Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Some Suggestions for Avoiding Bad Psychiatrists

"Letters, we get letters
We get lots and lots of letters"

(Apologies to the producers of the old Perry Como TV Show, if any are still living.  Damn I'm old!)

A blog reader sent me a very interesting e-mail with some important questions about the treatment one psychiatrist was providing her daughter.   Maybe I should start a newspaper advice column.  Or maybe not.  Anyway, I'll try my hand at it this one time.

The behavior of the doctor that she describes, assuming that the description is accurate, seems to be typical of the way a lot of bad psychiatry is administered these days. I thought readers might appreciate some tips on how to avoid it.

You can find many additional tips on how to pick a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist who deals effectively with family dysfunction in Chapter Ten of my book, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

The names in the letter have been changed to protect the innocent - or in this case, the name of a doctor who is perhaps guilty:

Dear Dr. Allen,

I just recently ran across your blog and became distressed because I fear my daughter is a victim of the over diagnoses of bipolar II. I took her to Dr. XXX because she was nearly suicidal after her father threw her out of her apartment (which he owns) because of her drug and alcohol use. She had no money saved to get an apartment, she wrecked her car and had no vehicle to go back and forth to college and work, and she was on a downward spiral. I told my daughter that I would help her get on her feet financially if she saw a psychiatrist (fearing she was suicidal). She found Dr. XXX’s name in the yellow pages and off we went.

Within 10 minutes he had her diagnosed as BP II. Perhaps we were relieved that there was a medical explanation for her state or perhaps his insistence that “of course this is BP II; I am an expert in the field and should not be questioned” but we did not get a second opinion. After 11 months of ‘treatment’ she is still not ‘normal’ which he blames on her not being compliant in his instruction about when to take medication, eat, sleep, etc. She does not want to continue with the treatments as the drugs are messing her up with extreme tiredness, swelling up like a balloon on the face and extremities, hypothyroid, there are constant blood tests, and on and on.

Dr. XXX refuses to help her wean off the medications stating that he can not do that when he knows she needs the meds and he took an oath. Who can help or how can we proceed to get her safely weaned off the numerous drugs she is currently taking (Equatro, lithium, lyrica, synthroid, zyprexa) to see if now that she is no longer abusing drugs and alcohol, if she can function normally? Should we get a second opinion? What should we do? Please help!

Best regards,

Mrs. ZZZ

Hi Mrs. ZZZ,

Obviously I can not make a diagnosis of your daughter or fairly evaluate her treatment based on an e-mail, but I can make some generalizations that relate to some of what you said. The following should in no way be interpreted as medical advice, but of course that does not mean you need to discount what I say.

First of all, if any psychiatrist makes a diagnosis with certitude after just ten minutes, it is not only time to get a second opinion, but to completely ignore the first one.

If a doctor does not really address a patient’s or the family's concerns but instead just says, “Trust me, I am an expert,” ditto.

The medications you describe would be for bipolar I, not II, and fibromyalgia, which is a wastebasket diagnosis for pain we do not understand. Also, your list includes two mood stabilizers (lithium and carbamazepine [“Equatro” – a brand named drug when a much cheaper generic is available]), as well as an anti-psychotic.

Whenever I see patients on such a bizarre mix of medications, some of which are for symptoms such as psychosis which they do not in fact have, the odds are extremely good that the patient has been highly overmedicated and misdiagnosed, and the doctor has been just throwing meds at the patient willy-nilly to see what sticks.

Blaming the patient for a failure of medications, while possibly true if the patient is not taking them as prescribed, is usually counterproductive. If a patient is not compliant, maybe it is because the meds are creating more problems than they are solving.

A doctor can not make a legitimate diagnosis of a mood disorder if a patient has been using drugs throughout the entire period in which symptoms occur – because the effects of the drugs can and often do mimic the symptoms of a mood disorder.

If a patient with a diagnosis that has been made under the above circumstances needs to be weaned off meds, he or she may have to consult with several psychiatrists before being able to find one that is willing to help the patient do that. But it is definitely worth the effort.

Last, I think that bipolar II is not a legitimate diagnosis to begin with, but I am in a distinct minority of psychiatrists on that point. 


David Allen

Let the buyer beware!


  1. Caveat emptor, indeed! Another great post, and there may be more like-minded psychiatrists as David Allen than you think. We are simply not as erudite, articulate and public in expressing this shared philosophy as you. But speaking for myself, I'm glad you're out there and fervently encourage your continuing this noble cause. Also, what a kind gesture in personally responding to this mother's plea for help. Ever consider a syndicated newspaper column??

  2. Can't find someone to help wean a patient off drugs??? A doctor refuses to help the patient come off the drugs because "he took an oath"????!!! This is madness. Have psychiatrists not learned about the concept of informed consent? This woman and her daughter are informed. And they do not consent. If this ends up in court, someone's going to have some 'splainin' to do. In fact, I would encourage this person to file a complaint with her state's medical licensing board, the state's medical society, the state's psychiatric society and, perhaps, consult an attorney who specializes in this. It is your body (or, in this case, your daughter's body) and your right. Your doctor has no legal standing to make such unilateral and inflexible decisions for you or your daughter. I would find a new doctor immediately and if anything happens to your daughter as a result of this man's treatment, I would not hesitate to sue his arrogant, paternalistic, self-impressed ass.

  3. If anyone knows of MDs who will help people gradually taper off psychiatric drugs, please write me. I'm compiling a public index.

    So far, they're very difficult to find.

    Send mail to survivingads at comcast dot net

    Thank you.

    1. I believe the Society for Ethical Psychiatry and Psychology has some references along these lines: