But I’m normally a rational person …

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her uneasy hands fidgeting together, her eyes flitting around as she tried to focus on the wall across from her, unable to find a target for her empty gaze.

“But … I’m normally a rational person,” she said, finally putting words to the thought that had been evading her for half a minute.

She was a woman in her mid thirties, with a comfortable job, a family and a mortgage in the suburbs.  We were halfway through a standard GP consult, and we had already discussed and resolved something trivial before she finally plucked up the courage to change tack and reveal the hidden agenda she’d hoped to discuss all along.

“I’m anxious all the time.  I try so hard, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.”

I empathised.  I’ve been there too – I’ve lived through times when my anxiety disorder was so debilitating that I wouldn’t call someone on the phone for fear of dialling the wrong number.  Or when I was so depressed that I couldn’t see anything positive for the future, when nearly every thought I had was saturated with moribund darkness.

I was anxious as a teenager, but I was depressed as an adult.  I’d been through medical school and I had attained by GP fellowship when my depression took hold.  During the four years or so that I spent with the black dog, I was constantly haunted by the same narrative that now haunted my patient … “I’m a rational person, why am I thinking like this?”

The fact I had fellowship level medical training intensified my mental self-flagellation, “I know all about depression.  I understand CBT.  I know I’m ruminating on catastrophic thoughts.  So why can’t I stop them?  If only I could think more positively, I’d be so much better.”

I found myself in a self-defeating spiral, often called the struggle switch, where I thought I knew how to climb out of my psychological mire, but all I achieved in trying to climb out was to sink further in, making me feel more defeated, even more of a failure.  It was a very difficult time which I thought would never end.

Eventually it lifted, like a heavy fog thinning in the morning sunlight, but it certainly wasn’t the result of anything clever I did.  So why did my rational brain keep filling my mind with irrational thoughts?

The answer lay in a paradigm shift away from the long held beliefs that we were taught at medical school and in our general practice training.  We’ve been lead to believe for so many years that our thoughts were the key driver of our behaviour, but it turns out that it’s actually the other way around, our behaviour is but one of a number of key driver of our thoughts.

The foundation of CBT is the notion that challenging maladaptive thoughts helps to empower behavioural change.  Except that research suggests that cognitive therapy specifically targeting problem thoughts offers no extra improvement over behavioural therapy alone.

Herbert and Forman confirm this when they point out that, “proponents of behavioral activation point to the results of component control studies of CT, in which behavioral activation or exposure alone is compared to behavioral activation (or exposure) plus cognitive restructuring. The majority of these studies have failed to demonstrate incremental effects of cognitive restructuring strategies.” [1]

This fact has been further confirmed by a number of meta-analyses [2] and by a large randomised controlled trial comparing behavioural therapy and cognitive therapy side by side with medication for depression [3].

So therapies aimed at fixing thinking works equally as well as therapies aimed only at promoting therapeutic action.  However, when thinking therapies are added to behaviour therapies, they add no extra benefit over and above the behaviour therapies alone [2].  This suggests that action is the driver of the therapeutic effects of psychological therapy.  If thinking were the driving force of psychological change, the addition of cognitive therapy to behaviour therapy should have an incremental effect.

That cognitive therapy works equally well as behavioural therapy may be related to their fundamental similarities. Dobson et al explains, “Behavioural Activation is implemented in a manner that is intended to both teach coping skills and to reduce future risk. The same is true for Cognitive Therapy, which adds an emphasis on cognitive change, but otherwise takes a similar skills-training approach.” [3]  In other words, cognitive behavioural therapy is just behavioural therapy with bling.

Herbert and Forman summarise it nicely, “The ideas that thoughts and beliefs lead directly to feelings and behavior, and that to change one’s maladaptive behavior and subjective sense of well-being one must first change one’s cognitions, are central themes of Western folk psychology.  We encourage friends to ‘look on the bright side’ of difficult situations in order to improve their distress. We seek to cultivate ‘positive attitudes’ in our children in the belief that this will lead to better academic or athletic performance. Traditional cognitively-oriented models of CBT (e.g., CT, stress inoculation training, and rational emotive behavior therapy) build on these culturally sanctioned ideas by describing causal effects of cognitions on affect and behavior, and by interventions targeting distorted, dysfunctional, or otherwise maladaptive cognitions.” [1]

I understand this is going to ruffle some feathers, and not everyone is going to be keen to dispense with CBT just yet, but I hope this gets us thinking about thinking at the very least.

