Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Dysfunctional Family Role of the "Loser"

It seems like a lot more adults in the United States are living with their parents than ever before. Some of this is completely reasonable and is in no way indicative of significant family dysfunction, as economic conditions have led many twenty-somethings to require much more time to get their financial ducks in a row so they can move out and be more independent. 

In other cases, however, this phenomenon is due to significantly dysfunctional family dynamics. If the pattern continues into the adult children's thirties, forties, or even later, the odds that dysfunctionality is the culprit skyrocket. 

In  a previous post, I discussed some typical patterns that create this pattern, and pointed out that the adult children remain enmeshed with their parents because, covertly, they are taking care of some of their parents' needs. They may be mediating disputes between bickering parents who for whatever reason will not get a divorce; they may be helping take care of sick, elderly, or just plain lonely parents; they may be providing free cooking and housekeeping services for families that for a variety of reasons are not being done by someone else.

Or in some cases, all of the above!

This is the shell game that I refer to as Who is Taking Care of Whom?

I have seen cases of such patterns that continue throughout the entire lifetime of the adult child. You can find many examples of a sixty-something year old man or woman living with an eighty-something year old mother or father. The adult child's siblings may all be independent, but the "identified screw-up" seems to be the parent's favorite child.

Usually in these instances, the parent is taking care of all of the adult child's financial needs, including for housing, food and spending money, so said adult child does not have to work outside of the home.  The reason they do not work, however, is actually because they already have a full time job: taking care of their parents.

On the surface, it seems to all the world - and even to many peripheral family members - that the adult child is using the parent, and said adult child normally receives all of the blame for the dysfunctional living arrangement. They are accused of using the parents because of less than admirable motives.  Many such folks readily accept this blame, and in fact act in many ways to confirm everyone else's worst fears. They do this to protect the image of their parents, and in the process sacrifice their own reputation.

Another variety of this pattern is when the adult child living with parents pretends to be a failure who always seems to need the help of their parents. That is the version of the shell game that is the subject of today's post. The adult child appears to be a big loser in both love and work. Said adult children will venture out into the real world from time to time, only to return in relatively short order with their tails between their legs.

So how does one go about becoming such a loser?  Let me count the ways.

They may flunk out of school for various and sundry reasons that are not actually the real reasons. Alternatively, they may get a degree in something that qualifies them for a profession that is rapidly disappearing from the current landscape, so they cannot get a permanent job.

They may make impulsive decisions that get them in trouble in way one or another, and subsequently lose any job they do manage to land. They may even develop various medical or mental illnesses, some of which are real and some of which are feigned and some of which are both, but all of which appear to be far more disabling than these particular illnesses should ever be in real life (the role of the defective). Drug or alcohol problems are common.  Some of these folks are massively obese.

They may get themselves fired from a whole series of jobs, again for reasons which may appear legitimate but are masks for the real motivation of the job loser. Or they might take a job knowing that the company they work for is actually planning layoffs.

These people may also or instead play the role of loser in their love lives.  They may look like they are really trying to meet romantic partners by going to singles events or signing up for dating websites, but somehow very little comes of it. Or they choose partners - or a series of partners - who are abusive, have drug or alcohol or commitment problems, or are in other ways dysfunctional, so their parents have to come and rescue them from dangerous or dead-end relationships. Sometimes repeatedly.

Because of these patterns, the parents - who are in reality highly dependent on Mr. or Ms. Loser - often criticize the poor judgment of their offspring unmercifully.  

The more the parents criticize, the more the adult child continues making the same mistakes over and over again. The parent then feels justified in continuing to make the criticisms. On the rare occasions when the adult child expresses anger at the parent's constant harping and verbal abuse, the parent can point to the child's irresponsible behavior as justification for it.

In a very real sense, the adult child is purposely giving the parent this ammunition to use against him or her, although they do not have to think about this consciously while doing so because their behavior is habitual and automatic. This allows the parent to avoid feeling guilty for both their criticisms and for the fact that they are contributing to their own child's impairment. The parents, of course, act in this manner because they themselves are playing their own roles within the family.

Some are stuck in bad marriages because of family/cultural/religious prohibitions regarding divorce.  Some are females who are stuck in outdated gender roles with a prohibition against women being independent.  Some need their child to act out their own repressed anger because they cannot do so themselves - often due to family rules prohibiting anyone from being "selfish" enough to put their own needs above those of other family members.

There is a very incisive and sophisticated comic strip called Momma by Mell Lazarus that absolutely nails the family dynamics described above. A son named Francis is the identified loser.  He apparently does have his own apartment, which of course Momma is paying for, but he is constantly doing everything in his power to act out the various negative characterizations of him that Momma compulsively throws his way. 

