Mental Illness and Social Realities

May 3, 2011
Steve Balt, MD

Sometimes a person's environment can elicit reactions and behaviors that might appear, even to a trained observer, as mental illness.

The following was originally posted to the HCPLive network blog Thought Broadcast.

Does the definition of “mental illness” differ from place to place? Is there a difference between “depression” in a poor individual and in one of means? Are the symptoms identical? What about the neurobiology? The very concept of a psychiatric “disease” implies that certain core features of one’s illness transcend the specifics of a person’s social or cultural background. Nevertheless, we know that disorders look quite different, depending on the setting in which they arise. This is why people practice psychiatry, not computers or checklists. (Not yet, at least.)

However, sometimes a person’s environment can elicit reactions and behaviors that might appear—even to a trained observer—as mental illness. If unchecked, this may create an epidemic of “disease” where true disease does not exist. And the consequences could be serious.

——

For the last three years, I have had the pleasure of working part-time in a community mental health setting. Our clinic primarily serves patients on Medicaid and Medicare, in a gritty, crime-ridden expanse of a major city. Our patients are, for the most part, impoverished, poorly educated, have little or no access to primary care services, and live in communities ravaged by substance abuse, crime, unemployment, familial strife, and a deep, pervasive sense of hopelessness.

Even though our resources are extremely limited, I can honestly say that I have made a difference in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. But the experience has led me to question whether we are too quick to make psychiatric diagnoses for the sake of convenience and expediency, rather than on the basis of a fair, objective, and thorough evaluation.

Almost predictably, patients routinely present with certain common complaints: anxiety, “stress,” insomnia, hopelessness, fear, worry, poor concentration, cognitive deficits, etc. Each of these could be considered a feature of a deeper underlying disorder, such as an anxiety disorder, major depression, psychosis, thought disorder, or ADHD. Alternatively, they might also simply reflect the nature of the environment in which the patients live, or the direct effects of other stressors that are unfortunately too familiar in this population.

Given the limitations of time, personnel, and money, we don’t usually have the opportunity for a thorough evaluation, collaborative care with other professionals, and frequent follow-up. But psychiatric diagnostic criteria are vague, and virtually everyone who walks into my office endorses symptoms for which it would be easy to justify a diagnosis. The “path of least” resistance” is often to do precisely that, and move to the next person in the long waiting-room queue.

This tendency to “knee-jerk” diagnosis is even greater when patients have already had some interaction—however brief—with the mental health system: for example, a patient who visited a local crisis clinic and was given a diagnosis of “bipolar disorder” (on the basis of a 5-minute evaluation) and a 14-day supply of Zyprexa, and told to “go see a psychiatrist”; or the patient who mentioned “anxiety” to the ER doc in our county hospital (note: he has no primary care MD), was diagnosed with panic disorder, and prescribed PRN Ativan.

We all learned in our training (if not from a careful reading of the DSM-IV) that a psychiatric diagnosis should be made only when other explanations for symptoms can be ruled out. Psychiatric treatment, moreover, should be implemented in the safest possible manner, and include close follow-up to monitor patients’ response to these interventions.

But in my experience, once a patient has received a diagnosis, it tends to stick. I frequently feel an urge to un-diagnose patients, or, at the very least, to have a discussion with them about their complaints and develop a course of treatment—which might involve withholding medications and implementing lifestyle changes or other measures. Alas, this takes time (and money—at least in the short run). Furthermore, if a person already believes she has a disorder (even if it’s just “my mother says I must be bipolar because I have mood swings all the time!!!”), or has experienced the sedative, “calming,” “relaxing” effect of Seroquel or Klonopin, it’s difficult to say “no.”

There are consequences of a psychiatric diagnosis. It can send a powerful message. It might absolve a person of his responsibility to make changes in his life—changes which he might indeed have the power to make. Moreover, while some see a diagnosis as stigmatizing, others may see it as a free ticket to powerful (and potentially addictive) medications, as well as a variety of social services, from a discounted annual bus pass, to in-home support services, to a lifetime of Social Security disability benefits. Very few people consciously abuse the system for their own personal gain, but the system is set up to keep this cycle going. For many, “successful” treatment means staying in that cycle for the rest of their lives.

——

The patients who seek help in a community mental health setting are, almost without exception, suffering in many ways. That’s why they come to see us. Some clinics do provide a wide assortment of services, including psychotherapy, case management, day programs, and the like. For the truly mentally ill, these can be a godsend.

For many who seek our services, however, the solutions that would more directly address their suffering—like safer streets, better schools, affordable housing, stable families, less access to illicit drugs, etc.—are difficult or costly to implement, and entirely out of our hands. In cases such as these, it’s unfortunately easier to diagnose a disease, prescribe a drug which (in the words of one of my colleagues) “allows them to get through just one more night,” and make poor, unfortunate souls even more dependent on a system which sees them as hopeless and unable to emerge from the chaos of their environment.

In my opinion, that’s not psychiatry. But it’s being practiced every day.