For me, coming to an understanding that my thoughts were just the dashboard and not the engine helped me to pay less attention to them and to focus my healing energies on what was really important, taking values based action rather than just fighting with my stream of thoughts.

And it’s helped me to empathise differently with my patients and reassure them that you can still be a rational person even if your thoughts don’t always seem to follow suit.

References
[1]       Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
[2]       Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[3]       Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.


KINTSUKUROI CHRISTIANS – Available at Koorong, Amazon, iBooks and other good book retailers

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Where are all the shepherds?

In “The Myth of Icarus”, Icarus, full of the folly that comes with pride, flew too high and the sun melted his wings.

Dr Caroline Leaf is the modern day Christian version of Icarus, foolishly flying higher and higher, deluded by her self-importance and unaware of the weakness and fissuring of her presumed competence.

But unlike the myth of Icarus where only Icarus himself paid the ultimate price, Dr Leaf isn’t the only person flying too close to the sun, but she is encouraging the church to follow her lead.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Unfortunately, despite no training or experience whatsoever in psychiatry, psychology or even basic counselling, Dr Leaf has assumed the role of a mental health expert for the church.

Having the untrained Dr Leaf lecture Christian congregations on mental illness is an absolutely absurd proposition – it’s like having a plumber give a public lecture about coronary bypass surgery.  Yet the uncredentialed Dr Leaf continues to speak at church after church after church about mental health and illness, given a free license as if she were a psychiatrist with decades of experience.

And my question is “Why”?

Why do pastors and church leaders give Dr Leaf a free pass to speak from their platforms on a subject that she is objectively unqualified to speak on?  Where is the public process of due diligence? Where is public demonstration of accountability that undergirds the reverence, the sacred gravitas, of the church pulpit? Why do our church leaders stay silent when unqualified preachers poison their congregations with saccharine subterfuge?

Where are all the shepherds?   Why aren’t they shepherding?

Dr Leaf’s latest e-mail newsletter aptly demonstrates what the church needs protecting from – an entire e-mail encouraging people to withdraw from psychiatric medications.  Her bias is clear – psychiatric medications are harmful and you can withdraw from them if you want to.  If you do, you’ll feel better.

This might as well be unsolicited, unlicensed medical advice.  There’s no discussion about the nuances of psychotropic medication, or the proven benefits.  She then encourages people to look for more information by reading books or visiting websites that are known to be unhinged or, at best, clearly biased against medications for mental ill-health.

In the past, Dr Leaf has clearly shown her ignorance when it comes to psychiatric medications.  She has accused them of everything from being poisonous to being unspiritual.  Never once has she acknowledged the scores of research papers that confirm the judicious use of psychiatric medications saves lives and extends the lifespan of those who take them.

Now, she has advised people that they can stop their medications and promotes unscrupulous and biased sources of information to help.  This isn’t just ignorant, this is dangerous. [1]

Will it take the untimely death of one of their congregation before our church leaders say ‘enough is enough’?  It will be all too late then.

It’s time for our church leaders to stand up for the congregations they lead and denounce the teaching of Dr Caroline Leaf.  Her ignorance and her arrogance are becoming a dangerous mix.  Our pastors can’t wait until blood is on their hands before they’re forced into action – they need to act now, before it’s too late.

~ ~
If you are concerned about the medications you’re taking or you think you don’t need them any more, for heaven’s sake don’t just stop taking them or try and wean yourself.  Go see your doctor for advice specific to your medication and your situation.

Don’t believe me? https://psychcentral.com/lib/discontinuing-psychiatric-medications-what-you-need-to-know

DISCLAIMER: Just in case anyone was wondering about my motives, I declare that I have no connection with any pharmaceutical company. I do not accept gratuities of any form from any sales representative. I don’t eat their food, I don’t take their pens, and I don’t listen to their sales pitches.

References and bibliography

[1] Valuck RJ, Orton HD, Libby AM. Antidepressant discontinuation and risk of suicide attempt: a retrospective, nested case-control study. J Clin Psychiatry 2009 Aug;70(8):1069-77.

https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/05/17/anti-depressants-not-the-messiah/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2017/06/18/dr-caroline-leaf-howling-at-the-moon/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2017/06/12/anti-psychotics-damn-lies-and-statistics/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2017/01/13/caroline-leaf-carrie-fisher-killed-by-bipolar-meds/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/09/27/dr-caroline-leaf-not-a-mental-health-expert/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2016/03/19/dr-caroline-leaf-increasing-the-stigma-of-mental-illness-again/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/18/dr-caroline-leaf-and-her-can-of-worms/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/19/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-can-of-worms-update/
https://cedwardpitt.com/2015/10/26/dr-caroline-leaf-and-the-myth-of-chemical-imbalances-myth/

Kintsukuroi Christians

When I was a kid growing up, there wasn’t much that my father couldn’t repair.