It's kind of sad that a cartoonist understands this dynamic better than many therapists.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Adventures in the Veterans' Hospital Mental Health Clinic - Part II

Continuing on from my post of 3/17/15 on the Kafkaesque nature of the VA bureaucracy, their motto seemed to be, "If we find a problem in the system, we'll come up with a ridiculous solution that may make the problem even worse. Or at the very least, create a whole new set of problems."

For example, not too long ago there were a couple of serious foul-ups at the VA Memphis hospital that were caused by patients being mis-identified by staff and given the wrong treatment. This sort of thing can have disastrous consequences, of course, and it happens from time to time in almost all hospitals. It is quite a serious issue. Of course, in these cases dire consequences are most likely to result  with surgery or in a busy emergency room; such events are fairly rare in outpatient clinics.

The VA solution: Every doctor was instructed to verify every patient's full social security number and full name immediately at the beginning of every single appointment. We were told to do this, not just for patients we did not recognize, but even for our regular patients who we have been seeing for years! And we were told that we had to document that we had done this - again every single time - in the patient's electronic medical record (EMR). No one anywhere else does this.

That may seem like a small although illogical request that wouldn't take much time. The trouble was, we were asked to document a whole bunch of other things almost every visit. Most of these things were completely irrelevant to the visit at hand. For instance, there are so-called "clinical reminders" to ask about certain information at most visits whether it concerned the reason for the patient's visit or not (example shortly). 

With limited time to see each patient and to document the relevant information in the EMR, this added a significant amount of time to a visit that would then not be available to actually evaluate the patient's progress for the problem that was being actively treated.

Most of the clinical reminders were checklists, about which I have complained many times on this blog. One particularly ridiculous clinical reminder was a requirement to perform a depression screening checklist, the PHQ-9. This is just what it says it is - a screening test to see who should be evaluated further for depression. 

It is meant to be used by primary care docs and other non-psychiatric physicians to determine who should be referred to a psychiatrist for these further evaluation, and who does not need one. It is meant to cast a wide net, meaning a positive test does not mean that you have a clinical depression - only that you might and should therefore be screened further.

The VA wanted the psychiatrists to ask their patients to fill one out! If a patient is already being evaluated by a psychiatrist, the purpose of PHQ-9 is no longer operant, so filling one out is completely pointless and an utter waste of time. Unless, of course, someone is such a bad psychiatrist that they think a psychiatric evaluation does not include an evaluation for depression.

I refused to do the PHQ-9's, because I perform a complete bio-psycho-social psychiatric evaluation when I first see a new patient, and I was not going to short change my patients by further shortening our already limited time together by asking questions I already knew the answer to, or was about to go into far more detail about than is possible with a PHQ-9.

Actually, there was at least one psychiatrist on staff who did not do a complete evaluation of every patient. Because this psychiatrist did not make waves, that clinician was allowed to practice what I consider to be piss poor psychiatry for years. Then the doc left. I will discuss what happened in that situation in Part III of this post.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: A Disease Called Childhood by Marilyn Wedge

The theme of this blog, as well as of my last book, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders, is that family systems issues have been disappearing from psychiatry in favor of a disease model for everything because of a combination of greedy pharmaceutical and managed care insurance companies, naïve and corrupt experts, twisted science, and desperate parents who want to believe that their children have a brain disease in order to avoid an overwhelming sense of guilt.

I gave a positive review to Marilyn Wedge's previous book, Pills are Not for Preschoolers, which took pediatricians and child psychiatrists to task for medicating children with dubious diagnoses without even evaluating their home situation to see if the children are acting out in relationship to family dysfunction, family discord, overall environmental chaos, or poor and inconsistent discipline.

In her new book, the author specifically tackles the diagnosis of ADHD, a frequent topic of this blog. She goes over a lot of the history and twisted "science," caused by the confluence of the above factors, that has led to a drastic increase in this diagnosis, along with the concomitant increase in the use of the methamphetamine clone Adderall and other stimulants.

In doing so, she covers much of the same ground as my book and this blog, discussing the influence of Big Pharma, corrupt academics who have their papers ghostwritten by drug company hacks, poor study designs, inadequate evaluation of a child's home situation by practitioners, and the appeal of a "brain disease" label for their child's misbehavior to parents - so they don't have to look at their own behavior as the reason for their acting-out children.

So you think I would be happy to recommend this book as well. Unfortunately, I cannot, for two reasons. First, she comes dangerously close to tarring all pharmacotherapy and all psychiatric diagnoses, especially as they are described in the DSM, with the same brush. Second, she does not apply the same criticisms she applies to research on ADHD and stimulants to research on such side issues as food additives or violence on television.

