The soul, stress, sugar and spin

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Stress and sugar.  In our post-modern society’s orthorexic narrative, these are two of the biggest villains.  So combining them into a diabolical duo reinforces their evil even more.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, self-titled cognitive neuroscientist and Christian life coach.  In her latest newsletter to her adoring fans, Dr Leaf has accused sugar and stress of mass murder, with our soul’s approach to stress as their accomplice.

I’m sure Dr Leaf means well, but just because she’s not trying to frighten sales out of the gullible and vulnerable doesn’t mean she gets a free pass on the accuracy of her information.

To boil it down, Dr Leaf’s argument goes something like this:

Our choices turn good stress into bad stress
Bad stress releases excess cortisol which leads to disease and death
Therefore our choices to stress causes disease and death

We control our choices through our minds
Therefore, our mind is the key to stress illness
(oh, and sugar …)

The arguments seem plausible on the surface.  Most people have heard enough about stress to know about ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress.  It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to say that ‘bad’ stress is a significant cause of disease and death.  In the middle of her essay, Dr Leaf jumps from stress to sugar with no preceding link, but again, most people have heard that sugar is unhealthy, so they would probably just accept that statement too.

Unfortunately for Dr Leaf, her article has several critical errors which turn her well-meaning educational essay into a science-fiction short story.

To start with, her essay is built on the dysfunctional premise that the mind controls the brain, so each higher argument or premise is fundamentally skewed from the outset, and in doing so, Dr Leaf simply creates a circular argument of distorted factoids.

For example, her opening sentence: “The hypothalamus is a central player in how the mind (soul) controls the body’s reaction to stress and foods.”  The hypothalamus is a part of the limbic system deep in the brain.  It’s the main pathway from the brain to the endocrine system as Dr Leaf goes on to correctly assert, but essentially it runs on auto-pilot, responding automatically to information already being processed at a level beyond the reach of our conscious awareness and control.  For example, the hypothalamus regulates our body temperature, but it does so without our conscious control.  We can not consciously will our body temperature up or down just with our minds.

It’s the same with the stress response – there are many times where people have a subconscious stress response, where their mind feels like there’s nothing to be afraid of, but their hypothalamus is still priming their system for fight or flight.  White coat hypertension is a prime example.  White coat hypertension, or “White Coat Syndrome” is the phenomenon of people having high blood pressure in their doctor’s office but not at home.  Patients will say to me all the time, “I don’t know why my blood pressure is so high in here.  I feel fine.  I know there’s nothing to be afraid of here.”  But while their conscious mind is relaxed, their deeper subconscious brain remembers those injections that hurt, or that one time a doctor stuck the tongue depressor too far down their throat and they felt like they choked on it, and their hypothalamus is preparing them for whatever nastiness the doctor has for them this time.

Dr Leaf’s statement fails because she wrongly equates our brain with our mind, a subtle perversion which doesn’t just invalidate her premise, but significantly skews the essay as a whole.

As a quick aside, Dr Leaf also says that the hypothalamus “integrates signals from the mind and body, sending them throughout our bodies so that we can react in an appropriate and functional manner, ‘so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love’ (Eph. 4:16 NLT)”.  Ephesians 4:16 isn’t talking about the physical body, but about the body of Christ.  You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to know this, you just have to be able to read.  Here is what the Bible says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis added).

There’s no subtlety about this misuse of scripture.  Even non-Christians would be able to figure out that this verse has nothing to do with the physical body.  Dr Leaf has demonstrated that she either doesn’t read the Bible or doesn’t understand it.  Either way, this is a shameful indictment on Dr Leaf’s claim that she’s a “Biblical expert”, and should be ringing alarm bells for every pastor that is considering letting her get behind the pulpit of their church.

Dr Leaf rolls on with her list of medical misinformation.  Some of it is subtle (the “stages of stress”, also termed the General Adaptation Model, is an outdated model of the stress response [1], and CRF and ACTH are released during all stages of stress, not just stage 1).  Some of it is outlandish, like her claim that high levels of stress leads to Cushing’s Syndrome (see http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/2233083-overview#a4 for a list of the causes of Cushing’s Syndrome and note that stress isn’t on the list).

