Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Book Review: The Shattered Oak by Sherry Genga


This involving book, based on a true story but with some facts altered, is written as a first person account (although it is not the author's story) from a woman involved in a severely physically and emotionally abusive marriage. The author takes the reader on a fascinating tour inside her mind and thought processes.

The book strongly implies that she made no effort to leave for many years, and says that her parents refused to help her do so, under the rationalization that they were too afraid of her husband. She finally does leave and files for divorce. The narrative does not discuss the husband’s behavior during the divorce, but it appears that it went fairly uneventfully and without any stalking by her ex. She received the house and custody of their three daughters in the settlement, and her ex seems to have made alimony payments regularly.

Three years later she has a “nervous breakdown,” and describes in vivid terms her overwhelming sense of doom due to her depression. She makes three serious suicide attempts, and describes her ambivalence over abandoning her children and leaving her eldest daughter to take care of the other two, while all the while also feeling tremendous guilt over her daughter having had to take care of her in a parent-child role reversal.

She finally gets committed to a horrible mental hospital and given ECT against her will. Although she does not say she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, her disturbing descriptions of her thoughts and feelings while in the depressed state are impressive, and give the reader a sense of what it might be like to have been in her shoes. It later turns out that she did not have a typical major depressive disorder, but one caused by a medical disorder, Cushing’s disease, which leads to very high level of the stress hormone cortisol, a steroid. A major depressive syndrome is seen in 50%–70% of the cases of Cushing’s syndrome. 

She opines that the high levels of cortisol may have come from high levels of stress, which, she implies, seems to have increased rather than decreased after she got out of the marriage. As it turns out, however, that was not the case at all. Her disorder was caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland.

It does not mean that anyone is “blaming” her for the severe abuse she suffered, but it is extremely important in the mental health field's attempts to prevent others from following in her footsteps, to pose the question of why she stayed with her husband for so long, and why she felt more stressed out after the divorce than during the time she was with her husband. There is no way we can know the answers to this question for certain just from the descriptions in this book, but there are several tantalizing clues.

The usual excuses offered up to justify the behavior of women who repeatedly return to an abusive relationship often do not hold water, but especially so in this case. As per her own description, she was in far more danger of being killed by him over the long run if she stayed than if she left. While they were together, he constantly threatened to kill her and even fired gunshots at her, narrowly missing her head on purpose. There were literally bullet holes in the walls.

She also knew very well that he was violent before they were married, because there were episodes of it back then.

And why would she be more stressed out after she left if, as it seems, her ex was not stalking her? The narrator admits that she still loves her husband even after the divorce despite all the pain he put her through. She offers a very interesting hypothesis about why he abused her: he came from a highly abusive family himself, and was taking his anger out at them on her. The question she keeps asking herself is how she could have helped this man to become less bitter. Presumably, how else. What she had been doing clearly did not work. Her question is consistent with my hypothesis about  this case

Readers of this blog can probably guess what that hypothesis is: the odds are pretty good that she was sacrificing herself so that her husband, whom she loved, could continue to channel his destabilizing anger away from his own parents, and that her doing something like this might have also been her role in her own family of origin. You know, the family that refused to help her leave her husband. At the end of the book we find reasons that this hypothesis would certainly necessitate further exploration. 

She was treated like a servant by her own parents growing up, especially compared to her two siblings, who could seem to do no wrong in her parents' eyes. Her older brother finally tells her that she was the result of an affair that her mother had had with a neighbor, and she was not her father’s biological daughter. Might the father have taken his anger at her mother out on her, with her mother going along with the program in order to keep the family together? You be the judge.

I wonder what her parents' upbringing might have been like.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The “Logic” of Researchers in ADHD


About 15-20 years ago or so, when I was still Director of Psychiatric Residency Training at the University of Tennessee Medical School, I went to a grand rounds (a teaching conference involving the whole department) to hear a talk by a doctor about adult ADHD. It turned out to be more of a drug commercial for some or other stimulant the sponsor of the talk was selling.

