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Is There a Professional Turf War in the Mental Health Field?

03/09/2015 01:04 EDT | Updated 05/09/2015 05:59 EDT
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One of my pet peeves is the use of the term "mental health problems and issues" to reflect mental illness. Some have told me that if we imply that people are mentally ill then we are stigmatizing them because we are saying that there is something wrong with their brain. Well, there is, and so what? With cancer, we don't say someone has cell problems and issues but rather they have cancer and we are usually pretty specific because there are so many different forms of cancer each with its own unique outcomes.

And the same goes for mental illness. But, someone recently pointed out to me that the reason we use the vague term "mental health problems and issues" is that what we are seeing is a turf war amongst professionals. And I think that person is right.

When we think of an illness, we think medical doctor. When you are ill, you see an MD who uses diagnostic skills, tests, imaging -- a methodology developed over time, to determine what the problem is. Once determined, the MD decides on a course of action (with the patient) which may include referral to another more appropriate health professional (dietitian, counsellor, medical specialist, hospitalization) or medication. The MD is at the apex of the pyramid and the gatekeeper for others.

Now as my cynical friend stated, there is only one relatively finite pot of money for services for the mentally ill and, if we call it an illness, then the medical docs are going to get most of it. Other professionals will get the crumbs. However, if we don't call it an illness but a problem, then it becomes more appropriate for other professionals like psychologists, social workers and others to be the first line of assessment and treatment.

Last year, one of my blogs upset the Canadian Psychological Association because I pointed out that in 2006, they were concerned that the newly formed Mental Health Commission of Canada would focus on mental illness to the exclusion of mental disorders and behavioural health. That generated a reply from Karen Cohen, the CEO of the CPA.

In November of last year, the British Psychological Society issued a report called Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia where they conclude that "psychosis can be understood and treated in the same way as other psychological problems such as anxiety or shyness." And that "Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages." And they conclude that "Psychological therapies -- talking treatments such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) -- are very helpful for many people."

What they have done is to trivialize schizophrenia and suggest that its treatment be shifted to themselves and that they can uncover the underlying trauma that is the cause over the course of many talk sessions and help.

To be fair, before they had any effective treatments, psychiatrists tried this as well, and it did not work.

First out of the gate to criticize this report were three bloggers on the Mental Elf. Keith Laws, a Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology, analyzed their claim on the efficacy of CBT and found that the research does not support the statement that it is as effective a treatment as medication. Alex Langford, a psychiatry trainee who also studied psychology, challenged their conclusions on medication and pointed out that there is "solid evidence for elevated presynaptic dopamine levels being a key abnormality in psychosis, and there is copious evidence that inhibiting the action of this excess dopamine using antipsychotics leads to clinical improvement in psychosis." Samei Huda, a Consultant Psychiatrist, points out that the "reduction of psychosis to just hallucinations and delusions is flawed." He points out that "Cognitive impairment and negative symptoms (depression, lack of enjoyment, lethargy) are important as they often have a bigger effect on social functioning than hallucinations or delusions."

James Coyne, a psychologist himself and one who is very critical of his colleagues, pointed out that:

Key stakeholders were simply excluded -- primary care physicians, social workers, psychiatrists, police and corrections personnel who must make decisions about how to deal with disturbed behavior, and -- most importantly -- the family members of persons with severe disturbance. There was no check on the psychologists simply slanting the document to conform to their own narrow professional self-interests, which we are asked to accept as 'expertise'.

He goes on to say that this paper is not evidence based and that "quotes are carefully selected to support the psychologists opinions expressed before the document was prepared -- like 15 years ago in their Recent Advances in Understanding Mental Illness and Psychotic Experiences. "

Dr Ronald Pies, a psychiatrist, writes that what is missing from the report "is any deep understanding of the psychic suffering occasioned by severe and enduring psychotic states, including but not limited to schizophrenia." The psychologists see psychosis and schizophrenia simply as hearing voices that others do not and/or having fears or beliefs that those around us do not share. Pies points out that this is a shallow and superficial description of the psychotic experience and does scant justice to the nightmarish reality of severe psychotic states.

In fact, he finds that the psychologists responsible for this report do nothing but trivialize the profound suffering that is psychosis and schizophrenia.

It is well to remember that the prime directive for any physician, including psychiatrists, is not to "be clever"; not to "define abnormal," not even "to diagnose," but to reduce suffering.

And while the psychologists lobby for a greater piece of the treatment pie or, as Coyne says slanting to there own "narrow professional self-interests," and debate with other professionals, the suffering of those with the most serious of mental health problems and issues -- real illnesses -- continues.

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