Dr Leaf’s also suggested that it was solely our perception of stress that was the key factor in the outcome of stress, making reference to “a study” showing a 43% increase in mortality if you thought stress was bad.  This is an example of cherry-picking at it’s finest, where one study’s findings are misrepresented to try and support one’s pre-existing position.  Dr Leaf didn’t bother to list her references at the end of the article, instead expecting people to find it for themselves, but I’ve previously seen the study she’s referring to.  Keller and colleagues published the study in 2012 [2].  Their survey suggested a correlation between overall mortality and the combination of lots of stress and the belief that stress is bad.  But remember, correlation does not equal causation, a golden rule which Dr Leaf is quick to ignore when the correlation suits her argument.  The Keller study, while interesting, did not control for the impact of neuroticism, the “negative” personality type which is largely genetically determined and is independently associated with a higher mortality [3-9].  It does not prove that thinking about your stress in a better way makes you live longer.

Dr Leaf went on to claim that “the researchers estimated that the 18,200 people who died, died from the belief that stress is bad for you—that is more than two thousand deaths a year.”  Even here, Dr Leaf manages to get her facts wrong.  The authors actually wrote, “Using these cumulative hazards at the end of the study follow-up period under the assumption of causality, it was estimated that the excess deaths attributable to this combination of stress measures over the study period was 182,079 (controlling for all other covariates), or about 20,231 deaths per year (over 9 years).”

Dr Leaf can’t even get her vexatious arguments right.  Not that the number really matters, because notice how the authors described the magic number as an “assumption of causality”.  Basically the authors said, ‘Well, IF this was the cause of death, then these would be the numbers of deaths attributable.’  They NEVER said that anyone actually died because of their beliefs about stress.  Indeed, the results showed that just believing that stress was bad didn’t make any difference to the mortality rate as Dr Leaf suggested – it was the interaction of high stress AND the belief it was bad that was associated with a higher mortality.  But why let pesky issues like methodological rigour get in the way of sensationalist hyperbole.

Then in the penultimate paragraph, Dr Leaf suddenly decides to throw sugar into the mix.  Somehow without justification, stress is bad and therefore sugar is also bad, and they both throw the hypothalamus and the rest of the body into toxicity.

Dr Caroline Leaf is promoted, by herself and by many in the Christian church, as a Biblical and scientific expert, but in one short promotional essay, Dr Leaf makes multiple critical scientific and exegetical errors.  In other words, her errors in discussing scientific findings and basic Biblical text are so massive that they are incongruent with her claim to be an expert.

Something needs to change – either Dr Leaf revises her knowledge and improves her accuracy, or she needs to stop misleading people from pulpits, both virtual and real.

References

[1]        McEwen BS. Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference? Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN 2005 Sep;30(5):315-8.
[2]        Keller A, Litzelman K, Wisk LE, et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol 2012 Sep;31(5):677-84
[3]        Okbay A, Baselmans BM, De Neve JE, et al. Genetic variants associated with subjective well-being, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism identified through genome-wide analyses. Nature genetics 2016 Apr 18.
[4]        Servaas MN, Riese H, Renken RJ, et al. The effect of criticism on functional brain connectivity and associations with neuroticism. PloS one 2013;8(7):e69606.
[5]        Hansell NK, Wright MJ, Medland SE, et al. Genetic co-morbidity between neuroticism, anxiety/depression and somatic distress in a population sample of adolescent and young adult twins. Psychological medicine 2012 Jun;42(6):1249-60.
[6]        Koelsch S, Enge J, Jentschke S. Cardiac signatures of personality. PloS one 2012;7(2):e31441.
[7]        Vinkhuyzen AA, Pedersen NL, Yang J, et al. Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Translational psychiatry 2012;2:e102.
[8]        Gonda X, Fountoulakis KN, Juhasz G, et al. Association of the s allele of the 5-HTTLPR with neuroticism-related traits and temperaments in a psychiatrically healthy population. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 2009 Mar;259(2):106-13.
[9]        Lahey BB. Public health significance of neuroticism. Am Psychol 2009 May-Jun;64(4):241-56.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Not a mental health expert

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Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She wrote a PhD on a learning program developed for an educational setting.  She is not a medical doctor.  She is not a psychologist.  She has no experience or training in the diagnosis and management of mental illness.  She is no more qualified to give advice on mental illness than my hairdresser is.

