Difficulties, Diagnoses, the DSM.

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece from today, one of the leads on the DSM-IV (the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual”, the current edition of an industry standard tool for mental health, primer here) task force wrote about the upcoming changes in the DSM-V (likely to be released in early 2013).  Summarizing, Allen was suggesting in part, “…after the changes approved this week, it will introduce many new and unproven diagnoses that will medicalize normality and result in a glut of unnecessary and harmful drug prescription.”, and that the American Psychiatric Association was  arguably no longer in a place to be singularly in charge of the meting out of diagnoses, calling it a “monopoly” (offering that an agency akin to the FDA or National Institute on Mental Health might be examples of ways to provide oversight in the efforts to insure some science around diagnosing emotional and mental problems).

Am with Allen on quite a bit of this.  What comes to me often too, is that we have equally large fish to fry with the DSM and the profession than just the pathologizing and monopolizing he suggests.  We have been over-diagnosing ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and bipolar disorder, among others.  Our differential diagnosis (rationalizing one diagnosis vs another) has also been resulting in much harm to people by way of treating issues unneeded, and/or incorrectly.  We are also arguably guilty as a discipline of using interventions that are more “intrusive” than necessary (for instance, medicating a problem before efforts at traditional talk therapy and/or other interventions have yet to be tried).

It seems to me that in reviewing the DSM, we are more currently in need of insuring the accuracy and value of our diagnoses, in terms of insuring that those so suffering are treated more appropriately.  We do know ways to treat depression, anxiety, addictions, bipolar disorders and etc.  We do have means of helping people through grief/loss, communication problems, abuse, suffering with stress and etc.  As the saying goes though, the “cure” (a dubious word to begin with) is only as good as the diagnosis, and with the numbers of the diagnosed only increasing in the US year after year, either our diagnosing or treatment (or maybe a bit of both) are not faring as well as they might.

A quick aside here- not all of the missed treatment opportunities are about the above issues.  Some of them are due to the influence of Big Pharma (an intense imposition by the pharmaceutical industry), access and funding of mental health treatment, the insurance industry and more.

Specifically related to the DSM though, my hope is that we’d simply be better at a lot of the material we already have.  Adding diagnoses, or simply separating them into finer and finer constellations of symptoms seems both unnecessary and unhelpful, philosophically speaking.  Part of what I’m getting at above is that I think we have some good ideas about how to help many ills- I just wish we spent more time treating them, and less time diagnosing new ones.

PTSD, Euphemisms, and George Carlin

The famous American standup philosopher George Carlin has a fantastic piece about euphemisms.  Paraphrasing and simplifying, he offers that he’s against euphemistic language.  Part of what I’m with him on is that euphemisms tend to conceal the truth.

May 5th, there was this article in the Washington Post indicating that there are a group of psychiatrists hoping to change the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (AKA “PTSD”) in the upcoming DSM-V (the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition”, the industry standard for all things psychiatric diagnosis… quick primer on my website here) to “Post Traumatic Stress Injury“.  The change, they hope, will make it easier for people, particularly military personnel, to more readily seek help.  They are citing that the term PTSD has a stigma attached to it.

While it arguably does, “Post Traumatic Stress Injury” might also be an equally unhelpful euphemism.  Non-military personnel frequently get the symptoms of PTSD as well.  Victims of crimes, violence, sexual abuse and more often have sufficient symptoms to justify being diagnosed with the disorder (Wiki here, for a quick look).

My concern about this is not simply haggling the diagnosis.  In all candor, the tome (the DSM) is a convention (with some real science too, but arguably still a convention)- a means of shorthand for mental health professionals to communicate.  My interest in the book is mostly about how it helps us guide treatment, and obtain treatment from the relevant funding sources.

Back to Carlin, he specifically addresses PTSD.  He takes us through the historical context- that the problem began with our recognition of the symptoms post war.  A condition we used to refer to as “shellshock” gave way to “battle fatigue”, then “operational exhaustion” (probably the grossest evasion of the depth of the severity of the symptoms of the problem), eventually leading to the current “PTSD”- arguably in light of the awareness that lots of things besides war can cause the aforementioned symptoms above.

