Tag Archives: psychiatry

Do Psychotropic Drugs Cause Violence and Aggression?


There are no adequate words to describe the recent racially-motivated mass murder of nine church members by a 21 year old, yes disturbed, male. Grievous…insane…terroristic…nothing truly captures the gravity of the situation.

As the details of the shooter’s life begin to surface, there have been several reports that the young man was taking Suboxone, a prescribed medication in the opiate family to help avoid the massive withdrawal symptoms from things like heroin or abused narcotic painkillers. As a result, there are a number of articles touting a connection between Suboxone use and aggression.

But do psychotropic drugs cause violence?

At best, we only have correlations between aggression and drug use. Thus, we need to be very careful when we blame violence on the ingestion of substance, whether prescription or otherwise. Correlations do not tell us causation. Even when we have a direct positive relationship (e.g., increased use of substance A followed by increased behavior B), we still do not have enough to say that there is a direct cause.

Correlations between prescriptions usage and violence do exist

There are a few studies that indicate a correlation between prescription drug use and violence. However, the relationship is connected mostly by those who stop taking their medication. It may be that the cause of violence is the noxious side-effects leading to a dis-use of the med resulting in an increase in psychiatric symptoms. So, do psychiatric symptoms correlate with increased violence? One study completed on a large psychiatric inpatient population determined that the rate of violent behavior one year post psychiatric hospitalization stood at about 27%. The numbers go higher if the person also has a co-morbid substance abuse problem (interestingly, men and women have about the same rate of violence but male violence tends to have more victims).

Certain medications seem to encourage more anger, aggression, and violence. Opiates tend to have a mollifying effect. People who use them may feel euphoria or calmness at first. As the narcotic wears off, there may be in increase in anxiety, pain, or agitation. There are, however, some who report increase angry and violent thoughts. One particular study suggests that prior personality factors may influence aggressive responses in an individual.

Suboxone is one of those drugs used to combat opiate abuse. Itself an opiate, if taken for a long period of time it becomes the addiction without the euphoria. The goal of the medication is to get off the opiate onto Suboxone and then slowly taper on Suboxone to the point that opiates are not longer needed.

There is little evidence that SSRIs and other psychotropics cause or even encourage violence. What is true is that violence, like everything else, is a multifactored event. Those prone to addiction, isolation, delusion, paranoia, impulse control problems may have increased risk to resort to violence. Those with particular personality features may be prone to violent responses. Certainly, environmental factors are also in play: culture, education, economic resources, history of victimhood all have potential impact on the choice to use violence to solve problems. And finally, faith and character (which itself is developed due to nature/nurture) plays a significant role in how we see others and whether we afford them with kindness and compassion.

If nothing is to blame, is there anything we can do?

It is good to resist the impulse to blame any one thing for the cause of violence. However, it is legitimate to take each of the factors commonly present in violence and to examine them one-by-one to see how we may intervene. Talk about gun availability and gun cultures. Talk about mental illness. Talk about medication (mis-use, over-use, adherence). Talk about racism and prejudices? Talk about poverty. Talk about substance abuse. Look for small ways that we can intervene and begin to change the way we talk about violence in our society. Look for the micro-aggressions and decide to stand against them early and often.

Will we always have individuals bent on destroying others? Yes. But, let us be known for being peace-makers.

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Relationship’s role in therapy?


How important is it to get the right kind of counseling/therapy modality? How important is it to get the right person?

These questions plague both researchers and the people looking to get better. Why do some clients get better and others do not? Why do some therapists have a better success rate and others do not? Does the kind of therapy matter?

Well, as you can imagine, the answer is, “it depends.”

Yes, diagnosis and assessment do matter. If your child begins to struggle with bed-wetting after having been continent, you need to know what the problem is and what to do about it.

But, consider this: various studies make overlapping comments as to what really is going on when people get better

  • One researcher suggests that some 85+% of the reason for change are factors pertaining to the client and what is called “extratherapy” factors (social support, physical health, etc. )
  • Another places the portion the therapist plays in the 13% or so

Confusing? Consider this stark fact presented at a recent conference I attended

Patients receiving placebos from the top (best?) 1/3 psychiatrists fared better than patients who received actual medications from the bottom 1/3 psychiatrists. This was cited from the following study: Kim, D., Wampold, B. E., & Bolt, D. M. (2006). Therapist effects in psychotherapy: A random-effects modeling of the National Institute of Mental Health Treatment of Depression Collaborative Research Program data. Psychotherapy Research, 16(2), 161-172.