Dad was extremely gifted with his hands, a talent that I certainly didn’t inherit. He was able to take a problem, come up with a practical solution in his mind’s eye, then build it out of whatever scraps of wood, metal or plastic he could lay his hands on. It was the ultimate expression of frugality and recycling that comes from a limited income and four growing children.

Dad was also able to resurrect nearly everything that broke in our house. Plates, cups, teapots, toys, tools … it seemed there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed by the careful application of Araldite.

Araldite, for those unfamiliar with it, is some sort of epoxy resin that, in the right hands, possesses mystical properties of adhesion. It would stick anything to anything.

Dad’s gift for repairing things with Araldite meant that a lot of our things were patched up. Some of our most loved possessions were the most cracked. Despite being glued together several times, each item was still functional. Maybe not as pretty as it may have once been, but still useful, and more importantly, still treasured. Each time the Araldite came out, it taught me that whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption.

There’s an ancient Japanese tradition that shares the same principles. For more than 400 years, the Japanese people have practiced kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi (pronounced ‘kint soo koo ree’) is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, and the deep understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

The edges of the broken fragments are coated with the glue made from Japanese lacquer resin and are bonded back into place. The joints are rubbed with an adhesive until the surface is perfectly smooth again. After drying, more lacquer is applied. This process is repeated many times, and gold dust is also applied. In kintsukuroi, the gold lacquer accentuates the fracture lines, and the breakage is honoured as part of that piece’s history.
Mental illness is a mystery to most people, shrouded by mythology, stigma, gossip or Hollywood hype. It’s all around us, affecting a quarter of the population every year, but so often those with mental illness hide in plain sight. Mental illness doesn’t give you a limp, a lump, or a lag. It affects feelings and thoughts, our most latent personal inner world, the iceberg underneath the waters.

On the front line of medicine, I see people with mental health problems every day, but mental health problems don’t limit themselves to the doctor’s office. They’re spread throughout our everyday lives. If one in four people have a mental health problem of one form or another, then one in four Christians have a mental health problem of one form or another. If your church experience is anything like mine, you would shake hands with at least ten people from the front door to your seat. Statistically speaking, two or three of them will have a mental illness. Could you tell?

It’s a fair bet that most people wouldn’t know if someone in their church had a mental illness. Christians battling with mental illness learn to present a happy façade, or face the judgment if they don’t), so they either hide their inner pain, or just avoid church altogether.
Experiencing a mental illness also makes people feel permanently broken. They feel like they’re never going to be whole again, or good enough, or useful, or loved. They’re often treated that way by well-meaning but ill-informed church members whose idea’s and opinions on mental illness is out-of-date.

The truth is that Christians who have experienced mental ill-health are like a kintsukuroi pot.

Mental illness may break them, sure. But they don’t stay broken. The dark and difficult times, and their recovery from their illness is simply God putting lacquer on their broken pieces, putting them back together, and rubbing gold dust into their cracks.
We are all kintsukuroi Christians – we’re more beautiful and more honoured than we were before, because of our brokenness, and our recovery.

I’m pleased to announce that my book, Kintsukuroi Christians, is now available. I’ve written this book to try and bring together the best of the medical and spiritual.
Unfortunately, good scientific information often bypasses the church. The church is typically misled by Christian ‘experts’ that preach a view of mental health based on a skewed or outdated understanding of mental illness and cognitive neuroscience. I want to present a guide to mental illness and recovery that’s easy for Christians to digest, adopting the best spiritual AND scientific perspective.

In the book, I look at some scientific basics. Our mental world is based on the physical world. Our mind is a function of the brain, just like breathing is a function of our lungs. Just as we can’t properly understand our breathing without understanding our lungs, so it is that if we’re going to understand our thinking and our minds, we are going to have to understand the way our brain works. So the first part of this book will be an unpacking of the neurobiology of thought.

We’ll also look at what promotes good mental health. Then we’ll look at what causes mental illness, specifically looking at the most common mental health disorders. I will only look at some of the most common disorders to demonstrate some general principles of psychiatric illnesses and treatments. This book won’t be an encyclopaedia, and it doesn’t need to be. I hope to provide a framework so that common and uncommon mental health disorders can be better understood. I also discuss suicide, which is sadly more common than most people realise, and is rarely discussed.

