Dr Caroline Leaf – Howling at the moon

The night is darkest just before the dawn, so says the age-old phrase.  It’s funny how we just accept these old adages as true, but when you actually think about it, they’re nothing more than a concoction of the imagination.  The night isn’t darker just before dawn – it’s just as dark when the sun goes down as it is before the sun comes up again.

In the same way, we so often accept things said by ‘experts’ as truth when in reality, they’re also just some particularly imaginative concoctions.

Take, for example, Dr Leaf’s latest e-mail newsletter and blog for June 2017.  In it, she merrily gloated about how a recent UN Human Rights report “exposed the current failings of diseased-based psychiatry” and “challenges the dominant narrative of brain disease and its overreliance on psychoactive drugs”.  The smugness is palpable – she finally has something more authoritative to try and back up her psychiatric antagonism than just the collective ranting of an outspoken, ill-informed fringe group.

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist (essentially an academic speech pathologist) though she continues to delusionally claim that she’s a cognitive neuroscientist.  She also grandiosely believes her training in speech pathology make her a mental health expert, above psychiatrists with actual medical training and decades of real clinical experience.  She might feel vindicated by this report and her ill-formed friends, but her view is naive and her narrative is based on inaccurate statistics and logical fallacy.

For example, this paragraph encapsulates Dr Leaf’s statistical errancy and general self-deception: “Several of my previous blogs, as well as some of my FAQs, deal with the current state of mental health care, which has crippled so many lives, led to countless deaths, and left millions of people thinking that there is ‘something wrong with my brain.’ Indeed, an estimated 20% of the American population take psychiatric drugs, which amounts to a staggering cost of $40 billion, as mental health advocate Robert Whitaker points out (a 50-fold increase since the late 1980s).”

It’s a “see-I-told-you-so” attempted justification, except that modern mental health care has not “crippled so many lives” or “led to countless deaths.”  It’s actually untreated mental illness which really cripples people’s lives, or ends them.  Suicide is an unspoken epidemic that is so often the end result of undiagnosed or untreated mental illness.  Suicide is the major cause of premature death among people with a mental illness and it’s estimated that up to one in ten people affected by mental illness die by suicide.  Up to 87% of people who die by suicide suffer from mental illnesses. There are more deaths by suicide than deaths caused by skin cancer and car accidents.  Up to three percent of adults have attempted suicide within their lifetime and it’s estimated that for every completed suicide, at least six other people are directly impacted in a significant way [1].

On the flip side, the use of any anti-psychotic medication for a patient with schizophrenia decreased their mortality by nearly 20% [2]. In another study, the mortality of those with schizophrenia who did not take anti-psychotics was nearly ten times that of the healthy population, but taking anti-psychotic medication reduced that by a factor of five! [3]  Dr Correll and colleagues summarised the literature, noting that, “clozapine, antidepressants, and lithium, as well as antiepileptics, are associated with reduced mortality from suicide. Thus, the potential risks of antipsychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilizers need to be weighed against the risk of the psychiatric disorders for which they are used and the lasting potential benefits that these medications can produce.” [4]

As for her example taken from the equally prejudiced Robert Whitaker that “an estimated 20% of the American population take psychiatric drugs, which amounts to a staggering cost of $40 billion … (a 50-fold increase since the late 1980s)”, even if it were true, it’s simply misleading and ill-informed.  Twenty percent of the US population might be taking “psychiatric drugs” but some of them might be taking them for different reasons.  For example, tricyclic anti-depressants are no longer used primarily for depression but have found a niche in the treatment of chronic and nerve-related pain.  And so what if there’s been a 50-fold increase in the use of psychiatric medications since the 1980’s, that doesn’t mean they’re being used inappropriately.  Her analogy is like saying that because there has been a 900-fold increase in the number of road deaths since the turn of the century [5], cars are being used inappropriately and we should all start travelling by horse-back again.

It’s the height of arrogance for Dr Leaf to sit in her ivory tower and condemn modern psychiatry based on her utopian fantasy, but mental illness affects real people and causes real suffering – like the two heart-broken parents told a Parliamentary Enquiry in Australia a few years back, “We would rather have our daughter alive with some of her rights set aside than dead with her rights (uselessly) preserved intact.” [6]

Dr Leaf may smugly think the sun is shining on her, but she’s still in the darkness of night, barking and howling at the moon like a rabid dog.  If she really wants to step into the light, she should try looking at the mountain of scientific evidence supporting modern psychiatry and if that’s not enough for her, then she should at least look at all those afflicted and distressed because the mental illness they or their loved one suffered from was ignored in favour of an ideology that claims to support human rights but which ignores the most basic human right of all, the right to life.