So, when you are looking for a therapist or psychiatrist, you may want to know if he/she studied at Harvard or a degree mill. But, you may be better served to by one who listens to you, doesn’t fall asleep, and is able to collaborate with you to find a solution that works for you.

The moral of the story? Better to have a good psychiatrist with no meds than a poor one with a gunnysack full of pills.

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How many patients can you see in a day?


Ask a counselor and you might hear of one who has seen 10 clients in a day…10 hours of therapy. I suppose I”ve done as many as 12 or 13 but that was a rare case and likely some emergency.

What about seeing 40… in one day!?

That is what some psychiatrists do. Of course, to do that many, most patients are seen only for 15 minute med checks rather than the 90 minute first session for first-time patients. Psychiatrists used to be the primary therapists. But with the advent of psychiatric medicines,  many psychiatrists no longer do therapy and only make diagnoses and prescribe/manage medicines. For an interesting view from the psychiatrist’s chair, check out this NY Times article interacting with a local psychiatrist who has worked through the transition from therapist to med manager.  See how he tries to not get too involved with patient problems given that he hasn’t the time to do much on the fixing end.

There are only two reasons why anyone would see so many clients in one day

1. Economics. More volume, more money. Plain and simple.

2. Demand. Good psychiatrists are hard to come by. Even more true if you are talking about child psychiatry! If you find a good one, chances are you have to get in line.

Now, before anyone thinks I’m taking shots at psychiatrists, let me tell you I am not. A good psychiatrist is a very helpful aid to us psychologists. Family Docs and other general practitioners may be able to prescribe but I find psychiatrists (good ones!) really know their compounds and are much better at titrating doses. And not all of them just throw pills at the problem. Even in short interactions, the psychiatrist to whom I refer has been able to help my clients understand themselves just a bit better.

Back to the original question: just how many different people can you meet with in a day and still be attentive? When I started out counseling, I could barely see two people in a row before being overwhelmed. Now, I regularly see 8-10 on a day (okay, I only do this one day per week, but before becoming a prof I did 25-30 per week). I can attest that it is a learned skill and I don’t think the last client gets less of me than the first. That said, there is a limit and a point at which what I do suffers.

What is your patient/client limit?

For me, it is less about the number of sessions and more about whether I eat and have a moment to go to the bathroom. There’s nothing that kills the focus as much as a bursting bladder and 45 minutes to go!

I’ll leave you with a funny story. At a doctoral practicum I saw clients late into the evening. My last client of the evening (same person each week) had a habit of bringing me Starbucks coffee. I think he was trying to make sure he was going to get his money’s worth out of me!

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Normalizing Psychiatric Problems: Pro and Con


One of the hallmarks of the Biblical Counseling movement has been the clear articulation that psychiatric problems are not different in kind from any other set of problems. This assertion is made by some for a couple of reasons:

  1. To make sure everyone knows that the bible speaks to every kind of experience. if one draws lines between “regular” anxiety and pathological anxiety, those who meet the criteria for a DSM diagnosis might think that biblical material cannot speak to their situation–that they need to go elsewhere for help. God cares for and addresses every concern.
  2. To level the playing field between professionally trained counselors and biblical counselors. If the roots of human problems are common no matter the outer expression of them, then pastors and lay counselors can understand the issues (pride, suffering, fear, despair, etc.) and walk alongside anyone. One may not need special training to help another.
  3. To communicate to the healthy that they are not different from the more obviously unhealthy. The point is to reduce stigma and promote unity.

Consider the pros and cons of this viewpoint.