The guy basically said that this pseudo-diagnosis was in fact incredibly common – up to 14% of the adult population – and all of them should be taking significant doses of one of the most dangerous and addictive class of drugs that are available by prescription – classified by the FDA in the same category of abuse potential as opiates like morphine. Wow.

During the Q&A at the end of the talk, the subject of ADHD in children came up. Someone asked him why so many kids diagnosed with the disorder could go to a video game arcade (which had at the time only recently gone the way of the dinosaurs) and concentrate with tremendous focus on the game they were playing despite all sorts of buzzers and bells going off, flashing lights everywhere, and scores of people milling all around talking to each other. The speaker opined that this was “not concentration.” I’ve heard that sentiment many times before and since from Pharma shills. Well if it isn't concentration, I wondered, then WFT is it?

Another skeptic in the audience from child psychiatry asked him about the high incidence of alcoholism in the parents of ADHD patients. His response: “If you had a kid like that, you’d probably drink too!” Oh, I see. Alcoholism is caused by having rambunctious children.

I should have gotten up and cussed the dude out for saying heinous stuff like this, but my boss in the department might have frowned on it.

All this reminds me of another talk I once heard from someone from the National Institute for Drug Abuse during an outside medical meeting. He was going on and on about how cocaine, another stimulant BTW, depletes a chemical in the brain called Dopamine, which makes it nearly impossible for abusers to enjoy anything but the drug. Someone (again, not me) got up and asked, “But aren’t we doing that when we prescribe stimulants to our kids?” The speaker’s answer, “But the drugs work so well.”

So I’m guessing that the answer to the question that was actually asked, which the speaker completely avoided, was, “Yes.”

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Decline of Academic Medicine in the US

In an article called “The precipitous decline of academic medicine in the United States" from the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists by Richard Balon, MD and Mary K. Morreale, MD, the authors describe how the profiteering currently infecting medical treatment in this country is also in the process of destroying medical education.

Some of what they wrote:

“Structural problems in academic medicine exist within all parts of its tripartite mission: education, clinical care, and research. With clinical care, there are tedious requirements for documentation in difficult-to-navigate electronic medical record systems, demands on productivity in the form of ever-increasing [office visits], and senseless demands from managed-care organizations. All of these clinical demands reduce the time for teaching, which, ironically, university deans expect us instructors to increase. Similarly, education has been increasingly regulated by what has been referred to as the ‘medical-education industrial complex.’ Regulatory agencies have introduced changes with possibly negative consequences and no evident benefit.


“Academic research—at least in psychiatry—has been experiencing an ‘intellectual crisis,’ leading to the conclusion that ‘evidence-based medicine does not appear to provide an adequate scientific background for challenges of clinical practice in psychiatry and needs to be integrated with clinical judgment.’ And despite the glow that research funding brings to investigators and administrators, the sad fact is that, for the institution, research is a money loser.


“Due to the pandemic, in anticipation of a loss of $350 million, Johns Hopkins ‘imposed a hiring freeze, canceled all raises, and warned about impending furloughs and layoffs….’…[despite] Johns Hopkins had $10 billion in assets and a $6 billion endowment …Leadership compensation at Johns Hopkins is similar to the business world, with the university’s president earning $1.6 million in salary and an additional $1.1 million in deferred and other types of compensation.


“In Michigan... the CEO of the William Beaumont Health system affiliated with Oakland University had a total compensation of $5.9 million in 2018, with a base salary of $1.85 million, a bonus of $1.6 million, deferred compensation of $1.66 million, and $810,000 in other compensation.”


And here I thought that this had only happened at the medical school I worked at, the University of Tennessee in Memphis. When I first started there as psychiatry residency training director in 1992, the faculty practice group called UTMG was a delight to work with. The administrators worked for the doctors. We were told that we had to bring in 160% of the UTMG portion of our annual salary in patient care activities. The department was flush with cash, with a million dollar reserve for research and other academic activities. Faculty could earn extra money by seeing extra patients, keeping a percentage of every additional dollar they brought in.