We need a shorthand.  This will be the 6th shorthand (if we count “combat stress”) we’ve endeavored to come up with.  What we need more though, is an honest representation (and advocacy of awareness) of the consequences of these horrific events.  I’m less worried as a professional about whether or not someone suffering needs help than I am about whether we can actually get them access to it- and our evasion of these truths, often through our language, prevents us from getting legislation, funding, and other resources necessary that we can serve all victims of trauma in the ways that they need and deserve most.  Sadly, my experience of the last 28 years (at this point) has led me to feel that how we communicate about these problems has led largely to desensitization, in part, due to a euphemistic way of communicating such problems.

On a related note, often, a lot of the language in my discipline serves the individuals and the discipline itself, rather than the sufferer.  Pharmaceutical companies are served, occasionally a “new” theorist is served in terms of marketing their ideas, insurance companies are served, but rarely is it people that are suffering who are served.  It’s a source of consternation for me, both personally and professionally.

Some might say I need to come up with a more accurate term.  Maybe I should, but it’s not really the part of this that I’m invested in.  It takes longer to talk about someone suffering flashbacks, avoiding situations and experiences, fears, hypervigilance, poor regulation of their feelings, struggling with being overwhelmed by sadness or shame, having their ability to function in their responsibilities and relationships diminished (and much more), and explain what these things are to people, specifically.  But seeing how these folk are so suffering, it’s clear that doing so is worth it.  Taking the time to live with these words and feelings means much not just in terms of understanding the suffering, but honoring it.  If we’re truly going to care for people who are suffering, it will take at least that.

From the “Something That Came Up Today” Department… More on “Stopping”

Truth, it comes up a lot.

We’re all trying to “give up” some stuff, trying to stop doing some things, but often have difficulty doing it.  Aside from a blog I wrote about this a while ago, we might want to think of such things as surrender instead of “quitting”, stopping, etc… but I digress.  We endeavor to stop drinking, overeating, eating poorly, isolating, perfectionism, controlling things, spending, video games, TV, and a host of other things.  Sometimes we’re trying to avoid things that are actually good for us- exercise, going to a support group, going on a job interview, self care and the like.  Most of the time we point at a lack of insight, “willpower”, or related ideas.  For dozens of years, people have been going on *wince* Dr. Phil, Oprah, Donahue (I don’t watch too much TV- who do we have now?), and others asking why people can’t stop __________.

There’s an interesting colloquialism in 12-step programs that addresses this.  Some say that “what makes people drink is sobriety”.  Whatever one feels about 12-step programs, this is a pretty elegant, and deep idea when applied to alcohol or drugs or other things we might want to give up.  Consider it this way- what if our inability to stop something (or start something) is not the difficulty in stopping or starting, presence or absence of “willpower”, but the difficulty of how we will feel if we do?

Try this thought experiment.  How would an alcoholic feel if they stopped drinking?  Someone that stopped “obsessing” over __________?  A person obsessed with control feel if they stopped controlling things?  Someone that stopped overeating?  It’s intuitive to say that these folk might be “relieved”, but I’d argue that’s a superficial look.  I think these persons (and other people with other issues) would feel pain, fear, sadness, even shame and anger.

What I’m getting at (simply) is this: if we have trouble surrendering something, it’s more likely that is difficult because of how it would feel to do so.  More difficult than the effort or organization or “insight” about what we need to give something up.  If that’s the case, it points to why much deeper “work” is more often necessary than simply will-ing our way into stopping something.

Therapy, Counseling, Mental Health: Things That Put Me OUT of Work

My last piece of course is begging for a follow up.  If there’s semi-tangible things that put me in a job, there should be some things that will put me out of a job, so to speak.  Ideas, principles, behaviors that clients do that get them and keep them out of our offices, clinics, and hospitals.  Again, we as clinicians talk about them fairly often, but I rarely hear/see them showing up in discussions outside of our colleagues.  In all fairness, as with all professions, there’s arguably some things we don’t agree on or see a little differently, but if we’re really endeavoring to be socially responsible and progressively-minded about our responsibilities, I think we ought to be transparent about some of these things.

Should mention some of the spirit of where these ideas come from.  One day at a hospital I was hired to create dual diagnosis programs at, it dawned on me that there were a lot of suggestions that most clinicians of all types, gave to clients of all diagnoses/problems, in an effort to be helpful.  I created a beginning list of these as I saw them, and asked different psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, nurses, and recreational therapists to add/change/delete parts of the list.  After compiling 60 or 80 different items or so, we began using this as a resource tool for the clients.  The list below is some of those ideas, but am leaving some of them out for brevity’s sake.

They’re not really new.  Most of these appear not just in different forms of therapy, but some religion, philosophy/worldviews and the like as well.  It should also be said that they ought to be useful for most any problem- not a panacea, but consistent across categories of problems… depression and sadness, low self esteem and shame, anger, pain, grief and loss, abuse, “thought disorders”, affective disorders (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, addictions, etc).

As with my last blog, would suggest that these might take deeper explanation and guidance, and hence, some of that work is beyond this medium.  That said though, I think that some of these ideas are extraordinarily useful (despite their age… ;-p  ), and can be applied a lot of places.  Some of these are simply ideas that I think “getting a handle on” and using them as a start for problem-solving is really helpful.  Not an exhaustive list, but as a start…

  • Knowing who we are and how we are is one of the most important things- and arguably the basis for dealing with a lot of our problems.
  • Have a “congruent affect” (affect is “feeling” or “emotion” in this context)… let your outsides match your insides.
  • Learn how to identify feelings, and share them with supportive/healthy people in ways that are easy to understand.  Might want to try using the “six basic feelings” of mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt.
  • Don’t treat all feelings as facts.
  • Have “boundaries”.  Know where we each “start and stop” mentally, emotionally, “spiritually”, and physically.
  • Eat healthy, exercise, regulate sleep.
  • Remove thoughts/behaviors that put distance between us and us, us and others, or are used as simple distractions.
  • Being “right” is not necessarily more important than being loved.
  • We have to “have” something to “let go” of it.  This arguably applies to how we feel.
  • Is there another choice besides acceptance?
  • Mindfulness.
  • Using critical thinking.  Skepticism, defining terms, consideration of alternate interpretations, considering how an idea might not work/go wrong, resisting oversimplification/generalizing, comparing/contrasting with other people’s ideas…
  • Have a “resource group”… people with whom we exchange ideas, get support, do critical thinking with etc that have experience and/or education with the things we struggle with.
  • Treat happiness as an inside job.
  • Avoiding self-medicating with drugs, food, alcohol, shopping, gambling, sex, TV, etc.
  • Be self-supporting through our own contributions, mentally, emotionally, “spiritually”, and physically. (this particular item is a lot deeper than it may seem at first blush)
  • Don’t just read literature related to our problems and difficulties- actually try the ideas contained.
  • Give up comparing our insides with other people’s outsides.
  • Delay gratification.
  • Know and work on our “issues”.
  • Consider and act on “love” as a verb.
  • Get out of abusive relationships, maybe even relationships that are “potential” rather than “actual”.
  • Stop trying to control other people, places, and things.
  • Be of service.

Again, this is a painfully truncated list, some of the ideas are certainly arguable, and none are a substitute for working with a professional for learning how to do them if they are going to be useful.  My experience though, is that my clients who take up these things, with a pro, have a pretty common experience of feeling and behaving better themselves.  In some ways, it’s hard to imagine doing treatment without these things.  Of course, a lot of these are hard to do, but not impossible, and easier if made practical- things we can measure and point at.  Would love to hear ideas from other folk about things that they think are fairly indispensable, and might work for a lot of folk in a lot of different circumstances…

