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?

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 8.47.28 PM

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

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 7.26.25 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 4.17.09 PM

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.

Does sadness make you sick?

LeafMeme20160107

We’ve all heard of being “homesick”, or “heartsick”, or “lovesick”.   Sometimes when we’re extremely sad, we feel the knot in our stomachs, the pressure in our chests, or the confusion and distraction in our minds as the waves of sadness wash over and discombobulate us.

But can being sad really make you physically ill as well as emotionally distraught?

Dr Caroline Leaf declared today on her social media platforms that “Feeling sad can alter levels of stress-related opioids in the brain and increase levels of inflammatory proteins in the blood that are linked to increased risk of comorbid diseases including heart disease, stroke and metabolic syndrome.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She believes that our cognitive stream of thought determines our physical and mental health, and can even influence physical matter through the power of our minds.

She also added some further interpretation to her meme: “So this is more evidence that our thoughts do count: they have major epigenetic effects on the brain and body! We need to apply the principles in the Bible and listen to the Holy Spirit – no excuses this year!”

With all due respect to Dr Leaf, the study she quotes doesn’t prove anything of the sort.

Dr Leaf’s meme is a copy and paste of the opening paragraph of a news report published by the university’s PR people to promote their faculty.  This isn’t a scientific summary, it’s a hook to draw attention to an article which amounts to a PR puff piece.  If Dr Leaf had read further into the article, I don’t think she would have been quite so bold in claiming what she did.

The article discussed a study by Prossin and colleagues, published in Molecular Psychiatry [1].  You can read the original study here.  The study specifically measured the change in the level of the activity of the opioid neurotransmitter system and the amount of a pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-18 across two experimental mood states, and in two different groups of volunteers, people with depression, and those without.

For a start, it’s important to note that the study isn’t referring to normal day-to-day sadness.  This was an experimentally induced condition in which a sad memory was rehearsed so that the same feeling could be reproduced in a scanner, and the study was looking at the effect of this sad “mood” on people who were pathologically sad, that is, people diagnosed with major depression.

It’s well known that people with depression are at a higher risk of major illnesses, such as heart attacks, strokes and diabetes [2] The current study by Prossin et al looked experimentally at one possible link in the chain, a link between a neurotransmitter system that’s thought to change with emotional states, and one of the chemical mediators of inflammation.

They found that:

> Depressed people were much sadder to start with, and remained so throughout the different conditions.  The depressed people stayed sadder in the ‘neutral’ phase, and the healthy cohort couldn’t catch them in the ‘sad’ phase.
> Depressed people had a much higher level of the inflammatory marker to start with, and interestingly, this level dropped significantly with the induction of the neutral phase and the sad phase.  What was also interesting was that the level of the inflammatory marker was about the same in the baseline and the sad phase for the healthy volunteers.
> A completely different pattern of neurotransmitter release was seen in the two different groups.  People with depression had an increase in the neurotransmitter release over a large number of areas of the brain, whereas in the healthy controls with normal mood, the sad state actually resulted in a decreased amount of neurotransmitter release, and in a much smaller area within the brain.  This suggests that the opioid neurotransmitter system in the brains of depressed people is dysfunctional.

Affect/Sadness Scores - Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

Affect/Sadness Scores – Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

IL18 v Mood state/diagnosis - Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

IL18 v Mood state/diagnosis – Prossin et al Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.

Effectively, the results of the study reflect what’s already known – the emotional dysregulation seen in people with depression is because of an underlying problem with the brain, not the other way around.  And, sadness in normal people is not associated with a significant change in the evil pro-inflammatory cytokine.

So, according to Prossin’s article,

  1. normal sadness in normal people is not associated with physical illnesses.
  2. sadness is abnormally processed in people who are depressed, which maybe related to an abnormal inflammatory response, which might explain the known link between depression and increased risk of illness

The article is not “more evidence that our thoughts do count.”  If anything, it shows that underlying biological processes are responsible for our thoughts and emotions and their downstream effects, not the thoughts and emotions themselves.

And unfortunately, it appears that Dr Leaf hasn’t got past the opening paragraph of a puff piece article before jumping to a conclusion which only fits her worldview, not the actual science.

References

[1]        Prossin AR, Koch AE, Campbell PL, Barichello T, Zalcman SS, Zubieta JK. Acute experimental changes in mood state regulate immune function in relation to central opioid neurotransmission: a model of human CNS-peripheral inflammatory interaction. Molecular psychiatry 2015 Aug 18.
[2]        Clarke DM, Currie KC. Depression, anxiety and their relationship with chronic diseases: a review of the epidemiology, risk and treatment evidence. Med J Aust 2009 Apr 6;190(7 Suppl):S54-60.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of the Chemical Imbalance Myth

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 2.49.38 am

There are lots of medical myths that people believe.

“I have acne because I eat too much chocolate, or my face isn’t clean enough”

“Stomach ulcers are because of stress”

“I coughed up some yellow phlegm, so I must need antibiotics right?”

“My baby’s fevers are because of teething.”

Is the “chemical imbalance” theory one of them?

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. A couple of weeks ago she opened a proverbial can of worms by quoting the out-spoken Peter Gøtzsche, claiming that psychiatric drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. This did not go down well, and Dr Leaf had to issue three separate statements on social media to try and justify herself and attempt to rescue her rapidly deteriorating credibility.

Not that she issued an apology, mind you, or retracted her statement.

Today, Dr Leaf published a blog on psychiatric medications … but again, not to apologise but to further justify why she’s right, and nearly every other doctor and scientist in the world is not. Worse than that, she went so far as to accuse doctors of deliberately prescribing “clearly dangerous” drugs, which she claims have no therapeutic effects, just because of some overcooked drug-company sponsored dinner and a few pens. More on that later.

Her post is a defiant deflection, a logically flawed and factually inaccurate criticism of modern psychiatry and psychopharmacology – not fueled by research, but largely based on the books of disgruntled fringe psychiatrists and researchers with an axe to grind.

Dr Leaf doesn’t discuss the actual science of the medications that she’s so against, but simply tries to create a smokescreen of distrust.

A good example of all that is wrong with this post is contained in the opening paragraph.

