Psychiatrists Cast Doubt on Idea that Antidepressants Work by Causing Apathy

Out of 60 hits on page one of a Google search using terms “emotional blunting from SSRI,” only one cast doubt on the assumption that SSRI antidepressants exert their treatment effect by causing apathy. The rest endorsed the connection.

The one article I found on this quick search which contradicted this widely held and arguably incorrect assumption is “Antidepressants Do Not Work by Numbing Emotions,” published in Psychiatric Times, Sept. 26, 2022, which was written by George Dawson, MD and Ronald W. Pies, MD.

The authors wrote a convincing rebuttal of the assumption that the SSRI mechanism of action for treating depression is by causing apathy. Based on their review, the problem is more likely due to residual depressive symptoms. It’s a good thing it turns up on the first page of a web search.

‘ay, this here be international talk like a gentleman o’ fortune day

The title of this post is a translation of “Hey, This is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” I used a Pirate Speak translator to generate it.

Sena reminded me about this holiday, which got started back in 1995 by a couple of guys from Albany, Oregon.

She says she heard about it on the Mike Waters radio show this moring, Waters Wake-Up on the Iowa radio station KOKZ 105.7. Sena either heard Waters call it National Pirates Day or she misheard him. She also said that Waters denied that any pirates ever said “Arrr,” back in the heyday of pirates.

I beg to differ, arrr, Matey! The Wikipedia entry says that the dialect was real and probably was based on the dialect of sailors from West Country in the southwest corner of Britain.

Sena and I couldn’t find any holiday called National Pirates Day. I did find National Meow Like a Pirate Day, which, interestingly, is also a holiday today. It got started in 2015.

But the main event be international talk like a gentleman o’ fortune day—which I darn nearrr forgot!

I have a dim memory of writing a blog post using the pirate translator several years ago. It was on a different blog, which I canceled in 2018. I didn’t keep that particular post. I think the topic was teaching internal medicine doctors and medical students about delirium so that they would know when they actually need consultation from a psychiatrist.

So, in honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I’m going to post a piratical translation of one of my similar posts from way back in 2011:

“Do ye ‘ave to be interested in psychiatry to volunteer fer the delirium prevention project?”

“I’ve been thinkin’ about what a couple o’ the medical students said when I broached the idea o’ some o’ them volunteerin’ to participate in the multicomponent intervention o’ the delirium prevention project.

 they said that there the first an’ second yearrr students might want to volunteer—especially the ones interested in pursuin’ psychiatry as a career.

 now think about that there a minute. Why would ye necessarily need to be interested in psychiatry? ‘ere be a few facts:

1.Delirium be a medical emergency; it just ‘appens to mimic psychiatric illness because it’s a manifestation o’ acute brain injury.

 2.The most important treatment fer delirium be not psychiatric in nature necessarily; the goal be to find an’ fix the medical problems causin’ the delirium.

 3.Many experts in delirium ain’t psychiatrists; the authors o’ the new book “delirium in critical care”, valerie page an’ wes ely, ain’t psychiatrists—they’re intensivists.

 4.Some o’ the best teachers about delirium be geriatric nurse specialists an’ geriatricians.

 I thought that there by reachin’ aft further into a physician’s trainin’ career, I would find people less biased toward thinkin’ o’ delirium as a primary mental illness. It turns out that there bias runs deep in our medical education system.

 it isn’t that there psychiatrists shouldn’t be interested in studyin’ an’ ‘elpin’ to manage delirium. Psychiatrists, especially them specializin’ in psychosomatic medicine, be among the best qualified to inform other medical an’ surgical disciplines about the importance o’ recognizin’ delirium fer what it is—a medical problem that there threatens the brain’s integrity an’ resilience, raises the risk o’ mortality by itself regardless o’ the medical problems causin’ it, prolongs medical ‘ospitalization, an’ makes discharge to long term care facilities more likely, especially in the elderly.

 delirium be a problem fer doctors, not just psychiatrists. So it makes sense fer all medical students, regardless o’ their goals fer career specialty, to be interested in learnin’ about delirium.

 delirium be also a problem fer nurses, who frankly ‘ave led the way in education about delirium fer many years now. You’ll find few experts pointin’ to the american psychiatric association practice guidelines fer the treatment o’ delirium as the ultimate authority these days—because they’ve not been updated formally since 1999. All one ‘as to do be spell out “delirium prevention guidelines” in web browser search bars an’ choose from several sets o’ free, up-to-date guidelines that there be supported by the research evidence base in the medical literature to within a yearrr or two o’ the present day. Some o’ the best ones be authored by nurses.

