Friday, August 22, 2014

Williams’ death reminds us that a patient’s relief might be a warning sign

By H. Steven Moffic, MD

One of my favorite movie moments is when Robin Williams signs on as an edgy D.J. by exclaiming "Good Morning, Vietnam" from the 1987 movie of the same name. Sometimes, I played the audio over and over, as if it could promise a good day. As he did so often, he found a way to not only lighten the sadness, but to do it in such a way that might be constructively critical.
Surely, the real life mornings were not often happy ones, as so many of our troops died or ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from that war. It is a lesson we are still learning, so that movie and his role is worth seeing again soon.

Now, after his reported suicide, that good morning seems more like a final good night.
Although he is probably best known for his manic comedy, he also played many serious roles. Most ironically now, he won an academy award in 1997 for playing an empathic therapist in the film “Good Will Hunting.”
Indeed, beloved entertainers like Robin Williams have a therapeutic role of sorts for society in the sense that they provide some relief—even if briefly—for the grief and stress of everyday life. For playing that societal role, such people become a repository for our hopes, dreams and demons. As we know for so many famous entertainers, it is not easy for them to have a successful private life—a private life that the public also tries to invade, as if they were related to us.

What we do know publicly is that Williams suffered from chronic depression and intermittent substance abuse. It is reported that he received treatment, including entering rehab just last month. Obviously, money to get the best treatment was not an issue, though how good the treatment was will remain unknown. We do know, however, that wealthy VIPs often receive treatment just as poor as low-income folks without resources. We also know that occasionally depression is a terminal illness, though that ending is not predictable.
Beyond the public information, and despite the understandable curiosity, this is not the time, nor should it ever be the time, to speculate about his diagnosis and reasons for committing suicide. In fact, the so-called "Goldwater Rule," called that for the inappropriate professional speculation about presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, ethically prohibits such speculations on the part of psychiatrists like myself.

Given this professional ethical principle, as well as the family's request for privacy, is there anything we can still learn from this apparent tragedy? The most intriguing detail that caught my attention was his last tweet and Instagram on July 31. Reportedly, he had wished his daughter a happy 25th birthday.

Why might this positive communication be of importance to us?
It reminded me of the only patient I ever had who committed suicide, long ago, when I was a resident in training. In the second session, the depression of this elderly man seemed to be less severe, but after that session he walked into Lake Michigan and drown. In the psychological autopsy, I never forgot the warning that when a depressed patient starts to seem better, they actually can be at higher risk for suicide.

Risky time
Why is that time of apparent improvement a risky time? The person can have more energy, then plan and complete a suicide. They may also feel relief at their decision, causing others to paradoxically feel relief. That is one of the reasons why it is so common to hear of the genuine surprise that the suicide occurred, as the person seemed to be happier.

What this means, not only for professionals, but for the public, is not to take at face value if a depressed person seems better. Be sure there is a sound explanation for the apparent improvement. 
Our only consolation must be that entertainers like Robin Williams keep on living in the form of their life’s work, like the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam,” that is so ubiquitously available nowadays. Even so, it would not be surprising if at the times we laugh once again at Robin William's humor, that the laughter will also be accompanied by some tears of grief.

H. Steven Moffic, MD, is a Life Fellow of the APA. Currently, he blogs regularly for Psychiatric Times, Behavioral Healthcare, and The Hastings Center's Over 65.

This blog was originally published in Behavioral Healthcare.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Spreading Hope!

By Matt Goldenberg D.O.
“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you'll win, no matter what the outcome.” 

I whole-heartedly agree with that statement. However, I cannot take credit for those words. Those are the words of Robin Williams, or more specifically, the words of his character in Patch Adams.

I want to discuss the disease called depression. I will start by first discussing the diagnosis and the signs and symptoms of depression. I will then follow up with my thoughts on the various treatment options for depression and the strategies I employ with my patients to improve their outcomes. None of my thoughts and suggestions should serve in place of a formal consultation with a mental healthcare provider. However, I hope shedding light on mental health diagnoses like depression will lift the veil and social stigma on these chronic diseases that impact so many people.

Psychiatry has come a long way in the last decade. This is a time of continued discovery and increasing public awareness. The leaders of our professional organization, the
American Psychiatric Association (APA), have suggested that we as mental health professionals are under a microscope. I agree that we are and I also strongly believe that we are up for the challenge. School shootings and celebrity suicides and overdoses have increasingly put a focus on mental health. Psychiatry has significantly improved the outcomes, treatment options and the prognosis of patients with mental illness. However, we still are unable to decrease the prevalence of the diseases we treat or prevent them. We know that the brain changes during an episode of depression and our treatments help it to return to normal (see the image below). Although we are getting closer, we still currently do not have widely accessible blood or imaging tests that can confirm our diagnosis or localize the area of disease.

I can say with certainty, however, we are able to accurately diagnose patients. We are able to identify medications, psychotherapies and other treatments that patients with a specific diagnosis or cluster of signs and symptoms often benefit from. There is strong evidence that our treatments decrease symptomatology and disability and improve quality of life, clinical outcomes and a patient’s prognosis.