Today, it has become commonplace to say that people have chemical imbalances in their brain, most notably a disruption in the proper production of dopamine (for “diseases” like ADHD) and serotonin (for “diseases” like depression). These people, it is supposed, need drugs to “cure” these chemical imbalances, hence the terms “antipsychotics” or “antidepressants”.

The first thing to note is how Dr Leaf uses the term “cure”. No doctor ever uses the word “cure”, especially when talking about complex diseases. This is a pejorative term implying that modern medicine is only interested in permanently fixing things. But it’s a straw man fallacy, a false premise that Dr Leaf then uses to cast the medical model as impotent and futile. Nice try, but no one in medicine ever promises cure, and no doctor in their right mind would ever be so narrow-minded as to suggest that drugs are the only treatment for every condition. That doesn’t mean that drugs aren’t useful, nor that the medical model is broken. As we’ll discuss soon, medications are extremely helpful for certain conditions, when used carefully, as are non-drug treatments like CBT.

Dr Leaf also puts inverted commas around the word “diseases” as if to suggest that ADHD and depression aren’t diseases, an act which smacks of petulance and willful ignorance, and is insulting to those who have or who have ever suffered from ADHD and depression.   Last week, Dr Leaf was happy to share that her eldest daughter suffered from bulimia and depression, but now she’s suggesting that depression isn’t really a disease. So what is it then? Malingering? Personal weakness? Bad parenting?

It’s really surprising that someone claiming to be a cognitive neuroscientist would ignore strong scientific evidence.  For example, ADHD is associated with dopamine dysfunction as well as the dysfunction a number of other neurotransmitters [1-3]. And depression is associated with a decrease in the growth factor BDNF, (known as the neurotrophic hypothesis of depression) [4-6]. Schizophrenia, which Dr Leaf conveniently failed to mention, is clearly related to dopamine dysfunction in nerve cells of the pre-frontal cortex and the striatum, two parts of the brain that are incredibly important for how your brain processes incoming and outgoing signals [7-9].

There’s nothing to suppose here .. there’s ample evidence that psychiatric diseases are related to dysfunction within the brain, commonly with the function of neurotransmitters among other things. Call it whatever you like, the truth doesn’t change. “Chemical imbalance” is just an easy phrase for the general public to remember.

Dr Leaf then tries to suggest that psychiatric drugs don’t fix chemical imbalances but create them, citing the 1950’s observations of French researchers Deniker and Delay who noted that the first anti-psychotic, chlorpromazine, caused symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. And indeed it did, but this wasn’t a new disease, just evidence that it worked.

Psychosis, a pathological state involving hallucinations and delusions, is because of an excess of the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that’s used by the nerve cells deep in the brain in a part called the basal ganglia, which acts like a central mail delivery centre for incoming and outgoing signals from other parts of the brain. The function of the nerves in one part of the basal ganglia are responsible for sending sensory signals to the frontal lobes of the brain. In another part, the signals are important for smooth movements of our muscles. Proper function depends on just the right amount of dopamine – too much and you get psychosis. Not enough and you get Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

The French researchers were simply noting the side-effects of too much medication blocking the action of dopamine in the basal ganglia – the psychosis had improved, but the blockade of dopamine was just too much in some patients, who had the opposite symptoms.

Again, Dr Leaf’s position is diametrically opposed to the published science [10, 11], and if anything, her claim contradicts her fundamental argument. After all, if chemical imbalances are myths, then how can chlorpromazine create a “new neurological syndrome” because of a chemical imbalance?

Dr Leaf then launches into a discussion on the history of the DSM and psychiatric medications. This is just the first in her ad hominem attacks on the medical profession –  playing the man, not the ball if you will. If she can discredit the doctors that prescribe the medication, then she indirectly discredits the medications.  This appears desperate and ultimately serves to weaken her case.

“It was just assumed that since these drugs affected brain chemistry in a certain way, the opposite reaction must be the result of the disease, notwithstanding the fact that this has never been adequately proven.”

The history of medicine is littered with cures being found without the disease being fully understood. Take Edward Jenner, for example, who is the founder of the modern technique of vaccination. He didn’t know why his smallpox vaccine worked, only that it did. Electron microscopes and a modern understanding of the immune system were centuries away, but Jenner saved billions of lives through his observation that prior vaccination with a small sample of cowpox virus would protect against smallpox [12].

When amphetamines, known to increase dopamine concentrations in the brain, caused psychotic symptoms and reserpine, a dopamine blocker, improved psychosis, it stood to reason that dopamine was a good candidate as a cause of psychosis and schizophrenia. Decades of research have gone on to further confirm and delineate the link [7]. Again, this is not “an overly simplistic explanation of chemical imbalances”. It is well proven, and rather complex.

Dr Leaf also makes the astounding accusation that psychiatrists inflicted suffering and caused “a public health disaster” by creating the DSM. The DSM, the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’ is an agreed-upon standard classification for psychiatric diagnoses. It is nothing more than a system of classification. It allows psychiatrists and researchers to speak a common language and attempt some coherence among their diagnoses.

Dr Leaf wrote, “… institutions like the American Psychiatric Association and the DSM would define what is normal, in turn telling us what it means to suffer and, essentially, what it means to be human. They medicalized misery, and today millions are suffering because of their actions, creating a public health disaster.”

That’s like saying that classifying the different types of cancer causes cancer. And that millions of people are suffering from cancer because doctors know to call it ‘cancer’. People have been suffering long before the DSM came along. The DSM doesn’t tell people they’re suffering, and it certainly doesn’t define what it is to be human. Such statements are disingenuous and melodramatic.

But wait, there’s more. “Today a psychiatrist can be praised for drugging a depressed person with mind-altering substances and, if these do not work, institutionalizing them and shocking their brain with ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). It is even an acceptable and commonplace practice to imprison mentally ill persons, drug them and lock them in solitary confinement, compelling them to live their days marinating in their own excrement.”