 so maybe the pool o’ volunteers fer the delirium prevention multicomponent intervention might be nursin’ students.

 on the other ‘and, from what pool does the ‘ospital elder life program (help) recruit volunteers? an’ the australian resource center fer ‘ealthcare innovation multicomponent program, revive (recruitment o’ volunteers to improve vitality in the elderly, ‘ow do they do it?

they think outside the box an’ include people who care about people. That’s the really the key criterion, not whether one wants to be a psychiatrist or not.”

‘appy international talk like a gentleman o’ fortune day, arr, matey!

Thoughts on Suicide Risk Assessment

I know the term “suicide risk assessment” sounds very clinical. That’s because I did it for many years as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist in the general hospital.

The human part of it was using the suicide safety plan, which I got from the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health & Addiction (CARMHA). You can download it yourself and adapt it by writing in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. That’s because the phone numbers on the form are specific to Canada.

Most often I interviewed patients in the intensive care units, where they were admitted after a suicide attempt. The interviews were very short if they refused to talk to me or were still delirious—often the case.

If they were awake and able to converse, the interviews were often pretty long. One way to connect with the patient was working on the safety plan together. I was often able to tell whether they were sincere or not by the level of detail they gave me about support persons they could get in touch with or things they could do to help them cope with whatever was troubling them.

A lack of detail in the plan, or refusal to work on some parts of it were areas of concern. If there were comments about friends, pets, or pastimes that spontaneously led to laughter (yes, that happened occasionally!), I was more confident that the patient was able to look toward the future and make specific plans for staying alive.

There is healthy debate about how useful specific suicide risk assessment scales are for predicting and preventing suicide. They are an essential part of the computerized medical records now, whatever anyone thinks of their reliability at predicting imminent suicide. I never used no-suicide contracts because well before the time I entered professional practice, most experts agreed that they don’t prevent suicide.

What was more useful for me as a clinician was to sit down at the patient’s bedside and, after getting the details about what the patient actually did in the suicide attempt and the events connected with it (along with a comprehensive and thorough history), I would get the safety plan from my clipboard, hold it up so they could see it and say, “Now let’s work on this; it’s your safety plan.”

I can’t tell you how often working on those plans, frequently for more than half an hour, led to laughter as well as tears from the patient. When it worked, meaning the relationship between us deepened, I sometimes did not find it necessary to admit the person to the psychiatric ward. While this occasionally alarmed the ICU nurses, things usually turned out fine later.

A Retired Consultation-Liaison Psychiatrist’s Perspective on Eating Disorders

This is just my presentation on eating disorders vs disordered eating for a Gastrointestinal Disease Department grand rounds several years ago. What’s also helpful is an eating disorder section on the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative (NNCI) web site. I left comments and questions there, which the presenter answered.

In addition, the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (ACLP) has an excellent web site and here is the link to a couple of fascinating presentations from the ACLP 2017 annual meeting on management of severe eating disorders, including a report on successful treatment using collaboration between internal medicine and psychiatry.

If you can’t find it from the link, navigate to the Live Learning Center from the ACLP home page and type “eating disorder” in the search field. One of the presentations is entitled “Has She Reached the End of Her Illness Process.” The other is entitled “Creating Inter-Institutional Collaborative Care Models.”

This is a very complex area of medicine and psychiatry. There are no simple solutions, although many experts across the country are hard at work on finding practical solutions.

The caveat is that the information here is not updated for recent changes in the literature.

What Would Make Psychiatry More Fun?

I just read Dr. George Dawson’s post “Happy Labor Day” published August 31, 2022. As usual, he’s right on the mark about what makes it very difficult to enjoy psychiatric practice.

And then, I looked on the web for anything on Roger Kathol, MD, FACLP. There’s a YouTube video of my old teacher on the Academy of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry (ACLP) YouTube site. I gave up my membership a few years ago in anticipation of my retirement.

I think one of my best memories about my psychiatric training was the rotation through the Medical-Psychiatry Unit (MPU). I remember at one time he wanted to call it the Complexity Intervention Unit (CIU)—which I resisted but which made perfect sense. Medical, behavioral, social, and other factors all played roles in the patient presentations we commonly encountered with out patients on that unit where we all worked so hard.