Pro:

  • Reduction of stigma and ghettoization
  • Increase normalization (“so, I’m not so different from others) and similarity with the rest of humanity
  • Increase the confidence and courage of leaders to address and dialogue about all forms of suffering

Con:

  • Decrease in interest in the specific experiences of suffering thus narrowing problems down to a simplistic cause (sin?)
  • Possible over-confidence of some leaders leading to a reduction of empathy and listening to the experiences of other; failure to consider body/mind issues not specifically elaborated on in the Bible.
  • Failure to recommend outside helpers with specific expertise and training; dismissal of the need to have professional counselors who may have greater practice with certain kinds of interventions\

When I teach my Psychopathology course I want my students to see just a bit of themselves in descriptions of people with thought disorders, addictions, eating disorders and the like. I want to normalize these kinds of problems so that students don’t think of clients with the problem as somehow different from their own experiences. While I may not binge, I may be able to empathize with those who do. However, I do not want them to think their brief binge as exactly the same as someone else’s experience. Otherwise, they might assume it would be easy to “just say no” to the binge.

When I teach my Physiology course, I want my student so to see the complexity of the brain and body and thus recognize the unique forms of suffering some go through. I want them to realize just how little we understand how much the body influences our experience of the world and of self. However, I do not want them to medicalize psychiatric problems. If they did that they might believe that counseling has little influence on psychiatric disorders. They might think that biblical reflections on anxiety and depression have no place in the healing of serious problems in living.

What is your experience regarding christian leaders handling of psychiatric problems? Do you see too little normalization? Too much? Do you see minimization of psychiatric suffering?

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Belief in a loving God and Depression?


Thanks to a friend’s sharp eyes, I learned of this news release from Rush University Medical Center:

Research suggests that religious belief can help protect against symptoms of depression, but a study at Rush University Medical Center goes one step further.

In patients diagnosed with clinical depression, belief in a concerned God can improve response to medical treatment, according to a paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

The release goes on to say that the positive benefit did not stem from hope but in belief in a caring God. What it doesn’t say is whether or not those NOT taking medications get positive benefit from a belief in a caring God.

What do you make of this? Should we get excited when research confirms our established beliefs? Should we look for alternative explanations? I would be curious how they separated hope and belief. Hope and belief that God is active and looking out for you probably encourages you to look for and remember evidence! The more you look for the evidence the more you practice being mindful of something bigger than your despair.

What is your reaction?

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Psychiatric labeling: The problem isn’t the label


Christians tend to have some strong feelings about counseling, psychology, psychiatry and similar terms. Come to think of it, most people, regardless of faith, have strong feelings about these topics. Experiences dictate much of these reactions. Experiences, such as:

  • experiencing or hearing of a mental health representative (mhp) belittling Christianity
  • experiencing or hearing of an arrogant, controlling, or completely incompetent mhp
  • experiencing or hearing of a positive experience where someone found relief or change or insight
  • feeling either helped or stigmatized by a received diagnosis or a use of medication

In psychopathology class tonight, we will explore the background behind psychiatric classifications. How did we get the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual? What are its underpinnings? There are a couple of common concerns about the DSM

  • It purports to be atheoretical and descriptive only
  • Diagnoses suggest objective and distinct “things”
  • It medicalizes problems in living
  • Under one diagnosis (e.g., depression) you can have such wide variety of symptoms
  • Therapists have sizeable disagreements on diagnoses so are they all that helpful?
  • It is leveraged by insurance in ways that make it a liability
  • It doesn’t address matters of the heart or spirit
  • It has political overtones
  • It treats most problems in an individualistic fashion without account for family systems

Every one of these concerns has merit. However, the biggest problem I have is not with the DSM itself but with many of its users. The complaints that are raised about the DSM usually come from someone mis-using the DSM.

Remember the simple explanation of a problem almost always distorts it. Thus, the simplistic use of diagnostic labels almost always does damage.

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Rwanda Day Four


Spent the day traveling around Kigali. First stop was Ndera hospital, the only psychiatric hospital in the country. It sits atop a dusty hill just outside the city. Upon entering the gate and getting out of the cars, we were welcomed by patients asking for water and money. The hospital has a 19th century or impoverished cold war era feel about it. Sterile cement block buildings set in a square. Sparse is an overstatement. We learned many staff and patients were murdered during the genocide. This hospital has over 200 patients (but just 12 beds for children). Psychiatric nurses provide the bulk of the care. Their “intake” room had one chair, one table and very little light. Patients lie on the grass outside in various states of unhealth. They have many with PTSD and schizophrenia diagnoses. Their only medication is Haldol. No “atypicals” or newer medications. A woman started screaming just outside our door. Translated: “Why does everyone hate me?”