Dr Leaf is again playing to the fears of the public who have watched too many movies and only think of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Shutter Island’ or scenes from ’12 Monkeys’. There are more oversight boards and lawyers than there are psychiatric patients, and the only people who are institutionalised are those who are clearly a danger to themselves or others. And while institutionalised, they are not subjected to random bouts of electrical shock as if some doctor is wandering around with a medical grade cattle prod, zapping people and laughing maniacally. Nor is anyone locked in solitary confinement and forced “to live their days marinating in their own excrement”.

The paranoid accusations continue some more. Dr Leaf accuses all psychiatrists of ignorance, and then accuses primary care physicians of negligence, by claiming that we prescribe medications that we do not understand because of the bribes and a pretty smile from a pharmaceutical rep.

Again, Dr Leaf contradicts her own argument:

Despite the recognition amongst many psychiatrists and medical health professionals that the chemical imbalance theory is not valid, drug companies like Eli Lilly still claim that ‘antipsychotic medicines are believed to work by balancing the chemical found naturally in the brain’.

Except that antipsychotic medications DO balance the naturally occurring chemical in the brain (dopamine) as we discussed earlier. What the … a drug company telling doctors how their drug works! How dare they tell the truth!

I find it disturbing that Dr Leaf would stoop so low as to insult the entire medical profession, especially every GP and family physician the world over.

Hey, I’m not above criticism. It’s important to have a good long look at ourselves from time to time, to review our practice, and make sure we’re treating our patients in the best possible way. The RACGP, the peak body of Australian GP’s, invited Prof Gøtzsche to present his opinions on anti-depressant medications so that GP’s could decide for themselves if they should adjust their prescribing.

But to suggest that primary care physicians are stupid, ignorant, incompetent and money hungry … that we would sell our soul for a drug company branded pen … is insulting. Though the irony of her statement, “we do not ask ourselves if these doctors really understand all the implications of using these substances. Not even the psychiatrists understand these drugs” is clearly lost on Dr Leaf.  It’s certainly clear from the rest of her essay that Dr Leaf has no idea how these medications work or what benefits they have for those who suffer from mental ill-health.

There’s a lot more to discuss in response to Dr Leaf’s diatribe, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll try and discuss just a couple of other important themes.

Dr Leaf continues to try to make the medications sound useless and poisonous. She has several paragraphs on the placebo effect, making the false argument that the effect of the medications is just because someone tells you it will work. Of course, the placebo effect is part of the therapeutic effect, but that’s the same for all treatments, even Dr Leaf’s programs … “So, if the pastor or cell-group leader says that these programs are safe and will fix your toxic thinking, even though they get most of their information from the author, we believe wholeheartedly in what he or she may say and are more inclined to believe the program will work for us. These beliefs, which ignore actual scientific results, are buttressed by a flood of distorted and biased news reports, press releases and scientific journal articles on supposed toxic thoughts, and have transformed the theory into church dogma. So, obviously, if we experience negative side effects and do not feel the program is working, it must be something wrong with us, not the program.” Is that a fair statement?

Dr Leaf then plays the fear card again by listing all of the potential side effects from psychiatric medications. Dr Leaf is right in saying that psychiatric medications have serious proven long term side effects, and we should be careful.

For instance, if you knew that thrombocytopenia, anaphylaxis, cutaneous hypersensitivity reactions including skin rashes, angioedema and Stevens Johnson syndrome, bronchospasm and hepatic dysfunction were the potential side effects for a medication, would you take it? Most people wouldn’t.  Reading the list makes that drug sound really dangerous.  We should be up in arms about such a potentially harmful drug being put up for sale … except that this list of side effects isn’t a psychiatric drug at all, but’s actually the side effect profile of paracetamol (acetaminophen in the US). People take paracetamol all the time without even thinking about it.

Saying that we shouldn’t take medications because of potential side effects is a scarecrow argument, a scary sounding straw man fallacy. All drugs have serious proven long term side effects. Licencing and prescribing a medication depends on the overall balance of the good and the harm that a medication does. And no one has ever hidden these side effects from the public as if there is a giant conspiracy from the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies. They’re right there in the product information (here is the product information for fluoxetine. See for yourself).

Whilst it’s true that these side effects do happen, we know that they happen infrequently, just like we know that people win lotteries infrequently. Even so, the medications are not just doled out like sweets at a candy store. You require a minimum of ten years of university level education to be able to prescribe them.

Patients ALWAYS have a right to ask questions about possible benefits and side effects, and in my practice, I tell my patients the pros and the cons before prescribing, and I give them the choice of whether they want them or not. No one is ever forced into taking them.

Finally, Dr Leaf makes a number of irrational statements and flawed arguments in her final page of ranting. Let me quickly go through some of the honourable mentions:

* “Most people recover from depression without antidepressants” – true, because most cases of depression are mild. That doesn’t mean to say that antidepressants shouldn’t be used for severe depression, just like most people recover from upper respiratory infections without antibiotics, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use antibiotics for severe tonsillitis or pneumonia.
* “Antidepressants are no better than placebos” – It’s a controversial topic right now. There are many pushing the barrow that SSRI medications are no better than a sugar pill. But Dr Leaf has conveniently ignored several Cochrane reviews (the best of medical evidence) that shows anti-depressants work for a variety of disorders [13-15], but that psychological therapy might not [16].
* Equating antidepressants and antipsychotics with illicit drugs, and claiming that “more people die from overdoses of psychiatric drugs than illicit drugs” – This is Reductio ad absurdum – the logical conclusion from this argument is that illicit drugs are safer than psychiatric drugs. And therefore we should not give people psychiatric drugs since we don’t give people the ‘safer’ illicit drugs. But that conclusion is absurd, and when you think about it, the whole thing is based on hidden false premises – people rarely die of illicit drug overdoses because they’re illegal and are hard to come by. And also, people who use illicit drugs are not usually suicidal, whereas those given psychiatric medications sometimes are suicidal, and sometimes use them to try and commit suicide. But modern psychiatric drugs are much less dangerous in overdose than their old counterparts.  It should also be noted here that more overdose suicide attempts are with paracetamol or ibuprofen than with psychiatric medications [19], but I don’t see paracetamol or ibuprofen being demonised.
* Psychiatric medications are part of a neo-liberal capitalist plot to keep the rich, richer and the poor, poorer – To me, this looks like Dr Leaf clutching at straws. Her statement, “By emphasizing that the problem lies within an individual’s biology, we are less inclined to look at their experiences and the social context of why they are feeling the way they feel. We look at the mythical chemical imbalance instead of economic exploitation, violence and inept political structures” is false.   Schizophrenia is often seriously discussed in terms of neurodevelopment and not just ‘chemical imbalances’ [17, 18]. So it’s just plain wrong to suggest that researchers don’t look at the “economic exploitation, violence and inept political structures”. Oh, and Dr Leaf suggests that foster children are abused because they’re all forced to take psychiatric medication, and implies that ADHD children are abused by being force-fed Ritalin because they “move a lot in class”. Again, these are emotional over-generalisations that have no basis in reality.