References
[1]        Corso PS, Mercy JA, Simon TR, Finkelstein EA, Miller TR. Medical costs and productivity losses due to interpersonal and self-directed violence in the United States. Am J Prev Med 2007 Jun;32(6):474-82.
[2]        Tiihonen J, Lonnqvist J, Wahlbeck K, et al. 11-year follow-up of mortality in patients with schizophrenia: a population-based cohort study (FIN11 study). Lancet 2009 Aug 22;374(9690):620-7.
[3]        Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.
[4]        Correll CU, Detraux J, De Lepeleire J, De Hert M. Effects of antipsychotics, antidepressants and mood stabilizers on risk for physical diseases in people with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association 2015 Jun;14(2):119-36.
[5]        “List of motor vehicle deaths in US by year” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year Accessed 18 June 2017
[6]        “A national approach to mental health – from crisis to community – First report” 2006 Commonwealth of Australia http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Former_Committees/mentalhealth/report/c03 Accessed 18 June 2017

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Anti-psychotics, damn lies and statistics

Today, I was asked to clarify some information surrounding an earlier post about Carrie Fisher and the role that anti-psychotic medications may or may not have played in her death from a heart attack.  I appreciated the question which was about whether I’d seen the statistics put up by the Mad In America (MIA) blogger who wrote about Carrie Fisher (the blog which, incidentally, Dr Leaf had then uncritically decided to slyly try to regift it in the form of her newsletter article).

In the opening of her post, the MIA blogger said, “There’s an important question here. Is she one of the cases in point to explain why our community has a 25 year lower life expectancy?” and then threw in a table plucked out of context from a journal article.  At least, unlike Dr Leaf, the MIA blogger was intellectually honest enough to attach the source of the table, which was an article published in the European Heart Journal in 2012.

While the MIA blogger is certainly entitled to her opinion, I thought it was worth discussing the statistics in a bit more detail, if for nothing else than to give some context to the whole “anti-psychotics kill you” trope that keeps getting around.

First, there needs to be the proper context.  No one is denying that there’s a higher mortality rate amongst people with schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis, though I don’t see exactly where she got her “25 year lower life expectancy” line from. To me, that seems excessive.

Then to the study itself.  The paper that the table is extracted from is Honkola et al [1]. The study specifically examines the association between the use of different classes of psychiatric medications with the rate of sudden cardiac death during a coronary event (a heart attack, or angina).

In her post, the MIA blogger throws around a lot of numbers but she was loathe to put her numbers in the right context.  For example, she claimed that “smoking is four times safer than the older types of antipsychotics. And it’s twice as safe to smoke as it is to take any antipsychotic, including the newer ones”.  Except, her comparison is a fallacy of conflation – she’s comparing the all cause mortality of smoking (which is more like three-fold rather than two-fold, just FYI [2]) with the highly specific ‘sudden cardiac death during a heart attack’ mortality of the study she’s referencing.  It’s apples and oranges – the groups aren’t directly comparable.

Besides, even if her numbers were directly applicable, the positively immoral sounding four-fold increase in the rate of death sounds is just an association, not a cause.  There is a dictum in science, “Correlation is not the same as causation.”  Just because two things occur together does not mean that one causes the other.  There may be other explanations beside the medication that might explain that number, including but not limited to, statistical anomalies and lifestyle factors, and other factors not considered in the analysis.

There are other problems with relevance too.  Most of the numbers in the table were small and not statistically significant (that is, could have been related to chance alone).  The only strong numbers were for old anti-psychotics, phenothiazines, tricyclic antidepressants and butyrophenones, none of which are first line medications for psychosis or depression anymore.  Newer anti-depressants and the newer atypical anti-psychotics did not have a statistically significant association.

And, like I said before, this study is looking at the association between sudden cardiac death in people having a heart attack, which is a very specific form of mortality.  It’s not particularly applicable to everyone on the medications, so even if the 4- or 8-fold increase is rock solid, you can’t translate that statistic to everyone on anti-psychotic medications or anti-depressants, or Carrie Fisher for that matter since no one really knows how she died other than she had a heart attack.  The rest is just disrespectful speculation.

For me, rather than trying to take a table full of weak and inapplicable statistics and beat a conclusion out of them, a more useful thing would be to know the benefit or harm of anti-psychotics on all causes of death.  If anti-psychotics were really as poisonous as Dr Leaf and the MIA blogger portrayed, then all-cause mortality would be much higher in those exposed to the drugs versus those who were never exposed to the drug, which is why this study by Torniainen and colleagues [3] is particularly interesting, and in particular, this graph – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4393693/figure/F1/

In this study, the chance of dying from any cause was significantly higher in those people with schizophrenia who were never treated with anti-psychotics compared to those who were treated.

Does this answer the question why there is a lower rate of mortality? Not really, because in fairness, this study also showed just an association between no anti-psychotics and a higher death rate.  It doesn’t specifically prove causation one way or another.

Does it show that we should throw anti-psychotics around like lollies, or that they are wonder drugs without any associated harm? No, they are medicines and need to be used responsibly.

It does show there’s a general benefit to anti-psychotics for people with schizophrenia so they’re not the toxic killers Dr Leaf and the MIA blogger try and make them out to be.

Anyone can cherry-pick weak statistics and bend them to suit their self-interested propaganda.  The remedy to damn lies and statistics is to look more broadly and consider the strength of the numbers and their context.  When we do that with the studies on anti-psychotic medications we see that they aren’t the evil killers that some people would like to make them out to be.

References
[1]        Honkola J, Hookana E, Malinen S, et al. Psychotropic medications and the risk of sudden cardiac death during an acute coronary event. Eur Heart J 2012 Mar;33(6):745-51
[2]        Jha P, Ramasundarahettige C, Landsman V, et al. 21st-century hazards of smoking and benefits of cessation in the United States. The New England journal of medicine 2013 Jan 24;368(4):341-50
[3]        Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63