While I indeed agree and have argued in this blog that some diagnoses in the DSM are completely bogus, diagnoses such as schizophrenia, true bipolar disorder, autism, and melancholic depression are real brain diseases that are well described in the DSM. Many misdiagnoses in practice are not caused by the use of invalid diagnostic criteria, but are due instead to the criteria not being applied correctly - if they are applied at all.

Contrary to popular belief, the DSM is not just a symptom checklist. The book clearly states that, in order to meet diagnostic criteria, symptoms have to have certain specific qualities and must occur in certain environmental contexts. Furthermore, the DSM describes in detail associated features that support the diagnosis, the prevalence of the disorder, the development and course of the disorder, risk and prognostic factors, culture-related diagnostic issues, disorders that tend to co-occur with a given diagnosis, and other similar disorders that need to be ruled out (the differential diagnosis).

A correct diagnosis has to be consistent with all of these factors as well as having the required number of symptoms. As the author herself notes on page 30, many practitioners these days base their diagnoses "...on no more than a twenty minute evaluation using a checklist of symptoms." That sort of "evaluation" precludes accuracy.

She holds the DSM to task for not basing its diagnoses on causes but merely on descriptions of disorders. That is true. However, this ignores the fact that the vast majority of psychiatric conditions have no specific causes, but only risk factors. No matter what biological, psychological, or socio-cultural risk factor you look at for a given diagnosis, some patients will have a lot of it but no disorder, while others will have very little of it but will have the disorder.

She also ignores the fact that the brain is so complicated that we don't even know where nerve tracts begin and end. So just because we do not know the precise cause of something like schizophrenia, that does not prove that it is not a brain disease. That's like saying we didn't know that the bubonic plague was a disease until after germs were discovered.

The author does not specifically say that adult schizophrenia is more of a cultural construction than a real disease - as is, we agree, actually the case with the vast majority of cases diagnosed with ADHD - although she does say that this is a distinct possibility with child schizophrenia. Nonetheless, she does use words like "madness" and "insanity" and describes them as being culturally defined, which might be seen as implying that this idea does, in fact, apply to schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia, despite the cherry picked and fact-challenged theories of author Robert Whitaker, has been described in pretty much the same way in almost all cultures from all over the world - and for hundreds of years. It is clearly and unequivocally not merely a cultural construction.

The author even tries to make the case that psychosis might possibly be a cultural construction rather than disease by bringing up the issue of drapetomania, something that has lately become a favorite of anti-psychiatry zealots. This was a proposed mental illness that was applied to American slaves prior to the US Civil War when they tried to escape captivity. 

Three seconds of deliberation would lead anyone with half a brain to conclude that this "diagnosis" was made solely for the benefit of racist slaveholders so they could rationalize treating Blacks as subhuman, and had nothing to do with any legitimate psychiatric diagnostic issues whatsoever. 

Making even the implication that drapetomania is somehow analogous to schizophrenia is the worst kind of straw man argument. Maybe I'll go find a straw man and beat him up - perhaps the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, who was obviously a real person.

This is a serious issue because the public thinking that chronic, severe and persistent mental illnesses are just manifestations of culture gone awry is the reason there are a whole lot of people living on skid row in cardboard boxes and languishing in jails because they committed nuisance crimes upon the instruction of the voices in their heads.

In some passages in her book, the author subtly goes back and forth between adult disorders and childhood disorders in the DSM, which are often very different breeds of cat. It is extremely rare, for instance, that a teenager will actually meet the full DSM criteria for major depressive disorder when those criteria are correctly applied. It is no surprise, then, that they don't have a whole lot of response to antidepressant drugs.

The author presents the case of a patient she calls "Jeanette" and says she "undoubtedly would fit" the criteria for clinical depression, and who of course had not responded to antidepressants. Well, maybe she fits the criteria, but it sounds like the author does not know. Did she or didn't she? I would bet not.

Then there are the side issues of the effects of diet and TV/video game violence, in which the author's standards for good research go out the window. For example, she mentions uncritically one researcher at the Mayo clinic who "speculates" about the reasons why gluten intolerance may have increased in the last few decades. Even mentioning this without any disclaimers makes a mockery of her legitimate criticisms of ADHD "research."

Focusing on these side issues diverts attention away from the main issue - family behavior - every bit as much as pretending that all behavior problems are evidence of a brain disease. Doing so takes parents of the hook, which according to the rest of the book, is highly counterproductive.

With studies about food dyes causing attention problems, according to most observers, at best they provide limited and somewhat questionable evidence that some synthetic colors and sodium benzoate may have a small effect on activity and attention in some children. And when that happens, it might be because of other medical reactions to specific foods. When someone feels sick, they don't pay attention so well. So maybe it's a metaphorical tummy ache and not the food dyes per se which are causing problems.