I know mental illness is difficult, and we often look at ourselves or others as though the brokenness is abhorrent, ugly and deforming.
My hope is that through Kintsukuroi Christians, you’ll see the broken pieces are mended with gold, and realise that having or recovering from a mental illness doesn’t render someone useless or broken, but that God turns our mental brokenness into beauty.

Kintsukuroi Christians is available to purchase from good Christian bookstores around the world including:

Kooyong = https://www.koorong.com/search/product/kintsukuroi-christians-christopher-pitt/9780994596895.jhtml

Amazon US = https://www.amazon.com/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Amazon UK = https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Smashwords = https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/720425

~~

Mental illness can be challenging. Sometimes learning about mental illness can bring up difficult feelings or emotions, either things that you’ve been through yourself, or because you develop a better understanding of what a loved one is going through or has been through. Sometimes old issues that have been suppressed or not properly dealt with can bubble up to the surface. If at any point you feel distressed, I strongly encourage you to talk to your local doctor, psychologist, or pastor. If the feelings are so overwhelming that you need to talk to someone quickly, then please don’t delay, but reach out to a crisis service in your country

In Australia
Lifeline 13 11 14, or
BeyondBlue
Call 1300 22 4636
Daily web chat (between 3pm–12am) and email (with a response provided within 24 hours)  https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

USA = National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand = Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline 0800 543 354

UK = Samaritans (24 hour help line) 116 123

For other countries, Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

Black is the new black – Mental illness touches more of us than we realise (or want to admit)

I rarely get sick.

I say this while superstitiously touching my wooden desk to try and avoid putting the mockers on myself.  Thankfully, I have a fairly robust immune system and, after years or working in hospital paediatrics and general practice, and having been sneezed at or coughed on multiple times a day, I have been exposed to just about every variation of the cold virus and influenza possible.

Even for those of us with an immune system as solid as a prize bull, we still get sick every now and then.  We all get upper respiratory viruses so commonly that we just consider it a normal part of life.  Most people will take some paracetamol or ibuprofen and keep going.  Some people will go to their GP, and while a most will (… should …) come away some simple reassurance, occasionally some will need a prescription medication for a nastier bacterial infection.  An even smaller percentage will need admission to hospital because of a much more severe infection.

I read an interesting blog this week on Psychology Today by Dr David Rettew.  Its provocative title was, “Is Mental Illness the Rule Rather Than the Exception?”

The blog discussed the study being carried on in Dunedin which has been following a cohort of a thousand people for the last thirty-five years.  This particular study looked for common factors that were shared by those people who had never been affected by a certifiable psychiatric disorder.  What was interesting was that only seventeen percent of the people in that cohort had NOT been affected by a mental illness at some point in that thirty-five-year time frame.

Now for the average Australian, there are some obvious kiwi jokes going begging here (like, I’d be depressed too if I had to live in New Zealand, or how can someone tell if a sheep is really depressed or not, etc. etc.).  All jokes aside, seventeen percent of people not affected … that’s a remarkable figure.  In researching my latest book (soon to be released …) I had come across the figure of fifty percent of people had a lifetime prevalence of any mental illness.  That’s one in every two, and chances are that if you weren’t the person affected, you would know someone who was affected, but the Dunedin figures are even higher.  If you can accurately extrapolate them, four out of every five people will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives.

The inevitable response from modern psychiatry’s critics is entirely predictable – there will be claims that the DSM5 is simply making diseases out of normal human life experiences, that our humanity is being pathologised and over-medicated for the benefit of big Pharma.

But as Rettew points out in a separate blog post, something may be such a common occurrence as to be considered part of the normal human experience but it can still be a pathology.  The common cold is so common that it’s a normal part of life, but it’s still a disease.

Whether four out of every five people will be affected by mental illness or one out of two, whatever the number, the idea that most of our population will be afflicted with a mental illness at some point in their lives isn’t necessarily a negative thing.  As Rettew also discusses, we don’t arbitrarily change the definitions of physical illnesses to match how many people we think should suffer from them, and neither should we arbitrarily change the diagnostic boundaries of mental illness so less people appear mentally unwell.

We need to accept that, at times, people will be functionally impaired to varying degrees because of mental illness just like people will be functionally impaired by physical illness.  We need to treat mental illness with the same respect as we would physical illness.

In the same way that not all physical illnesses require medication, neither do all mental illnesses.  By and large, most mental illnesses that people suffer from will be short lived and self-limiting, the psychiatric equivalent of having a cold.  Some people will need treatment for their mental illness, but usually this takes the form of structured behavioural therapy like ACT or CBT.  Occasionally, people will need to take a medication and very occasionally, some people will need to be hospitalised because of their mental illness.