The psychiatric emergency room at the public hospital, run by our department, was a model. We also trained police to deal with mental illness through the formation of what was called a Crisis Intervention Team, which was copied by several police departments throughout the rest of the country. Police became experts at de-escalating conflicts and apprehending the seriously mentally ill safely, transporting them to the Psych ER for evaluation. (Does this sound like something that might help the police regain public trust in today’s atmosphere? I think so).


Meanwhile pressure was building to install managed care models, especially after Medicaid in Tennessee was changed into Tenncare, which called for the formation of several HMO’s to provide treatment. UTMG decided that they wanted to form one, which they called TLC. Having experienced managed care in California, I warned everybody what might happen, but no one would listen. One child psychiatrist thought managed care was a good idea and advocated for it.


Before long, the doctors were working for the administrators instead of the other way around. Top administrators were paid over a million dollars apiece. The department’s reserves suddenly disappeared. UTMG drained the Psych ER of funds until it had to close. The child psychiatrist who advocated for managed care had his own pet project, a day care center for teens, destroyed. Faculty members were told they had to keep working any extra hours that they had been working – but without any of the extra pay they had been getting! Faculty members were also suddenly told they were “losing money” for the organization, even though they were bringing in the same amounts they had been, and even though the state - not UTMG - was paying for the faculty’s office rent and the cost of their phone system!

Saturday, January 2, 2021

New Podcast about Borderline Personality Disorder

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Borderline Hyper-reactivity: Compared to What?

One of my complaints about the research literature on the so called “hyper-reactivity” of patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) is that the authors of such studies almost always look at the quality and frequency of their subjects’ responses without ever looking at what they are responding to.  Since mood instability is the most central part of the definition of the disorder, of course they will have more reactions. By definition, they’ve been selected for it!


Two recent studies show that patients with BPD really don’t seem as different from others as one might expect. They both provide strong evidence for my point of view. One showed that the specific reactions to interpersonally threatening stimuli of patients with BPD  is not all that different from those of anybody else.  It looked at skin conductance responses (SCR, a measure of stress) in patients and healthy controls.  The second investigated whether or not patients with other psychiatric disorders responded differently. They found that they all sort of responded the same, in spite of the fact that - once again  - the source and severity of the environmental events which triggered the patients was ignored.

Here’s some descriptions from the study abstracts.

1.   Hillmann K; Mancke F; Herpertz SC; Jungkunz M; Olsson A; Haaker J; Bertsch   K. Psychopathology. 53(2):84-94, 2020. Intact Classical Fear Conditioning to Interpersonally Threatening Stimuli in Borderline Personality Disorder.


Threat hypersensitivity is regarded as a central mechanism of deficient emotion regulation, a core feature of patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD). In this study, patients with BPD showed larger conditioned prolonged conditioned skin conductance responses (SCR) (a measure of stress) and subjective stress and expectancy ratings  to interpersonally non-threatening and neutral than interpersonally threatening stimuli, while interpersonally threatening stimuli elicited higher SCR compared to non-threatening or neutral stimuli in healthy controls. 

While the overall the results suggest no alterations in fear conditioning to generally aversive stimuli in BPD, it’s quite interesting than when someone in the environment is non threatening, patients with BPD react with MORE stress. One possible explanation: the people around them most of the time are more likely to attack them when most  other people would have let their guard down.

2.  Kockler TD; Santangelo PS; Limberger MF; Bohus M; Ebner-Priemer UW, Specific or transdiagnostic? The occurrence of emotions and their association with distress in the daily life of patients with borderline personality disorder compared to clinical and healthy controls.
Psychiatry Research 284, 11262, 2020).

 The authors wanted to see if hyper-reactivity to stress was specific to BPD or was seen as much in other disorders. Using e-diaries, they compared patients with BPD, normal controls, patients with bulimia, and those with PTSD. The majority of the comparisons (anxiety, sadness, shame, disgust, jealousy, guilt, interest) revealed transdiagnostic patterns, which means that the same reactivity was seen in the other disorders. The only major exception was that patients with BPD exhibited anger more frequently than any of the clinical groups or in healthy control. 

As mentioned, nothing was looked at concerning what the anger was about. So maybe anyone would be angry if exposed to whatever it was the patients with BPD had been exposed to. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Treatment of Bipolar Disorder Goes Psychotic


Ever since I did my psychiatric residency training way back in 1974-1977, bipolar disorder (then called manic-depressive illness) was the easiest of the major psychiatric disorders to treat medically. There was (and is) absolutely no evidence the craziness of the patient during a manic episode or a bipolar depressive episode is amenable to any psychotherapy technique, although therapy might be important when the patient is euthymic (that is, not in a manic or depressive episode – which is most of the time) to deal with the aftermath of their having been psychotic or for other co-morbid psychological problems. Euthymic bipolar patients can have co-occurring personality disorders and anxiety disorders and anything else just like anyone. Since, when euthymic, they are in fact just like everyone else.

If you want to see what a manic patient looks like, look at this video of Charlie Sheen ( He actually took a show on the road but had no act. Now, cocaine can mimic mania, but he’d taken cocaine before and he never acted like this. See videos of him when he was back to his usual self to see the difference. Sheen denies he was manic, but I’m not sure I believe that.

Anyway, about 80% of these patients could tolerate and were responsive to lithium for prevention of manic episodes. The longer they took it, the more likely it would be to also prevent depressive episodes as well. If the patient got depressed while taking lithium, antidepressants worked just great. Journal articles saying they do not were full of crap – the most important of these is discussed in this post.  Most of my patients on lithium were basically symptom free for decades, no matter if I saw them in a public clinic, an academic clinic, or a private practice environment.


When patients first got manic, we used antipsychotic medications to bring them down, usually in inpatient settings, because lithium takes a couple of weeks to kick in. Once lithium was on board, we discontinued the antipsychotic medication because they didn’t need it any more. The only other time we used antipsychotic medication in bipolar patients was during depressive episodes in which the patient also had delusions and hallucinations (psychotic depression). Again, the antipsychotic meds could often be discontinued after the episode was over.


When a patient couldn’t tolerate or was not responsive to lithium, we would then use antipsychotic medications as the only alternative back then, but always had to worry about them causing a neurological disorder (tardive dyskinesia [TD]). Until it was found that the anticonvulsants Tegretol and Depakote were good for mood stabilization – so then they became the second line drugs.


When the new, “second generation” antipsychotics came out, which can cause huge weight gain and diabetes in addition to TD, the drug companies started to push them. The use of lithium started to plummet. After it was found that some of them had some antidepressant effects – although usually only to augment an antidepressant – Pharma started to push them even more. Despite the major risks, use of them increased from 12% of cases to 53% of cases between 1997 and 2008.


Not only that, but the number of patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder inflated by more than double since 2000. Everybody and their brother who had any mood symptoms at all were misdiagnosed with it, most due to the insane idea known as “bipolar spectrum,” or as I call it, B.S. Another study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that I wrote about previously  showed that 40% of patients in their sample who met clear DSM criteria for borderline personality and not for bipolar had been misdiagnosed as bipolar by a prior mental health professional, as well as 10% of all of the other patients.

Caveat emptor, which in this case means, let the patient beware!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Debate over “No Suicide Contracts” presumes Patients are All Alike

An article entitled No Suicide Contracts: Can They Work by Caroline Roberts M.D. came out in the August 2020 issue of Clinical Psychiatric News. No suicide contracts (NSC’s) had been given for years by therapists and psychiatrists to potentially suicidal patients. The contract essentially gets the patient to sign off on a statement that they will not kill themselves. Alternatively, the patient commits to calling someone if they think they might make an attempt. Some NSC’s ask them to call a suicide hot line, while others say to call the therapist.


For quite some time now, however, use of NSC’s has been discouraged in the literature because they may give therapists a false sense of security. There is no clear-cut evidence that they are “effective.” In some populations, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) where the patient may want to invalidate the therapist, they might even backfire. Or patients may not keep their word because they know the therapist might commit them to a mental hospital. They might not want to go there.