The real reason some kids may seem to improve dramatically with dietary changes is that the parents have finally begun to set limits on their children about what they can and cannot eat, instead of letting them pig out on anything they want to. Again, eating a lot of junk food can make you feel poorly, and that would have nothing to do with particular foods being a proximal "cause" of ADHD-like behavior. The author herself correctly points out that lack of structure and discipline can lead children to become "infant kings" who throw tantrums when they don't get their way.

As further evidence of this point, a recent study found that 15 percent of parents in one sample said that their two-year-olds are coffee drinkers! Again, coffee is probably not good for toddlers, but it is the lack of discipline and attention by the parents that is the much bigger problem.

As to television and video games, the issue is the similar. Many parents these days are allowing their kids to stay up all hours of the night looking at screens. The combination of sleep deprivation and lack of discipline is more than enough to account for the behavior problems consistent with what passes as ADHD these days. The content of the programming is only relevant in one way: the level of stimulation. 

The author points out that one study pointed out that children watching Spongebob Squarepants on television did worse immediately afterwards on attention and memory testing than if they watched PBS. Well, that is very most likely a temporary effect of the cartoon being much more exciting than the other show. That doesn't mean than watching Spongebob is inherently bad for kids. 

In fact, as I described in a previous post, much of the research on violence on television measures thoughts and impulses immediately following the show, and there is not a shred of evidence that kids who watch these shows become psychopaths just from watching them. I mean, while I was reading A Tale of Two Cities I thought more about the French Revolution afterwards. That did not cause me to then rush out and get a degree in history with a concentration on France in the 19th century.

I do have to give the author of this book kudos, however, for taking her life in her hands by recommending that children be allowed to walk to school.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Entry by Dr. Allen on Unified Therapy Appears in New Encyclopedia

I have a entry on Unified Therapy in an Encyclopedia: The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy, a two-volume resource that traces theory and examines the beginnings of counseling and psychotherapy all the way to current trends and movements. It is edited by Edward S. Neukrug and published by Sage Publications.

My entry is  found in Volume 2, pages 1025-1029.

This reference work draws together a team of international scholars that examine the global landscape of all the key counseling and psychotherapy theories and the theorists behind them while presenting them in context needed to understand their strengths and weaknesses. This is a quick, one-stop source that gives the reader the “who, what, where, how, and why” of contemporary counseling and psychotherapy theory. From historical context in which the theories were developed to the theoretical underpinnings which drive the theories, this reference encyclopedia has detailed and relevant information for all individuals interested in this subject matter.

(Not exactly priced to move a lot of copies, unfortunately).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Someone Complains about Abuse by Partner, but Attacks You if You Agree: How to Respond

An letter which brings up a couple of interesting issues concerning family dynamics appeared in Carolyn Hax's newspaper advice column on 3/12/15:

Dear Carolyn: My son came on a family vacation alone and confided to his parents, siblings and friends that he was unhappy in his four-year relationship. He is 34, and she is 31. They never talk, she is very needy, she does not like his family or friends and she discourages him from seeing or calling us (we live a few hours away). He said she wants all his time and all his attention. She thinks they should “be enough” for each other not to need others. I think that’s a hallmark of an abusive relationship. He decided to ask her to move out. She can’t afford to live on her own and does not want to move in with her parents, with whom she has a bad relationship. The day after he got home he called and said they are trying to work things out. But his family and friends can see the relationship has taken all the joy out of him. How do I support him when I think the relationship is toxic? I read the letter from the 24-year-old whose family hates her  boyfriend; guess I need to dial it back and not become like her family. Trying Not to Interfere, but...

On the surface, this letter seems to relate to a question I posed in a blog post on May 1, 2012, about how and when parents should stop giving advice to, and trying to guide, their adult offspring. It does relate to that issue, but it also brings up a frequently-seen situation that is far more complicated. Say adult children come to a parent complaining in the strongest of terms about a spouse or boy/girlfriend, and describes behavior by that person that borders on being abusive, or even that is unquestionably over that border. The parent naturally gets upset with the children's significant other, and starts telling their children that said other is bad for them and should be dumped post haste.

And guess what happens next? The adult children get furious with the parent about being so "judgmental" about their significant other, and begin to loudly defend him or her.

Of course, if the parents were to keep their traps shut, the adult children would conclude that the parents were unconcerned with the fact that they are being abused. I have seen many families in which an adult child is being severely abused, the adult child's parents know about it, and yet they do and say nothing at all, let alone offer to help their offspring escape from their dangerous environment. That sounds a lot worse to me than their just being "judgmental."