And it shows in her latest social media post: “Lets really start loving as a church- true unconditional non judgmental love – pushing people away and locking them up and drugging them against their will is not the solution to the the problems of life.”

Her statements is a nonsense, nothing more than a scarecrow fallacy.  Yes, pushing people away and locking them up and drugging them against their will is not the solution to the problems of life, that’s why no one does it.  If people were locked up or drugged against their will because of “the problems of life” then we’d all be locked up and drugged.

The only people that are forcibly treated are those with the most serious of mental illnesses whose condition has deprived them of the insight they need to make the decision for themselves.  Even then, the consent for treatment is given by the next of kin, and if no next of kin can provide consent, then the consent is usually made by a independent statutory body so there’s no conflict of interest.

That Dr Leaf continues to make such inane statements about mental illness confirms that she is not fit to give the church, or anyone else for that matter, any advice on mental health.  She may have a PhD in communication pathology but that is a highly specialised field that doesn’t even begin to cross over to clinical knowledge of mental illness.

Dr Leaf has chosen to fill her vacuum of mental health experience with the opinions of Mad In America, a group that’s irrationally biased against modern mental health care.  She regurgitates their creed almost verbatim – mental illness is over diagnosed, psychiatric medications are useless and dangerous, and Dr Leaf also claims that psychiatric medications are only prescribed to bring the cabal of the American Psychiatric Association and the pharmaceutical companies more power and money.

Psychiatric medications are more helpful than harmful (Leucht et al, 2012, Torniainen et al, 2015).  I’ve discussed this in blog posts in the past.  Yes, they’re not without their side effects, and they’re not for every patient, but they have their place in psychiatric care.  That Dr Leaf can’t or won’t review this evidence is just another indictment against her ministry.  That she actively promotes the idea that pharmaceutical companies and the APA are actively attempting to harm people for their own power and riches is scandalous.

If Dr Leaf was serious about promoting good mental health through the church, she should stop promoting baseless anti-psychiatric propaganda, and start encouraging Christians with mental illness to seek the best treatment available, whether that be medications or counselling or both.  She should also start teaching the church the truth about mental illness … That mental illness isn’t caused by poor choices or toxic thoughts, but because of genetic abnormalities that make the affected persons brain more vulnerable to external stress.

Because to stop turning pain and trauma into shame, anger, fear and then hate, people need correct information to allow them to offer real loving understanding and nonjudgmental support to move through the pain.  At the moment, Dr Leaf isn’t offering the church anything even close to that.

References

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.
Torniainen M, Mittendorfer-Rutz E, Tanskanen A, et al. Antipsychotic treatment and mortality in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin 2015 May;41(3):656-63.

MIND CHANGES BRAIN? READ THIS …

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They say that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen … you just have to believe in it to make it work.  Wish upon a star, believe in yourself, speak positively, think things into being … it’s the sort of magical thinking that forms the backbone of Hollywood scripts and self-help books everywhere.

But that’s not how science works.  In the real world, believing in something doesn’t make it magically happen.  Holding onto a belief and trying to make it work leads to bias and error.  Instead of finding the truth, you end up fooling yourself into believing a lie.

This is the trap that Dr Leaf has fallen into as she continually tries to perpetuate the unscientific notion that the mind changes the brain.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her philosophical assumptions start with the concept that the mind is separate from and controls the physical brain, and continue to unravel from there.

The problem is that Dr Leaf can’t (or won’t) take a hint.  I’ve discussed the mind-brain link in other blogs in recent times (here and here), but yet Dr Leaf continues to insist that the mind can change the brain.  It’s as if she believes that if she says it for long enough it might actually come true.

Today, Dr Leaf claimed that “newly published” research from Yale claimed that, “Individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”  Except that this research is not really new since it was published last year, and Dr Leaf tried to draw the same tenuous conclusions then as she’s doing now.

