From Brainless to Mindless

From today’s New York Times, an article from Daniel Carlat, M.D., titled, “Mind Over Meds.” Dr. Carlat has a new book coming out this May, “Unhinged: the Trouble With Psychiatry,” and he has written thoughtfully about the role of psychiatry and how we think about mental illness. Carlat manages to touch upon many of the key issues surround the use of medication v. psychotherapy, whether we are treating a brain or a mind. Some quotes you might find interesting — first the usual preamble:

After J.J. left my office, I realized, uncomfortably, that somehow, over the course of the decade following my residency, my way of thinking about patients had veered away from psychological curiosity. Instead, I had come to focus on symptoms, as if they were objective medical findings, much the way internists view blood-pressure readings or potassium levels. Psychiatry, for me and many of my colleagues, had become a process of corralling patients’ symptoms into labels and finding a drug to match.

And then a note on the ascendence of medication v. psychotherapy:

Leon Eisenberg, an early pioneer in psychopharmacology at Harvard, once made the notable historical observation that “in the first half of the 20th century, American psychiatry was virtually ‘brainless.’ . . . In the second half of the 20th century, psychiatry became virtually ‘mindless.’ ” The brainless period was a reference to psychiatry’s early infatuation with psychoanalysis; the mindless period, to our current love affair with pills.

On the power of placebo:

In one study, for example, researchers did a meta-analysis of studies submitted by drug companies to the F.D.A. on seven new antidepressants, involving more than 19,000 patients. It turned out that antidepressants are, indeed, effective, because on average patients taking the pills showed a 40 percent drop in depression scores. But placebo was also a powerful antidepressant, causing a 30 percent drop in depression scores. This meant that about three-quarters of the apparent response to antidepressants pills is actually due to the placebo effect.

And one take on the effectiveness of non-biological (psychotherapy) v. biological (psychotropic medication):

Like placebo, psychotherapy has typically been considered a “nonbiological” treatment, but it has become clear that therapy, like placebo, also leads to measurable changes in the brain. In an experiment conducted at U.C.L.A. several years ago, with subjects suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, researchers assigned some patients to treatment with Prozac and others to cognitive behavior therapy. They found that patients improved about equally well with the two treatments. Each patient’s brain was PET-scanned before and after treatment, and patients showed identical changes in their brain circuits regardless of the treatment.

Carlat also cites a study on the economics of psychotherapy v. medication and psychotherapy:

Oddly, managed-care companies discourage us from doing psychotherapy, arguing that it is cheaper to have psychiatrists do 20-minute medication visits every three months and to hire a lower paid non-M.D. for more frequent therapy visits. But the few studies that have analyzed the economics of these arrangements have found that integrated treatment actually saves money. Mantosh Dewan, the chairman of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, found that when psychiatrists do both medication and psychotherapy, the overall amount of money paid out by insurance companies is actually less than when the treatment is split between psychiatrists and psychotherapists. When patients see only one provider, they require fewer visits overall.

Carlat’s excellent blog can be found here. I have posted a couple of things from him before, notably “Dr. Drug Rep.”