Dr. Kathol made work fun. In fact, he used to read selections from a book about Galen, the Greek physician, writer and philosopher while rounding on the MPU. One day, after I had been up all night on call on the unit, I realized I was supposed to give a short presentation on the evaluation of sodium abnormalities.

I think Roger let me off the hook when he saw me nodding off during a reading from the Galen tome.

Dr. Dawson is right about the need to bring back interest, fun and a sense of humor as well as a sense of being a part of what Roger calls the “House of Medicine.” He outlines what that means in the video.

What made medicine interesting to me and other trainees who had the privilege of working with Roger was his background of training in both internal medicine and psychiatry. He also had a great deal of energy, dedication, and knew how to have fun. He is a great teacher and the House of Medicine needs to remember how valuable an asset a great teacher is.

Psychiatric Polypharmacy: An Opportunity to Teach with CPCP

Dr. H. Steven Moffic discussed the issue with psychiatric polypharmacy in his August 29, 2022 entry on Psychiatric Views on the Daily News. The patient who had been getting 10 psychotropic drugs was found to have a medical problem ultimately, which led to simplification of the complex regimen.

This is a great opportunity to again mention the value of what was a regular part of the teaching component of the University of Iowa Hospital Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry service, at least until my retirement. This was the Clinical Problems in Consultation Psychiatry (CPCP) seminar. Once a week or so, when I was staffing the service, I and the trainees, which included medical students, and psychiatry residents as well as Pharmacy, Neurology, and/or Family Medicine residents.

Whenever we encountered a difficult and interesting case, which was almost every rotation, the trainees did a literature search to bone up on the clinical issue and gave a short presentation about it before consultation rounds. Often the case had both medical and psychiatric features.

I looked through my collection of student presentations and found one that might fit Dr. Moffic’s example in a general way. Medical problems can often look like psychiatric problems, which can include thyroid and other diseases. A very important one is autoimmune encephalitis, one example of which is anti-N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor encephalitis. There is an excellent summary of it in the August issue of Current Psychiatry entitled Is it psychosis, or an autoimmune encephalitis? (Current Psychiatry. 2022 August;21(8):31-38,44 | doi: 10.12788/cp.0273).

Several years ago, three medical students tag-teamed this topic and delivered a top-notch CPCP seminar summarizing the pertinent points. I hope the CPCP is still part of the educational curriculum.

Hepatitis C Testing and Treatment Update from a Retired Psychiatrist

There is a very informative CDC media briefing transcript about why so few Americans are getting tested and treated for Hepatitis C.

I’m a retired consultation-liaison psychiatrist and I used to be the go-to consultant to the hepatology clinic back when the only treatment was interferon-alpha. Because interferon-alpha was associated with neuropsychiatric side effects, notably treatment-emergent depression, I was frequently called to help assess potential treatment candidates and on-going follow-up for some.

A significant number of patients could not tolerate the psychiatric side effects.

Back in the day, interferon-alpha was really the only treatment. Now there are many treatments available and Hepatitis C is a curable disease.

Yet, few Americans are taking advantage of the new curative treatment. There are several reasons why, including the barrier of the high cost of treatment and insurance restrictions. The patients with the highest prevalence tend to be younger than age 40 and struggle with injection drug use, commonly opioids.

A large number of those at risk for Hepatitis C don’t know they have the disease. It’s vital to know where free Hepatitis C testing is available, which can be found at the CDC web site.

Glitch in the Matrix or Something Else?

I saw one of the paranormal shows the other night and there were a few videos supposedly demonstrating possible proof that our reality is actually a computer simulation that sometimes gets glitchy.

One of the images was a bird stopped and motionless in mid-flight. It looked like a still photo which bounced around a little. Sure, the bird was motionless—but so was everything else.

The other two were actual videos and looked more interesting. One showed a large flock of sheep that were not moving much. There was an ear or tail flip here and there so they weren’t really motionless or “frozen.”

The other video showed a pretty interesting episode of what looked like what some would call tonic immobility in a squirrel. A person was hand-feeding the squirrel nuts and it suddenly froze for a short period of time and later just snapped out of it and acted normally. I wonder how a person got a wild squirrel to take food by hand.

Both the sheep flock and squirrel videos are available on the web. Some think the sheep become still because of a change in the weather, possibly rain. There was no explanation for the squirrel freezing.