Psychiatrists are trained to view the patient as a “whole person”. Psychiatry is a field of medicine whose assessment by definition includes all of the biological, psychological and social aspects of a patient’s life. We listen for the psychological and social factors that can contribute to disease. Oftentimes, the “whole story” can be more telling than only focusing on specific symptoms of a given disease. There is a saying, throughout all fields of medicine, that “most patients have not read the textbook.” In other words, patients usually do not present exactly as the textbook says they should. Stress and psychological factors can mimic chest pain, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal problems and a whole host of other diseases. If we do not step back and get the whole story, we can miss the root cause or the exacerbating factors of many manageable diseases which are of the mind.

Many of the diseases we treat, such as depression, are chronic illnesses which require lifelong treatment. Our treatments can improve a patient’s mental health and coping skills and decrease their symptomatology and substance use. We know through decades of research that these are modifiable risk factors for suicide. Therefore, Psychiatrists have the training and tools necessary to decrease a patient’s risk of attempting suicide. Our treatments have the potential to not only significantly improve the lives of our patients, but also the lives of their families and everyone who comes into contact with them. Anyone who tells you otherwise is misleading, misinformed or both.
I hope this information and the blogs to follow will give you hope. Mental illness can include symptoms which can be devastating and complications which can be life-threatening. However, it is important to state again, these are treatable diseases. If you or someone you know, would like to talk to someone, call your primary care doctor or your insurance company for a referral to a Psychiatrist. A true multi-disciplinary team also includes therapists, psychologists, nurses and social workers. You are never alone. You can call the national suicide helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week (1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit There are also local crisis lines likely available in your area and are an internet search away. If you are ever feeling unsafe, or fearing for the safety of a loved one, you can call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.
It is time for everyone to understand that there is no shame in getting help for depression, much as there is no shame in getting help with diabetes or high cholesterol. Even if you have never suffered from depression, there is a lot you can learn.

Together we can raise awareness and spread truth and hope. I know that if we spread knowledge, and ignore the misinformation, we will overcome the complacency and ignorance that is so pervasive today. That is how we can best honor those we have lost. That is how we can best prevent the next death from mental illness and addiction.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

How does your primary care doctor coordinate with your psychiatrist?

By Pierre Gingerich-Boberg, Medical Student
Reviewed by Claudia Reardon, MD

I’m stuck in behaviors that are making me unhealthy.  My smoking makes my asthma worse, and I don’t want to end up with emphysema like my dad.  I smoke when I’m anxious, and my finances, my teenager, my boss, and my increasing weight all make me anxious.  Now to top it off, my chronic headaches are getting worse.  My problems are physical, but I know they’re also mental.  But the idea of seeing a psychiatrist makes me even more anxious!  What should I do?

Patients need primary care doctors who can comprehensively address the varied aspects of their physical and mental health. Health systems are starting to recognize that multi-disciplinary teams (sometimes called patient-centered medical homes) can be an effective way to provide integrated care.  How might this look for our example patient?

First, it’s worth noting that traditional primary care doctors already spend a lot of effort helping patients with a wide spectrum of behavior issues.  We saw this for our example patient.  Her anxiety is an example of a classic mental health problem—others might be depression, panic attacks, and addictions. Primary care docs refer some of these patients to psychiatrists, but primary care docs are treating the majority directly.  Our patient’s headaches are likely a functional ailment. Like irritable bowel syndrome and general aches and pains, headaches are real problems that often defy simple solutions.  Standard treatments focus on limiting symptoms while helping patients cope with the stressors and psychological distress that often contribute.  Finally, our patient faces problems with health-related behaviors including tobacco use, diet, and stress management.  These and other common behaviors are hugely important for the development of chronic diseases.  

Our patient’s picture might seem complex, but primary care doctors face such complexity (and more) every day! Frankly, patients often are dealing with too much for their doctors to address optimally in a 15-20 minute time slot. One approach is to triage—to ask what’s treatable and doable, and what can wait until the next appointment. The limited time available for counseling tends to push primary care doctors toward relying on treatment with psych meds. A second approach is to refer the patient to a psychiatrist.  But psychiatrists in many communities are spread too thin, so patients often wait weeks or months for an appointment. Then there’s stigma--our example patient’s anxiety around psychiatric care is actually pretty typical.  This helps push up no-show rates for first visits with a psychiatrist to 30 or 40%.  It’s no wonder that careful studies show that only a fraction of the mental health problems in our communities are ever diagnosed, and fewer still are adequately treated.

A third option returns us to the medical home concept.  At the VA and increasingly in federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), mental health services are being brought into the primary care setting.  Here, behavioral health consultants (BHCs) share space with primary care doctors.  These are generally psychologists or social workers, that is, non-physicians. BHCs’ schedules are intentionally left mostly open, so that they’re available to see patients immediately after a non-threatening ‘warm handoff’ from the primary care doc.  The BHC can offer expert counseling for the patient, and advise the primary care provider on diagnosis and treatment.  BHCs arrange for a small subset of their patients to get a subsequent visit with a psychiatrist (a specialist physician), who is also in-house.   All the BHC patients get systematic evaluation and follow-up by phone or with visits to make sure their needs don’t fall through the cracks.

When a behavioral health consultation system is in place, problems of waiting times, missed appointments, and incomplete records are eliminated for most behavioral health visits.  Primary care docs have more time to focus on medical issues, while getting the expert consultation they need to optimize behavioral health care for their patients. Finally, because most behavioral issues can be addressed efficiently by BHCs, specialty psychiatrists are not so swamped, and waiting times can be greatly shortened for the small group of patients needing psychiatric care beyond what can be managed in the primary care setting.