For too long, mental illness has been viewed from an extreme perspective – mental illness is uncommon and severe. The nuances of mental illness have been lost or ignored in the white noise of ignorance and sanctimony.  The lack of subtlety and understanding has failed us as a community.  When treated early, mental illness has a much better prognosis, but the stigma, fear and misunderstanding perpetuated by the all-or-nothing approach has left a lot of people without treatment and therefore with worse outcomes overall.

If people were to realise that most of us will be touched by mental illness at some point, then perhaps there would be more understanding and less judgement, something that would lead to less suffering because of mental illness.

That would only be a good thing.

~~~~~

If you think you might be affected by mental illness or if you would like to know more, see your local GP, family physician or psychologist.  On line information can be found at many reputable sites including Beyond Blue – https://www.beyondblue.org.au

Anti-depressants – Not the messiah

 “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, now go away!” 

 Ah, Monty Python – six university students with a penchant for satire who changed the face of comedy.  They say that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and if that’s the case, Monty Python should be very flattered!  Nearly five decades later, you still hear people throwing around lines from their sketches and getting a laugh.

Their movie, “The Life of Brian” remains one of the most critically acclaimed and most controversial of all movies.  It was the story of Brian, born in the stable next door to Jesus, and who later in life unintentionally becomes the focus of a bunch of people who mistakenly believe he’s the messiah.  One morning he opens his window to find a large crowd of people waiting for him outside his house, leaving his mother to try and dismiss the crowd with that now famous rebuke.

The crowd at Brian’s window aptly demonstrates a quirk in our collective psyche.  We humans have a bipolar tendency to latch on to something that seems like a good idea at the time and blow it’s benefits out of all proportion, only to later discover it wasn’t as good as our overblown expectations and unfairly despise it on the rebound.

Anti-depressant medications are a bit like Monty Python’s Brian.  Back in the late 1980’s when Prozac first came on the market, doctors saw it as the mental health messiah.  Prozac improved cases of long-standing severe depression and was much safer in overdose compared to older classes of psychiatric medications.  The idea that depression and other mental illnesses were related to chemical imbalances fit nicely with the cultural shift away from the Freudian psychotherapy model that was prevalent at the time.  People were describing life changing experiences on Prozac: “One morning I woke up and really did want to live … It was as if the miasma of depression had lifted off me, in the same way that the fog in San Francisco rises as the day wears on.” [1]  Prescribing for Prozac and other SSRI anti-depressants took off.

Fast forward to the present day, where the pendulum has swung back violently.  Anti-depressants are considered by some to be nothing more than over-prescribed placebo medications used by a pill-happy, time-poor culture demanding simple cures for complex problems.  Some commentators have gone so far as to label anti-depressants as an evil tool of the corrupt capitalist psychiatric establishment.

“Anti-depressants are not the messiah, they’re very naughty boys, now go away!” they exclaim.

But are anti-depressants really the enemy, or could they still be friendly, even if they’re not the messiah?

In the Medical Journal of Australia this month, two Australian psychiatrists, Christopher Davey and Andrew Chanen, carefully review the place of anti-depressants in modern medicine [2].  It’s a very balanced and pragmatic view.

They bring together all the evidence to show that while anti-depressants aren’t the elixir of happiness that we once assumed, they also don’t deserve the accusation that they’re nothing but fakes.

When drugs are scientifically tested, they’re usually studied in placebo-controlled trials.  The medications are given to one target group of people and a fake medicine is given to a similar group.  In the best trials, the patients aren’t aware of which they’re actually getting, and the physicians aren’t aware either.  That way personal bias and expectations can be reduced.  To reduce these biases even further, other scientists can pool all of the quality research on a topic in what’s called a meta-analysis.

Trials on anti-depressants initially showed very strong positive results, or in other words, the patients on the drug did much better than those on the placebo.  Anti-depressants lost a lot of their shine in the last decade or so as researchers began pointing out that the placebo effect, the number of patients improving on the fake medicine, was also very high.

There was also the serious, and largely legitimate accusation that drug companies ignored trials with less favourable results to make their drugs look better.  The reputation of anti-depressants was forever tarnished.

One of the most out-spoken critics of anti-depressants, Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, tried to show that when all of the trials on anti-depressants were taken together, the placebo effect wasn’t just close to the effectiveness of the real medicine, but was actually the same.

The problem with Kirsch’s analysis is that not all trials are created equal.  Some have negative results because they were poor trials in the first place.  When experts reapplied Kirsch’s methods to the best quality trials, the results suggested that anti-depressants are still effective, but for moderate and severe depression [1].  Anti-depressants for mild depression weren’t of great benefit.

This is take home point number one: Don’t believe the hype.  Anti-depressants are useful, but not for all cases of depression. #happypillshelp

So if anti-depressants aren’t useful for all cases of depression, are other therapies better? This is where psychological therapies come in to the equation.  Those who are the most vocal opponents of modern psychiatry and psychiatric medications are also the most vocal promoters of the benefits of talking therapies.  They won’t admit it, but there’s usually an ideological bias or financial incentive driving the feverish worship of talking therapies and their overzealous defence.

Though in the cold hard light of evidence-based science, talking therapies aren’t much of a panacea either.  Pim Cuijpers, a professor of Clinical Psychology in Amsterdam lead a team who reviewed the effectiveness of trials of psychotherapy, and found that their effectiveness has also been overstated over the last few decades.  Quality studies show that talking therapies are equivalent in effectiveness compared to anti-depressants for depression [3].

What’s important to understand about talking therapies in general is that any benefit they have is related to changing behaviour, but that’s not dependent on changing your thoughts first [4-6].  Talking and thinking differently is fine, but unless that results in a change to your actions, there will probably be little benefit.

This is take home message number two: Talking therapies help, but you don’t need to change your thinking, you need to change your actions. #walkthetalk

The million-dollar question is how to apply all of this.  If talking therapies have the same benefit as anti-depressants, then do we go for tablets before talking or the other way around?  Are both together more powerful than each one alone?

In their paper, Davey and Chanen outline what has become the generally accepted pecking order for anti-depressant therapy.  They recommend that all patients should be offered talking treatments where it’s available.  Medication should only be considered if:

  1. a person’s depression is moderate or severe;
  2. a person doesn’t want to engage with talking therapies; or
  3. talking therapies haven’t worked.

Some overseas guidelines recommend this order based on projected bang for your buck.  While talking therapies are initially more expensive, they seem to have a more durable effect than medications, which are initially cheaper and easier, but have a greater cost with prolonged use [7].  In other words, if you learn better resilience and coping skills, you’re less likely to fall back into depression, compared to the use of the medications.

This is take home message number three: Use talking therapies first, with medications as a back up. #skillsthenpills

At this point in history, we seem to finally be finding some balance.  Just as anti-depressants aren’t the messiah, they’re not the devil either, despite the vocal minority doing their best to demonise them.

With a few decades of research and clinical experience since Prozac was first released on to the market, we’re finally getting an accurate picture of the place of talking therapies and medications in the treatment of depression.  Both are equally effective, and each have their place in the management of mental illness in our modern world.

References

[1]        Mukherjee S. Post Prozac Nation – The Science and History of Treating Depression. The New York Times. 2012 Apr 19
[2]        Davey CG, Chanen AM. The unfulfilled promise of the antidepressant medications. Med J Aust 2016 May 16;204(9):348-50.
[3]        Cuijpers P, van Straten A, Bohlmeijer E, Hollon SD, Andersson G. The effects of psychotherapy for adult depression are overestimated: a meta-analysis of study quality and effect size. Psychological medicine 2010 Feb;40(2):211-23.
[4]        Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
[5]        Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[6]        Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.
[7]        Anderson I. Depression. The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90.2009. London: The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010.

IMPORTANT

If you have questions about what treatment type might be better for you in your situation, please talk to your local GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, or if you need urgent crisis support, then:

In Australia

  • you can call either Lifeline on 13 11 14,
  • BeyondBlue provides a number of different support options
  • the BeyondBlue Support Service provides advice and support via telephone 24/7 (call 1300 22 4636)
  • daily web chat (between 3pm–12am)
  • email (with a response provided within 24 hours) via their website https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

In the US
-> call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In New Zealand
-> call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline on 0800 543 354

In the UK
-> Samaritans offer a 24 hour help line, on 116 123.

 

Can an aspirin a day keep the psychiatrist away?

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Floating across my Facebook feed this morning was an article on the possible link between depression and inflammation.  Its premise was that depression, the joyless soul-sucking disease affecting millions of people around the world, is related to inflammation.  If that were true, might mean that we could cure depression with medications that stop inflammation.  Maybe we should be consuming an aspirin a day to keep the doctor away, and not the proverbial apple?

Inflammation is a hot topic right now.  Inflammation in the medical sense refers to a normal body process to promote healing and recovery from sickness or injury.  It’s a complex dance of chemical signals which is triggered by damage to tissue.  Inflammation is essential to life. Without it, we would be unable to repair our tissues if they were damaged.

When tissues are damaged, a number of local cells in the damaged area release pro-inflammatory cytokines which then trigger a cascade of responses; increase in the size of the local blood vessels to allow greater blood flow to the area, attracting pus-cells (neutrophils) to the area, and increasing the ‘leakiness’ of the blood vessels to allow the pus cells into the area. This response is governed by a number of chemical mediators throughout the body, including histamine, serotonin, complement system, kinins, substance P, prostaglandins and leukotrienes, cytokines and nitric oxide. Anti-inflammatory cytokines balance out the process, keeping the pro-inflammatory cytokines in check so that the process doesn’t spiral out of control.

Despite the literal plethora of chemical reactions going on simultaneously, most of the time the reaction eventually runs out of noxious agents, the anti-inflammatory cytokines dampen down the reaction, and the tissue returns to either normal, or at least functional.  Though inflammation isn’t just limited to repairing damage but also preparing for damage –psychological stress prepares the inflammation system for potential damage.  Physical stress triggers the inflammation system to repair any damage.

Chronic inflammation occurs when the acute illness or injury does not fully resolve and continues to smoulder, the natural healing pathway is obstructed, or the body remains in a psychological state in which it is always expecting a fight.  In chronic inflammation, the processes of active inflammation, tissue destruction and attempts at healing occur simultaneously. In terms of cytokines, the anti-inflammatory cytokines can’t balance out the excess pro-inflammatory cytokines.

There’s a theory about depression which is gaining momentum within the scientific community, that depression and a number of other psychiatric and neurodegenerative conditions are the result of chronic inflammation which occurs because of chronic stress.

Remember when I said before that psychological stress readies the inflammatory system for potential damage?  Well, what if that damage never comes?  If there’s chronic psychological stress, the system is constantly being worn down, and never getting a chance to recover.  This seems to make sense – chronic stress reduces new nerve cell production and growth, and may interfere with the action of nerve growth factors like BDNF and neurotransmitters like serotonin.  Hence why this article by Feelguide seems to ring true.

But is it true?  Is depression fundamentally an inflammatory disease, and if so, can we treat it with medications that decrease inflammation, like aspirin?

Let’s go through the various statements made in the Feelguide article and see what the medical evidence says.

First, a necessary correction to avoid confusion.  The Feelguide article says that, “New research is revealing that many cases of depression are caused by an allergic reaction to inflammation.”  Depression is not an allergic reaction.  A true allergy is an antibody response which releases a chemical called histamine from cells called mast cells.  If the current theory about depression and inflammation is true, then depression is related to cytokines, chemicals that are entirely different to histamine.  It may be really annoying to sneeze like you’re demon possessed if a cat’s been in the same room a week ago, but it’s not going to make you depressed.

Is inflammation caused by obesity, high sugar diets, high quantities of trans fats, unhealthy diets in general?  There’s limited evidence that the foods you eat result in inflammation.  Most of the positive data comes from observational studies which are relatively weak.  Better, stronger studies generally give conflicting information [1].  For example, if high fat, sugary foods were really the cause of low grade inflammation, then diets like the Palaeolithic diet, which replace sugary, fatty processed foods with a bucket load of vegetables should improve inflammation.  Yet there have been no statistically significant changes in inflammatory markers recorded in subjects following the Palaeolithic diet [2].

The Feelguide article claims that, “By treating the inflammatory symptoms of depression – rather than the neurological ones – researchers and doctors are opening up an exciting new dimension in the fight against what has become a global epidemic”, but let’s not get too excited.  Again, there’s precious little evidence that medications or supplements reported to reduce inflammation make any difference to depression.  For example, the article mentions omega-3 and curcumin as having some benefit in the treatment of depression, which is half-right.  There’s some evidentiary support that EPA-predominant omega-3 supplements may have some effect on depression, but none at all for DHA omega-3’s [3] or curcumin [4].

When it comes to other medications with an anti-inflammatory effect, the results are similarly mixed.  The issue seems to be the specific cellular action of the medication on a particular immune cell in the brain called the microglial cell.  For example, normal anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin and other Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID’s) increased the activity of these special microglial cells which resulted in an increase in depressive symptoms in otherwise healthy individuals, whereas a medication called minocycline has been noted to decrease the activity of these microglia, and reduced the risk of depressive symptoms (in animal studies at least) [5].

So we really can’t say whether medications believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect really have any significant benefit.  As neuroscientists, Dr Dora Brites and Dr Adelaide Fernandes wrote,

“Nevertheless, we should be cautious in believing that depression can be treated by therapies targeting inflammation. Further studies are required to evaluate whether a combined therapy with anti-inflammatory compounds and antidepressants will result in additional clinical benefits.” [5]

That’s really because we don’t know whether inflammation causes depression, or if depression causes inflammation.  The article by Feelguide seem pretty confident, but the science is still a long way from being settled.

The final word is this:
1. Depression is complicated and still poorly understood.
2. It may be related to inflammation, but please don’t rely on herbs or medications that claim to have anti-inflammatory or “immune boosting” properties.
3. If you really want to try and treat your depression without pharmaceutical medications, take some EPA Omega 3 supplements by all means, although I’d encourage you to exercise and engage with a good psychologist too, both of which have more evidence of benefit overall.

References

[1]        Minihane AM, Vinoy S, Russell WR, et al. Low-grade inflammation, diet composition and health: current research evidence and its translation. The British journal of nutrition 2015 Oct 14;114(7):999-1012.
[2]        Pitt CE. Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Palaeolithic diet. Aust Fam Physician 2016 Jan-Feb;45(1):35-8.
[3]        Hallahan B, Ryan T, Hibbeln JR, et al. Efficacy of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids in the treatment of depression. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science 2016 Apr 21.
[4]        Andrade C. A critical examination of studies on curcumin for depression. J Clin Psychiatry 2014 Oct;75(10):e1110-2.
[5]        Brites D, Fernandes A. Neuroinflammation and Depression: Microglia Activation, Extracellular Microvesicles and microRNA Dysregulation. Front Cell Neurosci 2015;9:476.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Rogue Notion

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According to a new study by Rutgers University, “Learning new cognitive skills can help reduce overwhelming negative thoughts”. So said Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She also advised that “Intentionally bringing those rogue thoughts under control is essential to mind health! And learn something new every day – develop your mind!”

So … negative thoughts are what, like an evil spy organisation, running around causing wanton destruction, overwhelming your capacity to function?

If that’s the case, then new cognitive skills must be like Tom Cruise, running, jumping, shooting and kicking their way through the negative thoughts, saving the world and getting the girl.

It’s a popular concept. As I discussed in my previous post, the power of positive thinking is culturally sanctioned Western folk psychology. We implicitly accept the idea that we have to harness positive thoughts and stop negative thoughts if we’re to overcome life’s obstacles.

However, the only rogue notions here are Dr Leaf’s.

Dr Leaf’s post sounds authoritative and sciency, but is nothing else. It’s vague, and with a bit of deeper palpation, it’s actually wrong.

Dr Leaf has gone back to her bad habit of obfuscating her references, maybe because she’s getting lost in her own hubris, or more likely, it’s much easier for her audience to see that she’s just cut-and-pasted the opening by-line of a press release again if she actually disclosed her source.

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In fact, the article is about a study from Rutgers which studied two behavioural interventions (not cognitive ones), a form of mindfulness meditation and aerobic exercise. The original publication is in the journal Translational Psychiatry [1], if you want to check it out for yourself. This article isn’t about learning cognitive skills at all. Exercise and mindfulness meditation are tried and true behavioural methods of improving mood disorders like depression, which the authors combined to assess the benefit or otherwise. Neither intervention involved challenging or fighting thoughts, or suppressing ‘negative’ thoughts, or “intentionally bringing those rogue thoughts under control”.

Indeed, the mindfulness meditation used involves “the practice of attending to the present moment and allowing thoughts and emotions to pass without judgment.” [1] Mindfulness doesn’t try to control anything.  Rather than supporting Dr Leaf’s declaration that intentionally bringing thoughts under control is essential to mind health, this study contradicts it.

Cutting and pasting doesn’t make you an expert. It’s easy to take a sciency-sounding tag line and put it in a pretty little graphic. Everyone does it. 90% of Instagram and Facebook posts these days are faux-authoritative pseudo-science memes that aren’t worth the bytes they’re made of.

Junk science is like junk food. If that’s all you consume, then you eventually become an intellectual blob of lard, stuffed full of mistruths and logical fallacies, and incapable of understanding scientific truth for yourself. Dr Leaf’s audience deserves better than junk science and it’s about time that Dr Leaf stopped pretending to be an expert, and started acting like one.

Reference

[1]  Alderman BL, Olson RL, Brush CJ, Shors TJ. MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Transl Psychiatry 2016;6:e726.