Dr Leaf seems lost.  She’s ignored solid published medical and scientific evidence in coming to an opinion based on the discontented rumblings of a few vocal but outspoken critics. In order to make her arguments, she has had to resort to borderline-slanderous ad hominem attacks on scientists and the medical profession, and purely emotional arguments based on fear and mistrust.

And this was only part one.  If Dr Leaf’s promised second part is anything like the first, we’re in for a real treat.

Though as if that wasn’t enough, by suggesting that psychiatric drugs cause changes in your brain, cause chemical imbalances, and cause that slew of negative side effects, Dr Leaf is admitting that it’s your brain that changes your thought life, which directly contradicts her most recent teachings. After all, if thought was the dominant force in your neurology and your mind controlled your brain, then the medications would have no effect since they’re physical and aren’t connected to our mind.

So which is it? Because if the brain controls our mind, then her best-seller needs to be pulped and refunds offered to the hundred of thousands of people who bought it. But on the other hand, if the mind really does control the brain, then her entire argument against psychiatric medications implodes.

Dr Leaf has painted herself into a corner and there’s still part two to come.

References

[1]        Prince J. Catecholamine dysfunction in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: an update. J Clin Psychopharmacol 2008 Jun;28(3 Suppl 2):S39-45.
[2]        Del Campo N, Chamberlain SR, Sahakian BJ, Robbins TW. The roles of dopamine and noradrenaline in the pathophysiology and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Biological psychiatry 2011 Jun 15;69(12):e145-57.
[3]        Cortese S. The neurobiology and genetics of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): what every clinician should know. European journal of paediatric neurology : EJPN : official journal of the European Paediatric Neurology Society 2012 Sep;16(5):422-33.
[4]        Haase J, Brown E. Integrating the monoamine, neurotrophin and cytokine hypotheses of depression–a central role for the serotonin transporter? Pharmacol Ther 2015 Mar;147:1-11.
[5]        Bus BA, Molendijk ML, Tendolkar I, et al. Chronic depression is associated with a pronounced decrease in serum brain-derived neurotrophic factor over time. Molecular psychiatry 2015 May;20(5):602-8.
[6]        Sousa CN, Meneses LN, Vasconcelos GS, et al. Reversal of corticosterone-induced BDNF alterations by the natural antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid alone and combined with desvenlafaxine: Emphasis on the neurotrophic hypothesis of depression. Psychiatry research 2015 Sep 1.
[7]        Howes OD, Fusar-Poli P, Bloomfield M, Selvaraj S, McGuire P. From the prodrome to chronic schizophrenia: the neurobiology underlying psychotic symptoms and cognitive impairments. Curr Pharm Des 2012;18(4):459-65.
[8]        Williams GV, Castner SA. Under the curve: critical issues for elucidating D1 receptor function in working memory. Neuroscience 2006 Apr 28;139(1):263-76.
[9]        Der-Avakian A, Markou A. The neurobiology of anhedonia and other reward-related deficits. Trends Neurosci 2012 Jan;35(1):68-77.
[10]      Leucht S, Tardy M, Komossa K, et al. Antipsychotic drugs versus placebo for relapse prevention in schizophrenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet 2012 Jun 2;379(9831):2063-71.
[11]      Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.
[12]      Riedel S. Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent) 2005 Jan;18(1):21-5.
[13]      Arroll B, Elley CR, Fishman T, et al. Antidepressants versus placebo for depression in primary care. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2009(3):CD007954.
[14]      Soomro GM, Altman D, Rajagopal S, Oakley-Browne M. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) versus placebo for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2008(1):CD001765.
[15]      Kapczinski F, Lima MS, Souza JS, Schmitt R. Antidepressants for generalized anxiety disorder. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2003(2):CD003592.
[16]      Jakobsen JC, Lindschou Hansen J, Storebo OJ, Simonsen E, Gluud C. The effects of cognitive therapy versus ‘treatment as usual’ in patients with major depressive disorder. PloS one 2011;6(8):e22890.
[17]      van Os J, Linscott RJ, Myin-Germeys I, Delespaul P, Krabbendam L. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the psychosis continuum: evidence for a psychosis proneness-persistence-impairment model of psychotic disorder. Psychological medicine 2009 Feb;39(2):179-95.
[18]      Howes OD, Murray RM. Schizophrenia: an integrated sociodevelopmental-cognitive model. Lancet 2014 May 10;383(9929):1677-87.
[19]     Prescott K, Stratton R, Freyer A, Hall I, Le Jeune I. Detailed analyses of self-poisoning episodes presenting to a large regional teaching hospital in the UK. Br J Clin Pharmacol 2009 Aug;68(2):260-8.

Disclaimer

  1. Do not abruptly stop any medications that you are taking. Talk to your licenced physician first. They’re not all money-hungry, imbecilic drug-company bitches. Most of them actually know what they’re talking about.
  2. For the record, 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

Update – 8 August 2016.

Dr Leaf has since taken the offending post from her blog page, and re-gifted it as an answer on her “Scientific” FAQ page (“Chemical Imbalances and Mental Health” http://drleaf.com/about/scientific-faqs/).  It remains as unbalanced and inaccurate as it’s former iteration.  It’s unfortunate that Dr Leaf continues to make such preposterous claims in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the can of worms – UPDATE

Yesterday, Dr Leaf opened a proverbial can of worms with her quote from Gøtzsche, that “Psychiatric Drugs are the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a cognitive neuroscientist. Clearly scrambling, she attempted to placate her growing number of detractors with an unprecedented explanatory statement. But rather than distancing herself from her comments, she still chose to portray psychiatric medications as harmful and ungodly.

Instead of quelling the fire, this seems to have thrown fuel on it. Dr Leaf has continued to try and justify her comments with a further two statements today. Neither of them contain a retraction or an apology.

Earlier today, she wrote:

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 7.02.14 pm

Dear all, regarding the recent two posts I put up on mental health and medications and the flood of positive and negative responses that followed, I would love you to hear my heart: all my posts are lovingly crafted, designed to help, based on my years of extensive research and experience in the field of mind, learning and mental health, including within my immediate and extended family..and {sic} most importantly, they are Holy Spirit led. I work with a team of professionals, that include medical doctors, neurosurgeons, neurologists, neuroscientists, theologians, pastors and historians in order to provide excellent information. I am a messenger: I teach and provide information and encourage you, in turn, not to be reactive, but to read, do your own research and think. To this end, I provide as much help as I can on my web page and TV shows and resources with information and research links and citations. I DO believe in using general medications and surgeries when managed correctly and not abused, I myself have been helped by surgery and used medications when necessary, as have my family. I DO NOT judge anyone. I believe in your right to choose; I DO NOT tell anyone to go off their meds, I recommend supported and supervised withdrawal if this is what you choose; I DO encourage you to make Holy Spirit led educated choices about your choices, I DO encourage you to use your love, power and sound mind – your intellect, will and emotions, the way God designed these to be used – led by Him continuously. Please watch this incredible and touching video by Laura Delano on You Tube, which highlights why I do what I do. https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=PLK_W1lA1BNLk2vbBH2XetI80LDpmaGTUG&params=OAFIAVgF&v=b6ZljUs4Xos&mode=NORMAL Many blessings to you all and my prayer for you is: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in every way and [that your body) may keep well, even as [I know) your soul keeps well and prospers.” 3 John 1:2 AMP see http://www.drleaf.com scientific FAQ’s for more information, citations and links

then later in the day:

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 7.02.56 pm

Dear all, some of you have questioned whether or not I have ever dealt with people experiencing severe mental health issues. As someone who has specialized in the mind over the past 30 years, I have been given the opportunity to work, first hand, with people experiencing mental and physical pain in the most terrible life situations, from severe traumatic brain injuries to rape, murder and abysmal poverty. I have seen these individuals choose with their minds not to allow their life circumstances to take control over their identity… through the power of God, love and community they overcame what life threw their way. But, on a more personal level, my eldest daughter (@therascalcook) was severely bulimic, suicidal and depressed for most of her early years due to a chronic illness and traumatic bullying. I have been in hospitals, crying beside her bed when she nearly died. I have experienced her pain…I am crying as I write this. But as a family we supported her and loved her through it, as did her friends and many of our loved ones, (it was not easy but it was worth it!). She never took a single medication nor was she institutionalized, even though doctors were telling me she would never recover if she didn’t. Yet today, after rejecting God and life for many years, she is a graduate student in historical theology, whose life goal is to bring a piece of heaven to earth through sustainable farming communities in disadvantaged areas. There is hope, God is greater than anything, and magic bullets are never the answer. You are not a label or a faulty biological machine. You are a child of God, as we all are. Unless all of us realize what it truly means to be the church, to bring heaven to earth as we love our God and people, to be the community of love that this world is so desperately crying out for, people will continue to have mental health issues, be labeled {sic}, face stigma and suffer. We all have this responsibility, and none of us can do it alone. We were created by God to help each other. Jessica used to call me her Sam. We all need a Sam, because we all know what it is like to be Frodo.

Kudos to Dr Leaf for the bravery and vulnerability that sharing such a personal story took. I’m genuinely happy that Jessica found her way through those dark and distressing days and has once again found peace and success. I have been through the same dank and destructive times of depression, and I know what it feels like. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. When I hear stories of people who have overcome, I truly appreciate their joy.

I also recovered from my depression without ever using medications. What helped me enormously was a psychologist who listened to me without judgement as I unloaded years of emotional turmoil and distress. To this day, I don’t remember what we actually talked about in my first session with him. All I remember is getting ten minutes in and then crying almost uncontrollably for the next forty. Thankfully, I did more talking and less crying over the few months as my mood lifted and I grew to accept my brokenness, just like God does.

Clearly, the story of Jessica Leaf is heart-warming and uplifting. Dr Leaf clearly understands the pain and distress that severe mental illness brings to those who suffer with it, and their families. But all emotions aside, Dr Leaf has still left important issues unresolved. Indeed, those who are more cynical might see such an emotional recollection as a play for sympathy and a distraction from the lingering questions surrounding Dr Leaf’s handling of this issue, and of her expertise in mental health.

Dr Leaf’s expertise, revisited.

Dr Leaf’s experience during those darkest of times may give her a legitimate platform to discuss what worked for her daughter and her family, but however moving, it does not qualify her as an expert in mental health more broadly. Science isn’t about generalising from your personal experience. It’s about looking at the evidence from a number of rigorously designed trials with a minimum of bias, conducted across a broad range of participants.

When women come to see me in the few weeks after giving birth, they’re usually confused. Nearly every woman that’s ever given birth sometime in the last century believes their experience automatically qualifies them as experts in breast feeding and infant health. But their ‘helpful’ advice, given with the best of intentions, often conflicts with the opinion of every other self-proclaimed motherhood expert. By the time the poor new mother comes to see me, they’ve been given so many pieces of conflicting advice that they’re completely lost.

Just living through an experience doesn’t qualify you as an expert. So I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health just because I’ve lived through prolonged periods of anxiety and depression. Nor should Dr Leaf.

Dr Leaf can’t use the fact that she has worked with people who have mental health problems as a claim to expertise either. She may been given the opportunity to work, first hand, with “people experiencing mental and physical pain in the most terrible life situations, from severe traumatic brain injuries to rape, murder and abysmal poverty.” That doesn’t make her an expert in mental health any more than seeing female patients makes me a gynaecologist.

That’s because expertise in medical fields requires specific training. You can read surgical textbooks for thirty years but that doesn’t quality you as a surgeon. You can learn a bit of anatomy and physiology in the same lab as some medical students, but that doesn’t make you equivalent to a medical doctor. You might do some research involving some neurobiology, but that doesn’t make you a neuroscientist.

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist who completed a PhD which included some educational psychology. She is not a counsellor, she is not a psychologist, she is not a medical doctor and she isn’t even a cognitive neuroscientist. Dr Leaf is not qualified to provide an expert opinion on the risks and harms of psychiatric medication.

Dr Leaf’s heart

Coming back to Dr Leaf’s first statement today, Dr Leaf said that she wanted to share her heart:

all my posts are lovingly crafted, designed to help, based on my years of extensive research and experience in the field of mind, learning and mental health, including within my immediate and extended family..and {sic} most importantly, they are Holy Spirit led

If I were Dr Leaf, I’d be careful about blaming the Holy Spirit for her posts. I have rebutted and debunked scores of Dr Leaf’s memes over the last couple of years. The Holy Spirit is the ‘Spirit of all truth’, not of half-baked facts and misquotes.

Dr Leaf goes on to say

I teach and provide information and encourage you, in turn, not to be reactive, but to read, do your own research and think. To this end, I provide as much help as I can on my web page and TV shows and resources with information and research links and citations.

I respectfully disagree. Dr Leaf rarely references her social media memes, and until recently, her website was bereft of citations. I have never seen her encourage critical thinking before. And if Dr Leaf really wanted to encourage thinking amongst her followers, then why does her team actively block people on social media who dare to disagree with her? That’s not encouraging free thinking, that’s presenting an illusion of conformity.

Dr Leaf’s Do’s and Don’ts

To clarify her position on several issues, Dr Leaf stated:

I DO believe in using general medications and surgeries when managed correctly and not abused, I myself have been helped by surgery and used medications when necessary, as have my family. I DO NOT judge anyone. I believe in your right to choose; I DO NOT tell anyone to go off their meds, I recommend supported and supervised withdrawal if this is what you choose; I DO encourage you to make Holy Spirit led educated choices about your choices, I DO encourage you to use your love, power and sound mind – your intellect, will and emotions, the way God designed these to be used – led by Him continuously.

Dr Leaf may say that she doesn’t tell anyone to go off their meds, but I think that’s a little disingenuous.

Sure, Dr Leaf never directly said to stop taking their medications. She just said that psychiatric medications were unscientific and unbiblical [1: p31-32], that psychiatric medications are the third most common cause of death after heart disease and cancer, and admonished her followers to “Take all thoughts into captivity, not drug all thoughts into captivity.” And just yesterday, she also linked psychiatric medications with evolutionary theory and said that they strip 15-25 years off your lifespan.

So it’s more like, “I DO NOT tell anyone to go off their meds, I just scare them by telling them the drugs are unholy poison”.

That’s not encouraging “Holy Spirit led educated choices”, it’s encouraging fear-driven poor choices.

Dr Leaf’s support team

One last point. Dr Leaf stated,

I work with a team of professionals, that include medical doctors, neurosurgeons, neurologists, neuroscientists, theologians, pastors and historians in order to provide excellent information.

Really? Dr Leaf’s work consistently conflicts with basic medical and psychological science, and she regularly misquotes scripture. Would they be willing to be named? Because either they’re providing Dr Leaf with terrible oversight or Dr Leaf is ignoring everything they say.

Dr Leaf still hasn’t apologised for, or retracted her statements

It’s no secret that I disagree with Dr Leaf’s teaching, and I have outlined why I think some of her statements today are disingenuous. You may agree with me, or not. I don’t mind. Hey, I could be wrong.

Though when you get down to brass tacks, the most important issue is that Dr Leaf remains legally vulnerable.

Since she opened up the can of worms with her Gøtzsche quote, she has made three separate statements, none of which apologise for potentially misleading nearly 150,000 people about the true risks and benefits of psychiatric medications. Nor has she issued any retraction or taken the posts down.

When Dr Leaf says that psychiatric medications are unbiblical and poisonous, people on psychiatric medications will want to come off them. She may not have said the words “Stop your medications”, but people will still want to come off them because they’re afraid, or because of the stigma, or because of their desire to live true to God. And as I discussed yesterday, there is a very real chance that some of those people who were stable on their medications but who unnecessarily cease them because Dr Leaf told them to, may harm themselves or take their own life, since that’s what the studies tell us [2, 3]. At the very least, they are likely to have a shorter life expectancy because of it [4, 5]. This may open Dr Leaf to law suits, as well as the possibility of having someone’s death on her conscience.

No one wants that scenario. But the only way to avoid it is to:

  1. Take the offending posts down
  2. Issue an apology
  3. Specifically direct those of her followers on psychiatric medications to stay on them until they have spoken to their doctors,
  4. In future, provide a balanced view of the benefits of psychiatric medications as well as their harms.
  5. Better yet, unless Dr Leaf gets a medical degree, it may be better not to publically discuss psychiatric medication at all.

Again, I implore Dr Leaf, for her sake and for the sake of her ministry and those who follow her, please unequivocally apologise, retract your statement, and encourage people to see their doctors if they have concerns about their medication, or their mental health.

This is not a game: people’s lives are at stake. I hope that Dr Leaf sees this before it’s too late.

References
[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        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.
[3]        Tiihonen J, Suokas JT, Suvisaari JM, Haukka J, Korhonen P. Polypharmacy with antipsychotics, antidepressants, or benzodiazepines and mortality in schizophrenia. Archives of general psychiatry 2012 May;69(5):476-83.
[4]        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.
[5]        Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.

Remember: This article is a rebuttal of Dr Leaf’s opinion regarding psychiatric medication.  This blog doesn’t constitute individual medical advice.  If you do not like your medication or think you should come off it, please talk to your own GP or psychiatrist.  Do not stop it abruptly or without adequate medical advice.

Dr Caroline Leaf and her can of worms

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 12.15.51 pm

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She also likes to think that she’s an expert on mental health. So this morning, she felt like she was quite justified in publishing a meme about the evils of psychiatric medications.