Before I explain what I think is happening here, there is an important side issue that is alluded to in the letter to Carolyn Hax. The adult children are apparently doing a version of this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don't double bind tap dance with their friends. Perhaps you know someone like this yourself. They complain and complain about someone, but if you criticize the person they are complaining about, or tell them to speak up to or even leave the person, they defend the person and get mad at you.

What should you do? Not being in the same position as the parents, a mere friend can in most instances get away with saying things that the parents could not without digging themselves into an even deeper hole. I'll provide some recommendations on how to handle that at the end of the post, but first I would like to address the question of why it is that you, as the friend, are the recipient of this behavior. The answer to this question goes right back to the issue with the parents.

When confronted with seemingly bizarre, but clearly non-psychotic, behavior such as this from otherwise intelligent people I always ask myself, what made the person this way? Why did they get into an abusive or highly problematic relationship in the first place, and why on earth are they staying in it? The answer almost invariably lies in repetitive dysfunctional family-of-origin interactions that I have described in many posts on my blogs.

When adult children put parents in the position described in the advice column repeatedly (this whole discussion usually does not apply to one-of-a-kind interactions), the real reason they do so is most frequently for one or both of the following: The parents are in abusive relationships themselves, and/or they seem to somehow get off on hearing about the relationship trials and tribulations of their offspring. Of course, the parents will deny this vehemently if they are asked about it, but therapists have ways of making them open up and tell the truth. 

In the first case, the reason the adult child gets angry when the parent attacks the child's significant other is that the child is thinking some variation of, "Well, you're putting up with abuse. How dare you criticize me for doing the same thing? Why the hell don't you follow your own damn advice?!" The latter question is in fact a very good one indeed, and must be answered in psychotherapy, usually by constructing a genogram with a therapist, before this whole problem can be solved.

In the second case, the adult child gets angry at the parent because they are covertly thinking, "You need me suffer in a bad relationship; you're miserable if I don't, and you are gleeful when I am. How dare you insincerely ask me to end the relationship?! That isn't what you really want, is it?"

In the case described in the letter to Ms. Hax, the parent signs it, "trying not to interfere, but." This, if accurate, implies that the parent is making a great effort to hold his or her tongue. In some families, the opposite situation occurs: the parents lecture the offspring incessantly about their awful choices in romantic partners. In this situation, the adult child is possibly getting angry for a third reason: The child is thinking about the parent, "you need me to be in a bad relationship so you can continue to lecture me. If I were in a good relationship, you wouldn't know what to do with yourself!"

Keeping the right facial expression while attacking your parents when they are ostensibly showing concern for you, and not saying what you are really thinking when they do this - because you are protecting them from feeling bad about their own craziness and yourself from being completely invalidated - takes practice. Suppressing the real reason for your anger and putting on this kind of a show isn't all that easy. 

So how does one get some practice before attempting to do this with one's parents? Easy: practice it with a friend, who is far less threatening and necessary to one's mental health, and probably far more forgiving as well. Therefore, people in this predicament enlist friends with whom to practice their moves.

Doing this is not necessarily a "conscious" decision, but is usually done automatically and without any deliberation. They also do the very same thing with therapists. So how to respond?

My favorite psychotherapy supervisor as a resident, Dr. Rodney Burgoyne, suggested responding with some version of, "Well, what would you tell someone to do who was telling this story to you?" The obvious answer is that the complainers themselves would tell that person to either change that relationship or get out of it. Or at least quit complaining about it if they plan to do absolutely nothing to fix their situation. 

This question usually does stop patients in their tracks, and hopefully leads to more fruitful explorations of the main issue: why they are with the problem significant other in the first place.

That usually takes some time however. The patients can sometimes dig in their heels and refuse to answer the therapist's question or address the obvious implications. Sometimes they pretend that they cannot see what the therapist is driving at. 

I have recently found a response that leads to an even quicker and more effective way to get out of the bind. It involves putting the judgmentalism where it rightly belongs: on the person complaining about the significant other. 
This is the response that I would recommend to the friends who are being covertly enlisted to help someone practice their moves. 

I would say, "Well, you certainly aren't painting a very nice picture of (insert name of the significant other)."

Of course, this statement will not in most cases help the complainer get out of his or her dangerous and/or self-destructive situation. But it probably will induce the complainers to stop putting you in this position, and go look for someone else whose responses more meet their needs. 

To strenghten your position, you might  then add something like, "Of course, I am only getting your side of the story." This statement presumes that the patient is indeed complaining about the other, and most people will not then put up an argument which subtly accuses the other person of being controlling or judgmental. It almost forces someone to explain further why they are complaining about someone but continuing to allow that someone to mistreat them. As a friend and not a therapist for such a person, however, this is not really your job.