Therapy, Counseling, Mental Health: Some Things that Keep Us in Work

As I’ve said before, I try to work in the spirit that it’s my job to put me out of a job.  There’s some things I see pretty often though, that seem to be both counter intuitive and appear to keep me and my type in work.  My experience with therapists is that we often see these things, but rarely talk about them in a semi-organized way.  As much as loss, abuse, and abandonment cause depression, sadness, shame, low self esteem, anger, pain, addiction and etc, there are things we do that perpetuate our suffering in this way.  Some of these are survival or coping skills and thus necessary, but don’t really go very far to help someone get, and stay out of places like my office.  Here’s a list of some of those things off the top of my head:

  • Absence of critical thinking.
  • Responding to struggles by simply “staying busy” or just “trying harder”.  AKA, operating as a “human doing” instead of a human be-ing.
  • The kind of thinking that “Time heals all wounds…”, “It’s water under the bridge…”, “You’re just giving __________ power over you…”, “The past is in the past…”, “Just stay positive…”…
  • Using ideas and principles that got us suffering in the first place, to resolve that suffering.  Drugs, alcohol, isolation, shopping, food, gambling, etc.
  • Simply not knowing, and/or avoiding feelings.
  • Thinking and/or behaving as if the only answer to our suffering is for someone else to change or stop their behavior- even if their behavior was the cause.
  • Money, property, prestige.
  • Carrying the torch (or stick, if you will) of someone else shaming or diminishing/devaluing us.
  • For those that can and should, not being self supporting through one’s own contributions mentally, emotionally, physically (food, clothing, shelter…), and “spiritually”.
  • Perfectionism- both imposed on others, and ourselves.  Same is true for managing and controlling everything.
  • Going where the love “should be” in our lives, instead of going where the love is.
  • On a related note- staying in abusive or emotionally unavailable relationships.
  • This one is a little backwards from the context in the opening paragraph: took me a while to realize that I don’t have to do everything I think.
  • Blame.
  • Poor boundaries.  More specifically, not knowing where one person “stops” mentally, emotionally, physically, and/or “spiritually”, and another “starts”.
  • Operating as if our feelings are facts.
  • Euphemistic language.
  • Behaving or thinking as if we have to not be, or stop being afraid, before we can accomplish a task.
  • Same as the above, but instead of stop/not be afraid, that we have to be “motivated”.
  • Being an “island”.  Meaning, not having closeness with other folk, using ourselves as a sole resource for support or perspective or interpretation or encouragement, etc.
  • An inability or unwillingness to be “present”.
  • Can’t emphasize this one enough: not knowing who we are, and how we are.

Am guessing I’ll be adding to this list as time goes on.  The ideas above certainly warrant a deeper look/discussion to both understand and make them practical.  It appears to me that there’s a lot of fairly simple myths that might be dispelled that could help us all reduce chaos, and “increase the signal to noise ratio” in terms of our perspective and thinking.   The ideas above, I think, are a pretty great start at doing that.

Depression, Shame, Community, Intimacy

Though depression, shame, fear, anger, pain and the things that cause them (abuse, abandonment, loss) keep me in a job (some of you know I think it my job to put me out of a job), another thing that keeps me in work are ideas and terms that are ill-defined.  One of these terms is “intimacy”.

I was told once of a rumor that someone had asked Confucius what he would suggest doing to help society, and he replied “I would revamp the language.”  A lot of my work is about what we speak about, how, and how we define things between one another.  According to Alexa.com, Facebook is currently the number two most visited site on the internet.  For many years before that, MySpace was most frequently visited website.  It seems to me that these are about two things- being known and knowing/connection others.  Intimacy and community.  I think we all want intimacy and community, and the presence of these sites are great evidence to support this idea.

As I started to mention above though, the terms we use are rarely common between us.  At the suggestion of my partner, the woman I call “The World’s Most Dangerous Librarian”, I use Wordnik (www.wordnik.com) as my internet reference source for words.  “Intimacy” is most frequently/commonly defined as (using Webster’s here):  “n. The state of being intimate; close familiarity or association; nearness in friendship.”