She quoted Professor Peter Gøtzsche, stating that “Psychiatric Drugs are the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer.” Then followed it with “Take all thoughts into captivity, not drug all thoughts into captivity. You have the mind of Christ! (1 Cor 2:16) **DRUG WITHDRAWAL should ALWAYS be done under the supervision of a qualified professional. These drugs alter your brain chemistry, and withdrawal can be a difficult process.”

The subsequent comments were primarily made up of the usual sycophantic responses that Dr Leaf has cultivated by blocking anyone that disagrees with her. But there were more than the usual responses confused by her meme, and quite a few that we’re asking for help in weaning off the medications that they were on.

Then there were those who weren’t happy at all. One respondent, a certified Nurse Practitioner, wrote, “I am appalled that you are posting this inaccurate information and causing vulnerable people to possibly stop taking medication that may be allowing them to function and live.” The same person followed up with another comment soon after, quoting the CDC figures for the top ten causes of death in the US, in which the third on the list wasn’t psychiatric drugs at all, but chronic lower respiratory diseases.

LeafWorms02

The overall response must have taken her aback, because Dr Leaf posted a follow-up comment to explain herself, an unusual step for her.

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 12.21.12 pm

In it, she said, “I do not speak out against psychiatric medication because I want to condemn people, or make them feel guilty. I want to help people. If, for example, I knew that eating some food could kill you or seriously injure you, and kept this to myself, you would justifiably be angry at me. These drugs have serious, proven long term side affects that are hidden from the public, and the logic behind them is not God’s desire for you to be healthy in your spirit, soul and body. Psychiatric drugs are based off of a theoretical view of evolution as a mindless, unguided process that created you as mechanistic individual with a biological brain that has chemicals that need to be “balanced”. You are more than your biology; you are the temple of the Lord, created in his image. This is not a game: these drugs can decrease your lifespan by 15-25 years. I want you to have those 15-25 years, and I want them to be characterized by God’s perfect, good plan for your life. I ask you to not to just take my word for this, but to do your own research. You can find a multitude of references on my site http://www.drleaf.com under Scientific FAQs. It is my earnest desire that people do not perish for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6). **DRUG WITHDRAWAL should ALWAYS be done under the supervision of a qualified professional. These drugs alter your brain chemistry, and withdrawal can be a difficult process.”

But it was too late. Dr Leaf had opened a can of worms, and once out, those wriggly little critters are impossible to put back in.

Both her initial offering and her reply shows just how poor Dr Leaf’s understanding of mental health truly is. She is fixated on the notion that the mind controls the brain, and she is unwilling to consider any other notion, instead preferring to accept any opinion that conforms to her world view, no matter how poorly conceived it might be. This includes the work of Gøtzsche, accepting it as gospel even though he has critics of his own.

It’s important to examine Dr Leaf’s reply in more detail as her statement has the potential to cause a great deal of harm to those who are the most vulnerable. Lets break down Dr Leaf’s statement and review each piece, and then I will outline some other important and contradictory considerations of Dr Leaf’s stance.

  1. The safety of psychiatric medications

Dr Leaf claims that “These drugs have serious, proven long term side affects {sic} that are hidden from the public” and “This is not a game: these drugs can decrease your lifespan by 15-25 years.”

Dr Leaf is right in saying that psychiatric medications have serious proven long term side effects. And we should be careful. I mean, if you knew that thrombocytopenia, anaphylaxis, cutaneous hypersensitivity reactions including skin rashes, angioedema and Stevens Johnson syndrome, bronchospasm and hepatic dysfunction were the potential side effects for a medication, would you take it?

Most people wouldn’t.   Reading the list makes that drug sound really dangerous.  We should be up in arms about such a dangerous drug … except that this list of side effects isn’t for a psychiatric drug at all, but is actually the side effect profile of paracetamol (Panadol if you’re in Australia, Tylenol if you’re in the US). People take paracetamol all the time without even thinking about it. Saying that we shouldn’t take medications because of potential side effects is a scarecrow argument, a scary sounding straw man fallacy. All drugs have serious proven long term side effects, and most of the time, those serious long term side effects don’t occur.  Licensing and prescribing a medication depends on the overall balance of the good and the risk of harm that a medication does.

Oh, and no one has ever hidden these side effects from the public as if there’s some giant conspiracy from the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies. The side effects are listed right there in the product information (here is the product information for fluoxetine. See for yourself).

As for Dr Leaf’s assertion that psychiatric medications decrease your lifespan by 10-25 years, I think that’s a red herring. I read through Dr Leaf’s ‘Scientific FAQ’ and I couldn’t find any references that back up these statements, so who knows where she got this figure of ’15-25 years’ from.

On the contrary, what is known is that severe mental illness is associated with a 2 to 3-fold increase in mortality, which translates to an approximately 10-25 year shortening of the lifespan of those afflicted with severe depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder [1]. So Dr Leaf has it backwards. It isn’t the medications that cause people who take them to die 25 years earlier than they would have without the illness, but it’s the illness itself.

  1. The benefits of long term psychiatric medications

So psychiatric medications have their side effects, true, but they also have protective benefits which Dr Leaf consistently fails to acknowledge.

Correll and colleagues note in the conclusion to their article that “Although antipsychotics have the greatest potential to adversely affect physical health, it is important to note that several large, nationwide studies providing generalizable data have suggested that all-cause mortality is higher in patients with schizophrenia not receiving antipsychotics.” [1]

More specifically, in one recent study, 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 cut that back to only four times the risk [3].

These findings are mirrored by other studies on other psychiatric medications. For example, as noted by Correll and colleagues, “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.” [1]

So psychiatric medications are not useless. Let me be clear, I’m not saying that taking psychiatric medications always makes life a cake-walk – there are still side effects from the medications, and the disease isn’t always fully controlled. But on average, well treated patients with psychiatric conditions clearly do better than patients who are not treated.

Therefore Dr Leaf’s assertion that psychiatric medications are harmful are inaccurate. And given that there are genuine benefits to these medications, particularly in the prevention of suicide, Dr Leaf’s discouragement of these medications has the real potential to result in real harm to those of her followers who take her at her word.