She quoted from the interview that one of the authors did for the PR puff piece that promoted the scientific article:

“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable”.

Well, the issue is clearly settled then, all over bar the shouting.  Except that the promotional article doesn’t go through all of the flaws in the methodology of the study or the alternative explanations to their findings.  Like that the study by Levy, “A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers” [1], only showed a weak correlation between a single historical sample of attitude towards aging and some changes in the brain that are known to be markers for Alzheimer Dementia some three decades later.

They certainly didn’t show that stress, or a person’s attitude to aging, in anyway causes Alzheimer Dementia.  And they didn’t correct for genetics in this study which is the major contributor to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s [2].  So no matter what Dr Leaf or the Yale PR department thinks, the results of the study mean very little.

But why let the lack of ACTUAL EVIDENCE get in the way of a good story.

It’s sad to see someone of the standing of Dr Leaf’s shamelessly demoralise themselves, scrambling to defend the indefensible, hoping beyond hope that what they believe will become the truth if they try hard enough.  It doesn’t matter how much Dr Leaf wants to believe that the mind changes the brain, that’s not what science says, and clutching at straws citing weak single studies and tangential press releases isn’t going to alter that.

References
[1]        Levy BR, Slade MD, Ferrucci L, Zonderman AB, Troncoso J, Resnick SM. A Culture-Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers. Psychology and Aging 2015;30(4).
[2]        Reitz C, Brayne C, Mayeux R. Epidemiology of Alzheimer disease. Nat Rev Neurol 2011 Mar;7(3):137-52.

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.

 

Dr Caroline Leaf’s war on drugs

Today, Dr Leaf posted this on her social media feeds.  It’s clearly meant to shock and enrage her followers.

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Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  She’s also cast herself as an expert on mental health.

To the detriment of her followers, and sadly, to the rest of the Christian church, most people believe her.

Her most recent book, and her social media memes for the last couple of months, have made it clear that Dr Leaf is pursuing her own personal war on drugs … but prescription psychiatric drugs not the illicit kind.

Unfortunately, her attacks on prescription psychiatric drugs have amounted to nothing more than a hysterically illogical smear campaign under the guise of her concern for public safety.

Today’s offering follows the same pattern of narrow-minded hysteria.

Her main quote from was from Robert Whitaker, “Twenty years ago, our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, and now one out of every fifteen Americans enters adulthood with a ‘serious mental illness’.”

Whitaker, like Dr Leaf, is an outspoken critic of modern psychiatric treatment with a poor understanding of how psychiatric medications actually work.  The statement that Dr Leaf quotes is remarkable for it’s poor logic.  The quote implies that the rise in childhood mental health is because of the rise in psychotropic medication use in children.  But correlation does not equal causation.  Even if one in fifteen Americans enters adulthood with a ‘serious mental illness’, and twenty years ago our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, there’s no evidence that the psychiatric medications are actually causing the psychiatric problems.

Then there’s Dr Leaf’s emotionally charged statement that “They are even prescribing these psychoactive substances to infants!”

The New York Times article that she linked to discusses the case of Andrew Rios, a child suffering from severe epilepsy, having his first seizure at 5 months.  Though it’s clearly more complicated than just “simple” epilepsy – he’s pictured wearing a helmet which suggests that he has myoclonic epilepsy which is clearly uncontrolled. It’s also clear from the article that the child was having mood swings and violent behaviour before the anti-psychotic was given. The history of early seizures with ongoing poor control and violent behavior means that this unfortunate young boy likely has a severe and complicated neurological syndrome, quite possibly because of an underlying abnormality of his brain. And the symptoms he had which the mother claimed were from the antipsychotic were just as likely to have been night terrors, a common problem in two year olds.

In the end, who really knows?  But there’s certainly not enough in this article to clearly convict antipsychotics of being toxic or evil.

Neither is the use of antipsychotics for infants widespread.  20,000 prescriptions for antipsychotic medications sounds like a travesty, but according to the article, the real numbers are probably much less, or about 10,000, since not every prescription is filled.  Even 10,000 sounds like a lot, but that represents 0.0002% of all prescriptions in the US, and most of those scripts are not actually being taken by the child, but by their uninsured parent(s).