Dr. Roberts (“She helps you to understand and does everything she can” ~ say the Beatles) makes the obvious point in her article that the answer to the question of whether NSC’s can work “is conditional on the unique combination of patient, clinician, and therapeutic relationship.” And, I might add, the unique family dynamics and history of prior treatment that each patient brings to therapy. How could anyone think that the question of whether any intervention either will or will not work does not depend on everything that has happened before, during, and after the signing of the contract – both in the patients’ lives and in their relationship with the therapist?


This is yet another example of the ecological fallacy, in which an entire group of people is characterized just by its average member. It’s like the old joke about a drowning victim who couldn’t possibly have died in a certain lake because its average depth is only three feet!


Of course, no intervention is going to be effective 100% of the time in anyone. For one thing, new things can happen to a patient in between therapy sessions. Family fights can break out or people can be dumped by lovers. A loved one might even pass away.


Telling a patient to call a hot line will generally be less effective than if the patient can talk to the therapist personally. The patient may think (and I agree) that therapists should care enough to be available during emergencies, and to have someone who can substitute for them if they are not available. Therapists should also know how to empathically get patients off the phone in non-emergency situations.

With patients with BPD, therapists will most likely have better results with an NSC if they have validated their patients without having fed into their false selves.

The therapist can ask patients if they are afraid they might be committed, and let them know that commitment will only be used as a last resort to save the patient’s life, and that the therapist realizes that patients can feel even worse when thrown into a mental hospital.


Simple answers to complex questions are usually simple minded, as they are here, and are only employed by simpletons. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Book Review: Saving Ourselves From Suicide: Before and After by Linda Pacha


This book describes ways to handle your emotions and responses if you lose someone close to you to suicide. The author herself lost her son that way a few years ago. He was away at college for the first time. He had been diagnosed by one of two therapists as having Asberger’s Disease, a mild variation of autism, and was also experiencing confusion about his sexuality. He was having trouble relating to his classmates and was the subject of a lot of gossip and innuendo. He told his mother he felt depressed but never at any point in time mentioned that he was thinking that he might want to kill himself. The story the author tells in the beginning of the book about what happened with her son during this period is both gripping and highly disturbing. The author is an excellent writer.


The advice she give to parents and other survivors throughout the book is spot on. She talks about all the second guessing survivors subject themselves to, all the what-ifs and if-onlys, and the difficulties in interactions with friends, family, and acquaintances. What if you are being judged?


She relates her experiences and gives advice on issues such as how to handle grief during the first and second years after the death.  How does one handle anniversary reactions or one’s shattered religious faith?


She then goes on to her views about how to spot warning signs that someone you love is heading down the path of suicide, and how people in general and parents in particular can advocate for mental health and decreasing all of the pressures on today’s adolescents.  And then she goes on to the general subject of helping others who have gone through what she did.


Since she is not a mental health professional herself, she wisely avoids discussing suicides that result from adverse childhood experiences like sexual or physical abuse by parents, domestic violence, chaotic parental relationships with substance abuse and/or frequent affairs, parental alienation in divorce cases, double messages in the family, and the like. The book is not at all meant for those types of parents, whose problems far exceed the loss of a loved one, as bad as that still can be for them.


Another point that I like to make is that people who come from an abusive or chaotic environments are way more likely to become bullies or to bully others themselves, which means that the idea that bullying is the main cause of suicide is somewhat of a red herring.  As is the idea about suicide being caused by watching TV shows like 13 Reasons Why. Watching that could conceivable affect the timing of an attempt, but is hardly the actual cause. People are not that fragile.


I was happy to see that she wrote about the problems created by helicopter parenting, although she doesn’t use that term. A lot of parents these days are being absurdly over-protective to the point where kids today often feel fragile and incompetent , as well as a big burden on their parents. In response, they may in some cases start to think the parents would be a whole lot better off without them. This has gotten out of hand on college campuses with all the nonsense about microaggressions and “safe spaces” and viewing other people’s opinions as traumatizing.