  1. The ‘logic’ behind psychiatric medications

Dr Leaf says in her statement, “the logic behind them (psychiatric medications) is not God’s desire for you to be healthy in your spirit, soul and body. Psychiatric drugs are based off of a theoretical view of evolution as a mindless, unguided process that created you as mechanistic individual with a biological brain that has chemicals that need to be ‘balanced’. You are more than your biology; you are the temple of the Lord, created in his image.”

Dr Leaf’s argument here is that based on a false premise and some straw man fallacies which inevitably leads to a false conclusion.

Evolution is a mindless unguided process
Evolution says that you are just a machine
Psychiatric illness is because of a chemical imbalance in that machine (a false premise)

therefore taking psychiatric medication is accepting evolution (a straw man fallacy)

and

You are more than your biology,
you are the temple of the Lord, created in his image,

therefore evolution is wrong (another straw man fallacy)

therefore psychiatric medications are not God’s desire (false conclusion)

The problem with this logic is that it could be applied to all medications, since modern medicine has predominantly been devised by agnostic scientists within an evolutionary framework, and nearly all disease is defined by an imbalance of one thing or another.

For example, simply rewording Dr Leaf’s statement shows up the distorted logic that it entails:

“Insulin can have serious, proven long term side affects that are hidden from the public, and the logic behind it is not God’s desire for you to be healthy in your spirit, soul and body. Diabetes is based off of a theoretical view of evolution as a mindless, unguided process that created you as mechanistic individual with a biological pancreas that has chemicals that need to be ‘balanced’.”

You can’t have this both ways. If psychiatric medications are against God’s plan, then all medications are against God’s plan. But if we accept medications for physical ailments, then we also have to accept medications for psychological ailments.

  1. The Mind-Brain link

Dr Leaf tried to protect herself with a glib disclaimer at the end of both posts in question today, “**DRUG WITHDRAWAL should ALWAYS be done under the supervision of a qualified professional. These drugs alter your brain chemistry, and withdrawal can be a difficult process.”

Which is interesting, because in her Scientific FAQ, Dr Leaf has this to say about the mind,

“The Brain is part of the Physical Body and therefore is controlled by the Mind. The Mind does not emerge from an accumulation of Brain activity. Brain activity, rather, reflects Mind activity. Even though the Mind controls the Brain, the Brain feeds back to, and influences, the Mind. The Brain seats the Mind, and therefore the Mind influences the Physical world through the Brain.”

So if that’s true, then why is withdrawal from psychiatric medication so difficult? If the mind is outside the physical realm and controls the brain as Dr Leaf proposes, then the medications effect on brain chemistry should make little or no difference to the mind, and withdrawal should be simple.

The fact that withdrawal from these medications is not simple is testament to the fact that the mind is a function of the brain, and does not control the brain as Dr Leaf proposes here and through her books and other written materials.

Issuing the warning is responsible, but shows again just how far Dr Leaf’s teaching is from scientific reality.

  1. Dr Leaf’s motivations

Finally, I want to talk about Dr Leaf’s motivation. In her statement, Dr Leaf said, “I do not speak out against psychiatric medication because I want to condemn people, or make them feel guilty. I want to help people.” And, “I want you to have those 15-25 years, and I want them to be characterized by God’s perfect, good plan for your life … It is my earnest desire that people do not perish for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6).”

I want to state, for the record, that I believe Dr Leaf when she says this. I don’t doubt her motives are to try and help people. But good intentions are not enough. What she says has real life consequences.

Dr Leaf is idolised by her followers and portrayed as a mental health expert by the churches she preaches at. People don’t question experts recommended to them by their pastors or their friends. So when she says that psychiatric medications kill people, people on psychiatric medications will want to come off them, because of fear, because of stigma, because of their desire to live true to God and his good and perfect plan. Without wanting to sound melodramatic, there is a very real chance that some of those people who were stable on their medications but who unnecessarily cease them because Dr Leaf told them to, may harm themselves or take their own life, since that’s what the studies tell us [1, 4]. At the very least, they are likely to have a shorter life expectancy because of it [2, 3]. So telling people that psychiatric medications are dangerous is morally and ethically dubious.

There are also potential legal implications too. God forbid, but if a person committed suicide because they went off their medication because of what Dr Leaf wrote, law suits could easily follow. No one wants that situation. Dr Leaf also runs the risk of being accused of practicing medicine without a licence, since some of her followers have asked personal medical questions in the comments, and the reply from Dr Leaf’s Facebook team is to direct them to their programs like the 21-day detox, which depending on the legal interpretation and the mood of a judge, could be seen as giving medical advice, which Dr Leaf is not legally qualified to give.

LeafWorms01

To summarise, I certainly hope that neither of these hypothetical scenarios becomes reality, but Dr Leaf and her social media team are skating on thin ice, and a glib disclaimer at the end of a post won’t necessarily cut it.

I would hope that Dr Leaf and her social media team would reconsider their approach. In fact, I would suggest that Dr Leaf unequivocally apologises for what she’s written, retracts her statement, and encourages people to see their doctors if they have concerns about their medication, or their mental health.

Indeed, I would implore Dr Leaf to step back and re-evaluate the entire breadth of her teaching, and the advice that she is giving. Dr Leaf is obviously a very smart woman and a very engaging speaker. With great power comes great responsibility. If she were to reconsider her teaching and start from a basis of scientific fact, then she could be a major force for the good of the church and its physical and mental health. At the moment, I fear that she is doing the opposite.

This is not a game: people’s lives are at stake. I hope that Dr Leaf sees this before it’s too late.

References

[1]        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.
[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]        Tiihonen J, Suokas JT, Suvisaari JM, Haukka J, Korhonen P. Polypharmacy with antipsychotics, antidepressants, or benzodiazepines and mortality in schizophrenia. Archives of general psychiatry 2012 May;69(5):476-83.

Here’s my glib disclaimer: This article is a rebuttal of Dr Leaf’s opinion regarding psychiatric medication.  This blog doesn’t constitute individual medical advice.  If you do not like your medication or think you should come off it, please talk to your own GP or psychiatrist.  Do not stop it abruptly or without adequate medical advice.