Indeed, as the article itself said, “In interviews, a dozen experts in child psychiatry and neurology said that they had never heard of a child younger than 3 receiving such medication, and struggled to explain it.”

So the prescribing of antipsychotics to infants is extremely rare, almost unheard of, and is only likely to be done in extreme cases where all other options have been exhausted.

That’s certainly not the impression you get from Dr Leaf’s post, which is just another misinformed smear against anti-psychotic medications.

Dr Leaf’s war against psychiatric medications is reckless.  When people who need psychiatric medications don’t take them, suffering increases, as do suicides.

It’s time Dr Leaf stopped spreading needless fear about these medications.  They help more people than they harm, people who already suffer from the stigma of having a severe mental illness.  They don’t need any more suffering stemming from Dr Leaf’s so-called “expertise”.

Dr Caroline Leaf – The mystery of he said/she said is no longer a mystery

This weeks edition of New Scientist magazine carried an article entitled “Scans prove there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain” [1].  The article was inspired by a journal article published in the PNAS last month [2], which reviewed the scans of 1400 different people to see if there were specific differences in the neuroanatomy of the brains of men and women (i.e., are there ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains, or are the commonly accepted male/female differences just a myth, or a cultural, not biological phenomenon?)

According to the article, there is an “extensive overlap between the distributions of females and males for all gray matter, white matter, and connections assessed. Moreover, analyses of internal consistency reveal that brains with features that are consistently at one end of the ‘maleness-femaleness’ continuum are rare. Rather, most brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features.” [2]

So essentially, there’s no strong biological basis for gender differences after all.  “This means that, averaged across many people, sex differences in brain structure do exist, but an individual brain is likely to be just that: individual, with a mix of features. ‘There are not two types of brain,’ says Joel.” [1]

This news is a blow to one of Dr Leaf’s less renowned books, “Who switched off your brain? Solving the mystery of he said/she said” [3].

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her ‘he said/she said’ book is based on the idea that there are definitive characteristics of the male and female brain which define each gender.  From her conclusion on page 211,

“Men and women are different.  Both the physical anatomy and functional strategy of our brains are different.  We can’t attribute this to social engineering, cultural norms or our up-bringing.  We’ve been created different – it’s in our fundamental design.  Our parents, our communities, and the cultural context of our childhood and adolescence certainly have a prominent developmental role in each of our lives.  But your brain has been fashioned in a specific way that shapes your ‘true you’ long before any of these other factors have had the opportunity to exercise their influence on you.”

As a quick aside, this quote shows the confusion in Dr Leaf’s teaching.  As I’ve discussed before in other blogs, Dr Leaf contradicts herself by claiming that our brain determines our gifts and our behaviours in some books (like ‘He said/she said’ and ‘The gift in you’) but then claims that our thought life controls our brains and our physical reality in the rest of her teaching.  So which is it?

But this quote also sounds the death knell for her book, in light of the recent scientific evidence to the contrary.  Which is a shame, since out of all of her books, this one initially seemed the most scientifically robust.

Even though the book is based on a now defunct theory, I wonder if the thrust of her book still holds true to a point.  We’ve all been created to be different, and we should celebrate those differences and how they complement other people around us.  It just so happens that those differences aren’t inherent to our gender, but to us as individuals, uniquely designed by God “for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

So, yes, the mystery of he said/she said has been solved, but not quite as Dr Leaf envisaged.

References

[1]        Hamzelou J. Scans prove there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain. New Scientist. 2015 Dec 5.
[2]        Joel D, Berman Z, Tavor I, et al. Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2015 Nov 30.
[3]        Leaf CM. Who swithced off your brain: Solving the mystery of he said/she said. Texas, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2011.

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Me-Too approach to mental health

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Since her recent less-than-successful attempt at portraying herself as a mental health expert, Dr Leaf has been laying low on social media, sticking to bland, innocuous quotes or passages of scripture.