Glitch in the matrix?

The squirrel might have been displaying tonic immobility, which can occur in certain animals. Probably the best-known example is the opossum. When it senses it’s in danger from a predator, it plays dead. There’s even a saying for this, “He’s just playing ‘possum!”

You can find the immobile squirrel story on the web by searching the term “catatonic squirrel.” In the article, the squirrel is called catatonic.

Catatonia is a complex neuropsychiatric condition in humans often marked by immobility and muteness. In a small percentage of cases, people can show purposeless agitation, or automatic, stereotyped motion.

In many cases, a small dose of benzodiazepine (usually injectable) can quickly reanimate a person who has catatonia, although the improvement is often only temporary. The usual course of treatment is to look for an underlying reversible medical or psychiatric cause and to apply effective treatment quickly, which can be life-saving.

Catatonia can lead to all kinds of complications because afflicted persons can’t eat or move. Some people who recover say that they felt extremely anxious or fearful during the catatonic episode.

Catatonia in humans is not the same thing as tonic immobility, a condition that is thought to be a survival mechanism in some prey animals in response to intense fear. If they “play dead”, a predator might not notice them or might let them go. But I can see why some people speculate there might be an evolutionary link between the two conditions.

These are interesting situations, but they aren’t evidence for a glitch in the matrix.

Overdiagnosis of Psychiatric Disorders Still Happens

I read an excellent article in Clinical Psychiatry News recently in the Hard Talk section. The title is “A prescription for de-diagnosing” by psychiatrists Nicholas Badre, MD and David Lehman, MD in the July 2022 issue (Vol 50, No. 7).

The bottom line is that too many psychiatric patients have too many psychiatric diagnoses. A lot of patients have conflicting diagnoses (both unipolar and bipolar affective disorder for example) and take many psychotropic medications which may be unnecessary and lead to side effects.

It takes time to get to know patients in order to ensure you’re not dropping diagnoses too quickly. Discussing them thoroughly in clinic or in the hospital is an excellent idea. And after getting to know patients as people, it makes sense to discuss reduction in polypharmacy, which can be quite a burden.

This reminds me of the Single Question in Delirium (SQiD), a test to diagnose delirium by simply asking a friend or family member of a patient whether their loved one seems to be more confused lately. It’s a pretty accurate test as it turns out.

This also reminds me of the difficulty in making an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I and a Chief Resident wrote an article for The Carlat Report in 2012 (TCPR, July / August 2012, Vol 10, Issue 8, “Is Bipolar Disorder Over-Diagnosed?”) which warned against overdiagnosis of bipolar disorder. Excerpts below:

Some argue that bipolar disorder is actually under-diagnosed. They have support from abundant literature showing that bipolar disorder tends to present more often with depression than mania or hypomania (Judd LL et al, Arch Gen Psychiatry 2002:59(6):530–537). As many as 10% of patients with unipolar depression ultimately are shown to have bipolar illness instead, according to some experts (Goodwin GM et al, Eur Neuropsychopharm 2008:18(7):535–549). (See this month’s Q&A with Claudia Baldassano for more on this.) In addition, a new emphasis on subthreshold mood symptoms and more rapid mood shifts has led some psychiatrists to promote the concept of a “bipolar spectrum disorder” (Youngstrom EA et al, Curr Psychiatry Rep 2010;12(6):479–489).

While it’s important to remain vigilant about a history of manic and hypomanic symptoms, we think the problem of over-diagnosis is probably greater. For instance, in a 2008 study, Zimmerman and colleagues performed a comprehensive diagnostic interview on 700 patients, nearly 21% of who self-reported a history of “bipolar disorder.” However, when using the gold-standard SCID (structured clinical interview), only 13% had the diagnosis; they also had more first-degree relatives with bipolar disorder than the others (Zimmerman M, Ruggero CJ et al, J Clin Psychiatry 2008:69(6):935–940). The authors hypothesized that over-diagnosis of bipolar disorder might be a consequence of efforts to improve recognition of it and avoid under-detection. In fact, the same authors studied 40 depressed patients previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and found that, by the SCID, they had specific phobia, PTSD, drug abuse/dependence, or a personality disorder instead (Zimmerman M et al, Compr Psychiatry 2010;51(2):99–105).