Of course, if you do try to become their therapist or in any way continue to allow them to put you in the double bind position, then it is very likely that your friend will think that you need to be in the position they are putting you in, so they are also doing this for your benefit as well as that of their parents.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Adventures in the Veterans' Hospital Mental Health Clinic - Part I

Kafkaesque: of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially:  having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.

Rube Goldberg machine: a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (1883–1970). Over the years, the expression has expanded to mean any confusing or complicated system.

Much to my own relief, I retired recently from my part-time job at the Veteran's Affairs (VA) hospital seeing patients in the mental health outpatient clinic. While I found the patients interesting and challenging, the VA bureaucracy was at times as infuriating as one might guess. 

The Kafkaesque nature of the system in which I worked can best be illustrated by an experience I had with my picture ID card. The VA does extensive background checks on employees - as well they should - and requires fingerprinting when their identification cards get renewed every few years. 

The card contains a computer chip which allows the bearer access to the VA computer system, most notably patient electronic medical records. A few months ago, the computer chip in my ID card malfunctioned - way before its renewal date. I thought it should be no big deal to get it replaced. Yeah right. 

Not only did I have to get fingerprinted again and wait several days for them to be processed, making it extremely difficult to actually treat patients in the interim, but they also required me to produce two forms of picture identification.

The VA did not accept its own picture identification card for this purpose, which had not expired, as one of the two!

Before I go further with more bizarre stories about the place, let me make a couple of things clear. The fact that the VA is a government bureaucracy does not mean that private companies cannot be just as nuts - or even crazier. They can certainly be far more hostile. I used to work for one. As a friend of mine who worked for both of my former employers said, at least the VA bureaucracy was predictable in its crazy decision making, while the private firm we worked for was crazy but whimsical. Sort of like the Dilbert comic strip.

Let us turn to the issue that made the news: problems with scheduling patient appontments in a timely fashion. Much of the coverage in the news simply ignored the fact that an influx of new patients who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has overwhelmed the VA healthcare system. There are just way more people reliant on VA than ever before. This happened without a commensurate increase in funding or staff until just recently, and there is still a lot of catching up to do.

In 2003, The VA expected to see 4.7 million veterans in its hospitals and clinics, up more than 54 percent just from 1996. The influx of newly-injured and/or mentally traumatized vets has continued every year since then as the wars dragged on, and funding of the system for the treatment of these wounded warriors did not keep up. Not even close. Frankly, the politicians who yell "support our troops" the loudest do NOT believe in supporting our troops after they leave the service.

In mental health in particular, visits to mental health clinics have skyrocketed as the military has attempted to change the "macho" culture that discouraged such visits in the past.

So what to make of the bureaucrats who kept phony schedules to hide the fact that veterans often had inordinate waits before they received an appointment? Well, when you give employees a mandate to do something as a condition of continued employment, and you don't give them the tools and resources needed to accomplish the mandate, they will naturally become passive-aggressive and do crap like that. They have no choice. 

And we know how bureaucracies treat whistleblowers, so everybody shuts up and goes about their business doing their best to get around the double bind they are all in.

To get patients seen in a timely fashion, you would think that the place would, at the very least, be very quick about putting in the appointment system the times when various doctors are available in their clinics to see and treat patients. Again you would be wrong. Whole clinic days of mine would disappear from my upcoming January schedule in the computer for an upcoming new year, and it would take two or three months of me complaining about it for the clinic times to reappear. I could not schedule anyone! 

I finally found out why it took so long. At least this is what I was told: There was just one person doing this job. Not one person for a few clinics. One person for the whole humongous medical center! 539 provider schedules, give or take.

Still, in the defense of the VA, at least part of the fault for patients not getting seen in time by a doctor may have in some cases lied with the patients. I can not speak for VA facilities in Phoenix or the rest of the country, but here is a photograph of an actual sign displayed prominently at the entrance to the VA hospital in Memphis:

In addition, at least in the mental health clinic I worked in, one of the doctors was always available to see every walk-in patient who came in without an appointment - even if they hadn't stopped near that sign to get checked in.

Furthermore, the hospital had what they called a "patient advocate's" office, where vets could complain about problems they were having getting seen. The patient advocate was usually very effective at getting them in.

If the patients described in the news media who died before they got in for an appointment were that sick, maybe they should have not just followed the instructions of the schedulers about how soon to come it. "I vas only following orderz" is not a good excuse.

Still, it is clear that the VA does tend to be a lot more concerned with looking good rather than actually doing good. For an illustrative example, a mandate came out that veterans who were diagnosed with mental trauma and post traumatic stress, either from war or military sexual assault, had to receive a certain number of psychotherapy sessions within a prescribed period of time after their initial evalutation.

The hospital administrators recently bragged in an e-mail to the department that they had met the target. 

What they actually did was to put all of these patients into group therapy, which in my experience was, in a lot of cases, next to worthless - instead of giving them the much more effective individual treatments. The VA where I worked does not have nearly enough psychologists on staff to provide individual treatment to everyone who needs it, and the ones they do have are mostly busy doing other things because they are maldistributed as well. 

For post traumatic stress disorder uncomplicated by major personality disorders, in my estimation the most effective psychotherapy treatment is something called prolonged exposure (PE), a type of desensitization treatment. Another treatment that is "empirically validated" - by which some people mean that there are some studies, no matter how pathetic, showing that it is minimally effective - is called cognitive reprocessing therapy (CPT). That in my experience is less effective for a lot of patients than PE.

Commensurate with my experience at the VA in Memphis, an article in the journal Psychiatric Services by Watts and others published in May of 2014 found out that, nationwide, the percentage of veterans who received any sessions of either PE or CPT was six percent. Six percent! But our VA bragged about fulfilling the mandate because the veterans were seen by a mental health professional the correct number of times. Well sort of seen, anyway.

More on looking good rather than doing good in upcoming posts in this series, coming soon to a blog near you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Doctors, and Tales from Their Old Wives: the "Woozle Effect."

In my blogpost of 2/24/25I made fun of scientists who waste research dollars proving things that are already obvious. Some people may object that things that are thought to be obvious sometimes turn out to be false. Of course that happens, but because it happens so rarely, it tends to make the news. 

This may lead some to think such discoveries are common. They are not. As I have said, you really don't need a study to prove that the sky appears blue to non-colorblind humans at noon on a cloudless sunny day on the equator.

There is another related situation which is also quite common - scientific ideas that were thought by many to be obvious turn out, on closer inspection, not to really be obvious at all. 

And not true. They are basically old wives' tales, and are instead based on frequent citations from the scientific literature of poorly-designed studies and/or less-than-well-thought out conclusions drawn from those studies. Such ideas become urban myths.

I have written about several of these in previous posts, and there are undoubtedly dozens and dozens more, many of which I may not be aware. Some completely fictional ideas that come to mind: the human brain only works at 20% of its capacity. We are born with all the brains cells we will ever have. Debriefing for first responders (reviewing in detail what they had just witnessed during a gory disaster) helps prevent post-traumatic stress disorder. Benzodiazepine drugs like valium and xanax interfere with a behavioral treatment called systematic desensitization.

Much to my surprise, I recently learned that there is actually a name for this phenomenon. It is called the Woozle Effect

According to Wikipedia, "A Woozle is an imaginary character in the A. A. Milne book Winnie-the-Pooh, published in 1926. In chapter three, 'In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,' Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet start following tracks left in snow believing they are the tracks of a Woozle. 

The tracks keep multiplying. Christopher Robin then explains that they have been following their own tracks in circles around a tree."

The Wikipedia article also points out something about this phenomenon that relates to another frequent topic of this blog: groupthink. The Woozle belief persists because it serves the needs of some group of scientists, doctors, or other interest group - whether those needs are ideological, economic, or bureaucratic.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: "I, Mammal" by Loretta Graziano Breuning

"We mammals are curiously preoccupied with social hierarchy. You may say you don’t care about status, but if you filled a room with people who said that, they’d soon form a hierarchy based on how anti-status each person claims to be." ~ Loretta Breuning
Despite the protestations of those who like to think human beings are not part of the animal kingdom (What are we then, plants?), we have a lot in common with our fellow furry critters. Our brains have been shaped by thousands of generations of the evolution of both genes and culture.

In this fascinating book, the author focuses on something that we inherited very strongly from our biological past: our tendency to form hierarchical societies based on status. The group, and therefore our genes, survives attacks by predators and shortages of food by allowing the strongest among us to remain strong. Weaker members of the group survive by forming alliances with, and by deferring to, the strongest members of the heard.  

In human beings, because of cultural experiences and the fact that our cortexes can anticipate future consequences more so than any other mammal, status in a particular subculture may not be defined by brute strength against predators, but by a wide variety of status markers - musical talent, scientific discoveries, or even, as illustrated by the quote at the beginning of the post, by who in a group is the least outwardly concerned with what the majority of the herd thinks of status markers.

Hierarchy challenges among primates are relatively rare since the risks are often too high. However, as the so called alphas or dominant herd members - often defined by different parameters in males and females or in different primate species - show signs of weakness, such challenges become more common. Younger members of the group may begin to assert their own dominance through oppositionalism.

The animals that are close to the top of the hierarchy but not at the top - let's call them the betas - often extensively cater to the alphas and cling to their alliance with the alphas tenaciously, often at the cost of being under great stress. They tend to be the most status conscious individuals in the group, because they have the most to lose. As the author wryly observes, they're number two, so they try harder.

The author makes the case that we concern ourselves with status in response to what she calls the "happy" brain chemicals - dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins - which are released in very short spurts under certain environmental conditions, and induce us to do more of whatever activities seemed to promote them in the past. Our impulses to do so are not based on conscious thoughts but are automatic reactions to the activities of the more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system. While the thinking part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, can over-ride these tendencies, doing so feels extremely unpleasant is therefore most difficult.

The author admits that she is oversimplifying the roles of the "happy chemicals," and indeed is doing so drastically. These chemicals not only work together as she points out, but are involved in many different brain and bodily functions besides those to which she attributes to them. Additionally, they regulate one another in highly complicated feedback loops with input from many other chemicals such as GABA, cortisol and glutamate.

However, the simplified view is still helpful because it does provide us with an amazingly plausible understanding of some of the behavior of mammals, including ourselves, that otherwise may seem inexplicable. The author talks about how oxytocin rewards animals for sticking with the herd. Serotonin prods us to take a certain degree of risk in going out and getting our survival needs like food satisfied. 

Dopamine rewards us when we anticipate getting our needs met. Interestingly, it does not reward us after the needs have already been met, which might explain why initially thrilling experiences can suddenly "get old." Endorphins block pain, but only in situations such as when we need all of our strength to flee in order to survive.

The author emphasizes over and over again that she is describing what is happening normally within mammals, and that status behavior is often not based on conscious deliberation. The author is in favor of our endorsing our needs for status as well as being proud rather than overly humble about our accomplishments as a way of avoiding chronic dissatisfaction - which is often then blamed on members of our own status heirarchy who are higher in it than we are. However, she points out that tendency to strive for status is not right or wrong, it just is, and she is definitely not saying that it is what always should be. 

I understand why she feels the need to repeat this, as members of the habitually-offended community will miss the point the first twenty times it is made. Hower, it does make parts of the book repetitive and monotonous. But that is a minor quibble.

I learned some very interesting things from this book that I never knew. Did you know, for example, that there are 10 times more neurons connecting the brain to the eyes than the other way around? Our brain literally tells our eyes what to look for as well as what to look at among the myriad of things surrounding us in our environment.

Did you know that Gorilla fathers in the wild often search for a good family to give their daughters to - just like the people in many cultures who arrange marriages for their offspring?

The author does not discuss "schema" formation per se, but does talk about how past experiences become the dominant mode of responding automatically and without thought to the social environment between the ages of 2 and 3 - during and after the period during which the child is most dependent for survival on getting the attention of the primary caretakers. Nerve tracts formed by observing the behaviors of the parents become stronger and also develop thicker sheathes of a coating made of a substance called myelin, which greatly increases the speed of nerve conduction. 

After they are formed, these tracks then begin to function as if the individual were on autopilot. We only notice our behavior when it no longer seems to "work" on those around us. This is partly why parental behavior is so powerful in triggering our automatic repetitive behavioral responses.

Another aspect of our powerful urges to create status hierarchies is basic to the formation of neurotic (confused, conflicted, and amibivalent) behavior. This is easiest to see in dogs, but I believe it applies to kids as well. It was discussed extensively by Cesar Millan, TV's "dog whisperer."

Dogs will presume that they are the alpha animal in a household  - unless the owner acts like he or she is the alpha, and acts that way consistently. To create a neurotic dog, treat them as if they are the pack leader by catering to them, but then punish them when they act out the normal response to being a pack leader: aggression. Then follow the punishment with lots and lots of affection, which again causes the dog to feel like the alpha. Repeat over and over. The dog becomes neurotic "because it can't make sense of the social reward system" (p. 91). Readers of this blog may recognize a similar pattern that I describe when I write about problematic parenting styles.

In general, the ideas in the book apply somewhat more to automatic behaviors within a group than they do to automatic behavior between groups. As evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson points out, "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. All else is commentary."

Evolution has also been shaped by kin groups and ethnic groups as well as by the evolution of human culture, in which the balance between collectivism and individualism has gradually evolved to favor the latter more than in past generations, as first described by Erich Fromm. These often competing forces comprise the evolutionary theory of  so-called multilevel selection.

Once again, however, oversimplifying reality can nonetheless help us understand important ideas that might otherwise be too murky.