Today, she thought it was safe enough to pop her head up from the trenches to fire off another opinionated volley on mental well-being, with a quote from one of her favourite authors, Peter Kinderman:

“It’s our framework of understanding the world, not our brains and not even the events that happen to us – not nature and not nurture – that determines our thoughts, emotions, behaviours and, therefore, our mental health.”

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Without any training or professional experience in mental illness, she has also taken it upon herself to act as an expert on mental health within the Christian church.

Unfortunately, posting quotes like today’s offering only further destroys her flagging credibility among those with professional psychiatric experience, and adds to the confusion of the rest of the Christian church when it comes to understanding mental illness.

There are two main problems with Dr Leaf’s meme: the quote itself and it’s source.

The quote itself is wafer-thin, unable to stand up to even the most basic interrogation. For example, we know through basic common sense that the brain changes how we think, our moods, our emotions and our behaviours. We change our mood, our emotions and our alertness every time we have a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine. Hallucinogenic medications like LSD definitely change our framework of understanding the world. Coffee, alcohol, and illicit substances like LSD all change the mood or experience of the person using them because they all temporarily alter the function of the users brain.

Though it’s not just external substances that change how we experience our external and internal worlds, but our own internal hormonal ecosystem changes our emotions, our moods, our thoughts and our behaviours. This isn’t so obvious for most men as our hormones are fairly constant, though testicular failure is known to result in reduced energy, vitality, or stamina; depressed mood or diminished sense of well-being; increased irritability; and difficulty concentrating and other cognitive problems. For the female gender, monthly hormonal changes can sometimes result in sudden, marked changes in emotions, moods, thoughts and behaviours.

There are a lot of other reasons why the brain controls the mind, and our mental health, which I’ve also discussed numerous times in other blogs (here, here and here)

If you aren’t satisfied with a common sense approach, then consider the scientific evidence that personality, the name that we give to our inbuilt ‘framework of understanding the world’ is largely genetic, and dependent on the function of various neurotransmitter systems [1-4].

So to suggest that the brain is not responsible for our moods, our emotions, our thoughts and our behaviours isn’t supported by the weight of scientific evidence.

The quote by Kinderman doesn’t stop there, but suggests that “not even the events that happen to us … determines our thoughts, emotions, behaviours”, something that also flies in the face of current scientific evidence. For example, the other forty percent of personality is determined by our environment (specifically the ‘non-shared’ environment, the environment outside of our parental influence) [5, 6]. And common psychiatric illnesses are associated with early childhood adversity, such as schizophrenia [7] and ADHD [8]. So again, the quote is unscientific.

Who then is this Kinderman guy, and why does he disagree with the scientific literature?

Peter Kinderman is a Professor of Psychology at University of Liverpool, and the President-elect of the British Psychological Society. He’s a highly outspoken critic of modern psychiatry and what he perceives to be the medicalisation of normal moods and emotions and overuse of medications to treat these non-existent diagnoses. Kinderman believes that it’s our learning history that shapes the paths that our lives take, and so if we simply understand our personal models of the world and how they were shaped by the events and experiences to which we’ve been exposed, we can simply think our way out of any disease process [9].

Kinderman has come out in favour of talking treatments for psychosis in schizophrenia instead of medication, when there’s no scientific proof of benefit for psychosocial therapies in schizophrenia [10, 11] (and here).

This, and his staunch opposition of the DSM5 as invalid, makes me concerned about his bias against modern psychiatry, despite it’s many advances, scientifically and clinically.

However, I’m surprised that Kinderman would make such a statement because it’s such an asinine argument, I find it hard to believe that it came from a professor of psychology. Kinderman would surely recognise the role of biology in our mental health and wellbeing, even if he doesn’t agree with how it’s managed. Perhaps there’s an alternative explanation. Perhaps Kinderman didn’t say what Dr Leaf has claimed?

The answer is, he does, and he doesn’t.