Over-diagnosis can also occur when apparent mood episodes are defined as psychiatric when in fact, they have a different etiology altogether. Decreased need for sleep, disorganized or racing thoughts, increased activity and agitation, and delusional thinking, even when they occur together, can represent a sort of “final common pathway” for medical conditions and other syndromes. The manic phenotype can occur in patients with agitated delirium, brain tumors, corticosteroid treatment, and of course substance intoxication (Bunevicius A et al, CNS Spectr 2008;13(11):950–958; Brooks JO and Hoblyn JC, Am J Psychiatry 2005;162(11):2033–2038). These other phenotypes can be distinguished by recognition of key features such as the fluctuating nature of consciousness in delirium, neuroimaging findings, and positive urine drug screens.

Unfortunately, physicians may also be susceptible to diagnostic shortcuts. When faced with limited time for diagnostic interviews and the pressure to prescribe by patients and their families, well-meaning clinicians may give the diagnosis after a single brief interview. Not uncommonly, we find that it was diagnosed on the basis of mood fluctuation over minutes, temper tantrums, and fleeting insomnia. The rapidly expanding repertoire of medications approved for bipolar disorder, and their relative ease of use, may also contribute to over-diagnosis. Unfortunately, in some cases the treatment may be worse than the symptoms themselves (Iordache I and Low NC, J Psychiatry Neurosci 2010;35(3): E3–4).

I was accustomed to asking what I called the Single Question in Bipolar (SQiB). I frequently saw patients who said their psychiatrists had diagnosed them with bipolar disorder. I would ask them, “Can you tell me about your manic episodes?”

Often, they looked puzzled and replied, “What’s a manic episode?” I would describe the typical symptoms and they would deny ever having them.

The article by Drs. Badre and Lehman is a bit disappointing in that it doesn’t look as though we’ve improved our diagnostic acumen much in the last decade.

We need to try harder.

Thoughts on the GuideLink Center Incident

The attack a few days ago by what was most likely a mentally ill person on staff at the recently opened GuideLink Center in Iowa City reminded me of what may appear to be disparate views by mental health professionals on the link between mental illness and mass violence perpetrators.

The GuideLink incident involved a person who assaulted GuideLink staff and who also left bags containing incendiary devices at the center and another building in Iowa City. The person is being charged with terrorism and is currently in custody in the Johnson County Jail.

I have not seen information about any injuries sustained by the mental health center staff. There were no explosions or fires at either location where incendiary devices were left. Bomb squad experts removed the devices. It’s not clear whether the perpetrator had been a GuideLink Center client.

The GuideLink Center opened in February 2021 and by all reports is a welcome and very much needed crisis stabilization mental health resource in the community. The staff members are dedicated to their calling.

Dr. H. Steven Moffic, MD, a retired psychiatrist who writes for Psychiatric Times, readily says that the perpetrators sometimes do have mental illness that at least contributes to committing acts of mass violence. Dr. George Dawson, MD, another retired psychiatrist, seems to say that the major reason for mass shootings is the ready availability of guns, a culture of gun extremism, and mental illness accounts for a small proportion of acts of mass violence.

But neither Dr. Moffic nor Dr. Dawson say that it’s only either mental illness or guns (or other instrument of mass violence) that lead to acts of mass violence. Both are important.

I’m a third retired psychiatrist and by now some readers might be asking themselves whether they should listen to any retired psychiatrist. Experience counts.

Speaking for myself, as a general hospital psychiatric consultant I was frequently faced with violent patients in the general hospital. Often, I found it necessary to ask a judge for a court order to involuntarily hospitalize a violent and/or suicidal patient on a locked psychiatric unit by transfer from an open medical or postsurgical unit.

In order to obtain an order in the state of Iowa, I had to be able to state to the judge that the patient in question had a treatable mental disorder and was an acute threat to himself and/others. In most situations, I had an open bed on a locked psychiatric unit available ahead of time.

Even if a Code Green was necessary, I usually had an inpatient resource to which I could move the patient. A Code Green is a show of force or takedown maneuver by a specially trained team to control a violent patient while minimizing injury to everyone involved.

I don’t know if that kind of approach is even possible in a community crisis stabilization setting like the GuideLink Center. I think it’s fortunate that it partners with many other community resources including the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

The outcome of the incident at the GuideLink Center was that the overall safety of the staff, the patient, and the community was preserved. More resources like this are needed everywhere. They deserve all the support we can give them.

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