This is in general an excellent book and well worth reading.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

New Podcast Interview about My Psychotherapy Paradigm

I am interviewed by Serge Prengel, LMHC about the history of and the philosophy behind my ideas about psychotherapy with patients who have personality disorders: 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

What Ever Happened to Family Systems Psychotherapy?


Back beginning with the March/April 2001 issue of a magazine that was originally produced for the followers of the new family systems psychotherapy models, it changed its name from the Family Therapy Networker to the Psychotherapy Network. The magazine had started 20 years earlier in January, 1982. What happened?


The editor of the magazine then and now is a fellow by the name of Rich Simon. In the March/April issue of the magazine in 2012 he related the fascinating history of why this happened in an essay called Still Crazy After All These Years? A Look at 30 Years of the Networker.


Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s there was an explosion of new ideas about how to get psychotherapy patients to change both their behaviors and their negative moods that went well beyond the three basic paradigms or schools of therapy at the time: psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, and emotion-focused. Something like 300 different schools came to be, although most of them were just variations on the existing schools.  The Milton Erickson Foundation in Phoenix, AZ sponsored several “Evolution of Psychotherapy” Conferences in which the leaders of the various schools came to argue with each other in front of large audiences.


Family Systems therapy was the most noteworthy of the new models, because it was seemingly the first to recognize that since human beings are among the most social of all organisms, perhaps looking at herd behavior might tell us more about human beings than just looking at them in isolation.


Of course, even within systems therapy, there were quite a few widely varying ideas about how to proceed with psychotherapy clients. In the beginning, the Networker profiled the colorful characters who were coming up with them: Salvador Minuchen, Jay Haley, Murray Bowen, Mara Selvini-Palazzoli, Virginia Satir, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, and Carl Whitaker.  


Of course, just like in all of the earlier schools, there was also plenty of nonsense within the movement. Some theorists imagined a sort of Zen perspective in which the thought that we had individual selves to call our own was an illusion. They became like extreme behaviorists, who instead of viewing humans as rats in a physical maze, viewed them as rats in a family homeostatic maze - with no ability to think for themselves. 

Others started explaining real brain diseases like schizophrenia on the basis of family double binds, which themselves were very common in the families of people without any schizophrenic members. Still others viewed the dynamics of any particular family as if they had just come into being as is, without reference to the cultural milieu in which they developed. Even Murray Bowen, who developed a three-generational model, only looked at who was enmeshed or at odds with whom, without specifying over what behaviors they were enmeshed or at odds about.


According to Simon, feminists started complaining that women seemed to be getting the brunt of the blame for, as well as the responsibility for changing, the family dynamics - especially when patients with histories of child abuse became brave enough to come forward. The latter issue also led to a reaction in which people were accused of having “false memories” (and which were being prompted by some therapists if the people were suggestible enough). Some elements of society were also upset with the so-called “abuse excuse” in which victims were seemingly encouraged to see themselves as permanently damaged victims who took no personal responsibility for themselves.


The confluence of converging forces mentioned in the masthead of this blog then started to develop with a fury. Longer-term treatments were no longer being covered by insurance, which only covered symptomatic treatment. Bogus “medical necessity” criteria were used to drastically cut down the number of sessions therapists could administer. Drugs were pushed even for diagnoses for which there was no good evidence that they worked at all. “Major Depression” became just ‘’depression.”


“Biological” psychiatrists who were not even aware of the latest discoveries in neuroscience pushed a disease model for everything. In fact, science has clearly showed beyond a reasonable doubt that the structure of the “plastic” human brain is in part determined by interpersonal interactions, and that most of what we do is learned and done automatically in response to environmental clues without any conscious deliberations.


Simon added that they did take a lot of flack after the magazine got renamed for “abandoning” systems therapy, but, “…as we saw it, we were just creating room for a bigger, more diverse “blended” family of therapeutic approaches.”