Dr Leaf has quoted Kinderman correctly. Today’s quote is taken directly out of Kindermans 2014 book, “The New Laws of Psychology” [9], on the penultimate page of his introduction. So he does say that our brains and our experiences aren’t relevant for our mental health. But then again, in a blog on the militant anti-psychiatry blog ‘Mad in America’, Kinderman wrote this:

“I’ve spent much of my professional life studying psychological aspects of mental health problems. Inevitably, this has also meant discussing the role of biology. I hope I’ve made some progress in understanding these issues, in working out how the two relate to each other, and the implications for services. That’s my academic day-job. But it’s not just academic for me. I’m probably not untypical of most people reading this; I can see clear examples of how my experiences may have affected my own mental health, but I can also see reasons to suspect biological, heritable, traits. As in all aspects of human behaviour, both nature and nurture are involved and they have been intimately entwined in a complex interactive dance throughout my childhood and adult life.” http://www.madinamerica.com/2015/03/brain-baked-beans/

So he seems confused, both recognising that biological traits influence psychiatric illness, then denying it.

Personally, I disagree with the quote from his book, although I’m just a suburban GP from Australia, so what would I know, right? Though I think the evidence I’ve cited is on my side, and Kinderman is not without his critics who are more than his academic equal.

It also concerns me because the logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that psychiatric illnesses have no biological basis, and therefore psychiatric medications have no place in treatment of them. But as I outlined previously, there is good evidence for the beneficial effects of medications for schizophrenia and ADHD amongst other mental health disorders.

Dr Leaf continues to ignore the scientific evidence for the biological basis for mental ill-health, medications for their treatment, and even the most basic of all that our mind is a product of our brain. Instead, she’s nailed her colours to her mast and aligned herself with outspoken authors on the fringe of modern neuroscience. Rather than addressing the science behind her opposition to modern psychiatry and neuroscience, she has resorted to hiding behind their quotes, a ‘me-too’ commentator, rather than an actual expert.

Of more importance is the confusion that this brings to the vulnerable Christians who follow her social media “fan sites”. The more Dr Leaf criticises psychiatric medications and condemns their prescription and usage, the more likely it is that someone will come to serious harm when they inappropriately cease their medications. And if Dr Leaf won’t come to her senses, our church leaders are going to have to take action, before it’s too late.

References

[1]        Vinkhuyzen AA, Pedersen NL, Yang J, et al. Common SNPs explain some of the variation in the personality dimensions of neuroticism and extraversion. Translational psychiatry 2012;2:e102.
[2]        Chen C, Chen C, Moyzis R, et al. Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to highly sensitive personality: a multi-step neuronal system-level approach. PloS one 2011;6(7):e21636.
[3]        Caspi A, Hariri AR, Holmes A, Uher R, Moffitt TE. Genetic sensitivity to the environment: the case of the serotonin transporter gene and its implications for studying complex diseases and traits. The American journal of psychiatry 2010 May;167(5):509-27.
[4]        Felten A, Montag C, Markett S, Walter NT, Reuter M. Genetically determined dopamine availability predicts disposition for depression. Brain and behavior 2011 Nov;1(2):109-18.
[5]        Krueger RF, South S, Johnson W, Iacono W. The heritability of personality is not always 50%: gene-environment interactions and correlations between personality and parenting. Journal of personality 2008 Dec;76(6):1485-522.
[6]        Johnson W, Turkheimer E, Gottesman, II, Bouchard TJ, Jr. Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies in Behavioral Research. Current directions in psychological science 2010 Aug 1;18(4):217-20.
[7]        Howes OD, Murray RM. Schizophrenia: an integrated sociodevelopmental-cognitive model. Lancet 2014 May 10;383(9929):1677-87.
[8]        Thapar A, Cooper M, Eyre O, Langley K. What have we learnt about the causes of ADHD? Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines 2013 Jan;54(1):3-16.
[9]        Kinderman P. The New Laws of Psychology: Why Nature and Nurture Alone Can’t Explain Human Behaviour: Robinson, 2014.
[10]      Buckley LA, Maayan N, Soares-Weiser K, Adams CE. Supportive therapy for schizophrenia. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2015;4:CD004716.
[11]      Jones C, Hacker D, Cormac I, Meaden A, Irving CB. Cognitive behaviour therapy versus other psychosocial treatments for schizophrenia. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2012;4:CD008712.