From this hospital we traveled to the National Memorial Center to tour the genocide museum and grounds where some 300,000 have been interred. I couldn’t handle the room filled with poster size pictures of young children in happier days. The small print told of their favorite foods and activities…and how they were hacked to death.

Another lunch with a Christian counselor, Ms. Paulette, who told of her counseling work and training of lay counselors. After lunch, we met with the executive secretary of the Commission to educate about and prevent genocide. This handsomely dressed man shows the signs of his own trauma. he desires our help to guide the country to remember in healthier ways. Right now they play videos of the actual genocide and so during their 100 day memorial (April to July) they see so much trauma responses. He wished us to start right away.

Here’s a thought in my head: Does Rwanda need us or do we need Rwanda. I am amazed at how community minded this country is. They have no choice. People sacrifice for the good of all. They make do with a little. They are action oriented and start doing things rather than waiting to get it right. Risk calculation is not part of their thinking. What amazing things we could do in this country if we would learn from these people on how to put neighbor ahead of self.

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Physiology Phriday: Will I be on meds for the rest of my life?


During the course of discussing a person’s anxiety or depression, the conversation turns to the possibility of using antidepressants. Inevitably, I am asked, will I have to take them forever? Clearly, the questioner does not want to and sees the possibility of taking medication for the rest of their life to be unacceptable. So much so that many resist starting or even going to see a psychiatrist in order to consider whether they might take a medication. Rarely do they ever ask if the medications will help.

Consider for a minute why a person might ask this question. Here’s some of the reasons I think I’m asked this question:

1. Everybody is on them and they never get off (from the viewpoint that too many people take them for every little hangnail and then allow themselves to stay on the crutch forever, never solving their problem)

2. Medicines are for weak people, I’m not weak. (Not sure if the person would have the same response if their medical doctor said their thyroid wasn’t working and so they would need synthroid for the rest of their life)

3. It is only a spiritual problem. Taking the medication will solve the problem but not the spiritual problem. I’ll be avoiding the real issues.

4. I hate medicines of all kind. I hate remembering to take them and I hate their side effects.

5. I don’t think they will really work.

Can you think of other reasons? Now, antidepressants do work from a research vantage point. They are not the silver bullet. They will not make a bitter, angry, depressed person, less bitter. They may help them sleep better, improve their mood, and thus more clearly come to terms with their bitterness. Medications never block the heart from spiritual matters. Only the person who does not want to deal with spiritual matters will use them to avoid looking more deeply inside. God can be found in both suffering and comfort. Whether we will look for him is a bigger question.

So, what if you need them for the rest of your life? What if they really do make it possible to function well? Is our distaste for medicines due to their side effects or due to the fact that we have to accept that we are weak and broken people?

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Filed under Anxiety, biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Depression, Psychiatric Medications

Psychiatric vs. Psychological evaluations: What is the difference?


In place of my usual physiology Phriday post, I give you this…

“I think I need a psychiatric evaluation? Can you test me?” These are some of the questions I get from time to time. And they reveal an ongoing confusion about testings, assessment, evaluations, the world of psychiatry, psychology, and neurology. Interestingly, if you type in “psychiatric evaluation” into wikipedia, you actually get redirected to an entry on psychological evaluations and testing. So, let me try to differentiate a bit here:

What is a psychiatric evaluation? It is done by a psychiatrist who is a physician with special psychiatry training (courses and residencies). This evaluation is comprehensive but medical in nature. Expect the person to ask for your physical, behavioral, and cognitive histories, order blood tests or other medical exams, evaluate (by observation and interview) your mood, your reality testing, and mental status etc. Ultimately, after an extensive (and usually expensive) interview, the doctor will arrive at a psychiatric diagnosis (if appropriate) and may also recommend medicines to help with the problem–which they can prescribe. A few also provide ongoing talk therapy but most do not. Rather, they recommend you find a therapist for that part. They will follow up with med checks as needed to titrate or refine your medicines. When a person has a very difficult, complex, or lengthy history of mental health, or, when the person is needing a diagnosis for legal reasons, a psychiatrist is a good choice. They are usually gifted at extracting subtle physical and behavioral matters that may help correctly pinpoint the problem. While a person might well get anti-depressants from their regular doctor, a good psychiatrist is better able to deal with complex matters and follow you more closely to get the right compound and dosage.

Neurological Evaluation. Stating the obvious, a physician with neurological specialties and qualifications does a neurological evaluation. Neurologists specialize in…wait for it…the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and 12 cranial nerves). A neurological evaluation includes many of the things evaluated by psychiatrists but with special attention to your motor and sensory systems, your reflexes, and similar kinds of things. You might more likely see a neurologist when you obviously have a neurological issue. Neurologists are more likely to specialize in ADHD, brain injuries, and psychiatric problems that result from dementias or other known physical problems. They are often better able to give and interpret MRIs and other imaging that might be appropriate. They will also prescribe and follow medications.

Psychological Evaluation, AKA testing, psych assessment. These are offered, mostly, by doctoral level psychologists. These evaluations will cover much of the same history, mental status, and provide diagnoses when appropriate. Interviews, just like the previous two options, are essential. However, what sets psychological evaluation apart is its use of standardized tests. These may be paper and pencil or electronic. They may be filled out by the client or by family members. The results provide a snapshot of behavior, or cognitive functioning, or mood by contrasting the individual results against a peer group. For example, a child may complete a computerized test to assess attention span. The results are compared to thousands of children taking this test who either are “non ADHD” and or ADHD. A good psychologist collects data from multiple data points (test data, interviews by client and maybe family, observations, etc.) and uses that data to make interpretations and recommendations for ongoing care. Usually, the best psychological evaluations begin with a very objective, specific question. Just throwing a bunch of tests at a person to “see what comes up” isn’t all that helpful. Just because something pops up doesn’t mean it is meaningful.

It is true that masters level therapists (licensed or not) give and interpret some tests. But most of the best tests can only be given and interpreted by doctoral level, licensed psychologists.

There are other types of evaluations. Neuropsychologists are doctoral psychologists with specialized training and help pinpoint brain injury, unravel more complex learning disabilities, etc. Neuropsychiatric evaluations are done by another similar but slightly different professional. You can check out their interesting history on this wikipedia page.

So, how do you choose what is best for you? Answer a few questions.

1. What do I really want to know when it is all said and done? What might help me decide how to proceed? The more specific you are, the more likely you can get the answer you want.

2. Do I think I need to focus more on physical options or behavioral options?

3. Do I think I’m likely to need medications? The physician types are better. Psychologists cannot prescribe meds (unless you live in Hawaii or are in the military).

4. If I am given a diagnosis, what do I need it for? Both doctoral level psychologists and psychiatrists are capable of giving you diagnoses. However, some people or systems value one opinion over another. Figure out if it matters for your purposes.

5. Am I looking for specific behavioral/relational suggestions? Then psychological evaluations are more appropriate.

6. Am I looking to form an ongoing therapeutic talk based relationship? See the psychologist.

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Science Monday: Easing the suffering in schizophrenia


While few outpatient, private practice therapists deal much with those diagnosed with schizophrenia, there are things therapists can do to ease the suffering of both client and family. Kim Mueser, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School has published a number of helpful research and popular writings designed to increase social and cognitive functioning and decrease family distress in people with schizophrenia. Click here for an Amazon.com list of his writings. His Complete Family Guide (#1 on the list) is probably the best though several other texts may be just as useful depending on the reader’s focus. And while medications are important in the treatment of schizophrenia, it is quite clear that when families and client learn to minimize family distress and conflict, they also reduce active psychotic episodes

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There are a number of interesting research angles on the pathways of Schizophrenia. One such hypothesis is that the croticostriatal loops do not work correctly in such patients. In lay terms this means that information doesn’t flow normally from the frontal lobe of the brain to some of the mid-brain structures and then back again. This seems to be part of the cause of apathy and lack of volition and/or planning. One wonders whether the longer time it takes for information to flow properly in order to make a decision or interpretation increases the likelihood of making random assumptions about the world. I know that when my children get stuck in a math problem, they are more likely to begin wild guessing to complete the task.  

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