus or depressenza, it is doomed to fail. But I don’t believe these things. I’m not the one imposing that standard. It is psychiatrists, who have repeatedly announced that they need to be “real doctors” treating “real diseases” in order to succeed, and that those real diseases will only be real when they are biologically based. My book, and my previous book, trace the history of this idea, locate it in mainstream psychiatry, and capture it in the words of eminent psychiatrists from Kraepelin to Spitzer.
Much as some nosologists have been careful to temper expectations regarding the ontology of psychiatric illness, or even, as you and Allen Frances do, to reject outright the notion that validity comes only with biology, I don’t think you can deny that this is the myth on which psychiatry bases much of its authority, and that at least in some quarters, psychiatrists have done their best to exploit it. The DSM-III had many purposes, but one of them was rhetorical: to solidify psychiatry’s then-shaky hold on public confidence. It did this in part by leaving wide open the implication that these categories were the categories of mental disorder that exist in nature, i.e., the brain. I don’t mean that as an accusation of conspiracy, just an acknowledgment of the way that power works in a society and a culture that no profession in particular has built or owns a monopoly on, but which some professions benefit from more than others.
It’;s also the myth on which all of medicine is based, but the difference between most other specialties and psychiatry is that they all have a few slam-dunks, the pneumococcus and influenza and other findings that live up to the demands of the myth. That doesn’t necessarily make them better, but it does strengthen their claim to the ethos. More to the point, they are less likely to get into trouble when people point out the cases in which they don’t have that claim to validity; the head gastroenterologist or endocrinologist cannot make the claim that Insel made last week that their nosology has no validity. And so they are less likely to have to try to have it both ways, to claim that they have “real diseases” and then to back away from that claim when someone points out that they really don’t.
Here;’s my favorite example of this phenomenon, one that I did not put in my book. I attended a talk given by David Kupfer. He gave what I think you would say was a reasonable if superficial account of the problematic relationship between diagnosis and biology, and of the inescapably probabilistic nature of diagnostic categories, and framed this as a discussion of why the DSM had to be a living document. In the Q&A, I asked him how he thought psychiatrists like him should deal with the predictable public response to what he was saying—that it implied that psychiatric diagnosis was provisional, always subject to change, and, for the moment, not validated by the kind of biological findings we (the public) expect from doctors. His response was, “I didn’t say it was provisional.” But in fact, he had said exactly that; I have the tape. The difference was that I was asking him to account for what this meant for public confidence. That is a scary topic for some psychiatrists, so suddenly Kupfer was back on the side of the positivists.
That’s what I mean by trying to have it both ways. I do understand why it is discomfiting, annoying, and perhaps inexplicable to you that I would continue to make this point, and to object to the difference between the way doctors talk to each other about this and the way they talk to the rest of us. (Allen Frances would add destructive to that list.) I really can’t offer a defense except to say that I think there is room in the world for people like you to try to counsel quiet acceptance of the dissonance between our expectations and the reality of medical nosology, and for people like me to counsel skepticism when that dissonance seems to favor one group over another.
As to why I would pick on psychiatry, the answer is that I think the mind is different from other functions of the human, and that we are changed in part by what we come to believe about ourselves. for better or worse, and without their asking for this role, psychiatrists are among those who have
more to say than others about our self-understanding. People feel this. That’s why it’s so easy to get them to hate psychiatry. I’m sorry if I seem to you that I am stoking that rage. Mostly, I am trying to understand it, locate it in the history of the self, and possibly educate it.
One last thing: the point I was making originally was only that I believe it is incumbent on psychiatry to make its domain clearer (and probably smaller). I did not mean to suggest that the only way to do that is via biologically based validity. I meant to say that this is how psychiatry, implicitly or explicitly, claims to be doing it. That’s not an entirely unreasonable claim. If only we could identify brain pathologies, and say that the mental illness caused by them are psychiatry’s proper targets and everything else is not, we could stop yelling at each other. But so far no one has been able to find those markers. So in the meantime, to me anyway, the question is how to do it. And the deeper question is, who is going to do it?