What’s “close” though?  Association?  Friendship?  Am only tackling “close” here though, and think I can offer something that might be a helpful principle.  When describing intimacy to my clients, I suggest that intimacy is “me having feelings about your feelings about your life”.  Frequency, disclosure, and intensity of course mediate the depth of that intimacy, but I think this is a pretty principled way of defining that closeness or “intimacy” we’re most often talking about.

As Tom Waits said though, “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.”  This capacity for depth in closeness is largely dependent on both parties being in touch with their own feelings to begin with (see my previous blog “You Can’t Heal What You Can’t Feel“).  How clearly, presently, and transparently we both have our emotional experience affects our ability to be intimate with one another.

These also obviously affect our capacity for community.  Without a sense of my place and my purpose on this planet, a sense of purpose and community, we all suffer.  Absence of this breeds shame (low self worth/low self esteem), loneliness, sadness and depression.  As confusing and difficult and even painful as it might be, us having our own feelings, giving others access to them, a willingness to risk and be intimate with one another, seems to be our best shot at avoiding these things.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

“Show Your Work!”

When “solving problems” in addition to good “issue identification”, “diagnosis” (or whatever), it’s really important to examine methods/means to diminish or solve these problems, and have those methods be principled.  As Huxley opined:

“We are so anxious to achieve some particular end that we never pay attention to the psycho-physical means whereby that end is to be gained. So far as we are concerned, any old means is good enough. But the nature of the universe is such that ends can never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end.”

But even principled means don’t go far enough.  I have been discussing with a couple of clients and friends in the last week about getting from “point A” to “point B” as relates to The Work.  With these discussions in my head, have also come across a couple of psychology related blogs addressing resolution of specific problems.  What these conversations and blogs have in common, is my friends/clients complaining that when they’ve mentioned a problem to someone (anxiety, impulse control issues, depression, for example), and when given advice by some folk about how to resolve them, we have found essentially that at worst the suggestion amounted to “stop being __________ (anxious, impulsive, depressed)”, or simply suggesting that the opposite behavior/idea be employed.  Even from professionals.

Of course, the “middle part” here is really important.  There should be attention to the steps taken in the middle.  Those steps should specifically address the issue at hand, not simply be something rationalized as “good” or needed or healthy.  As some of my heroes have suggested, these ideas often amount to “activity instead of action”.

For instance, exercise arguably helps depression, anxiety and the like, but seems that in many cases does not specifically address the concerns identified that might be causing such in the first place (loss, abuse, etc).  In addition to that, the steps taken from anxiety to “calm” or “groundedness”, sadness/depression to happiness/serenity/gratitude (or somesuch) etc should be principled.  Meaning, they should be rooted in ideas that are repeatable, work for different kinds of problems, and preferably don’t create new ones in their wake.

Much of this is intuitive, but what keeps coming to me about these ideas is when observing “problem solving” from the outside, it’s often difficult to point to the work that is done.  Just like we’re encouraged in most math classes, we should be able to “show our work”.  When dealing with issues/problems/concerns, problem identification is really important.  So are means of problem solving- but what seems a good test of the effectiveness or value of such is the ability to point at the work done that specifically addresses the problem at hand.

As a simple example… telling someone to “calm down” rarely helps them behave differently, let alone feel differently.  There’s no steps to show, it’s difficult to see any principles this idea of “calming down” is based on.  While problem-solving emotional or relationship problems and the like it’s tempting to simply give advice and/or lean on philosophy, but there’s a lot of value in making such practical- something we can “point at”.

In our martial arts training group, if one of us has or is taught an idea/principle, we test that idea out in real time with a resisting opponent.  We also try to “break the idea”- see what conditions or problems it will not work with.  In some circles this is referred to as “pressure-testing the material”.  The same ideas might apply when solving other real world problems.  Clearly identifying the issue/context, having a principled means of intervention or “problem solving”, having a practical (empirical) means of determining the usefulness of the idea… showing our work and evaluating its utility.

Am advocating here for critical thinking when it comes to the utility of tools or ideas for problem-solving.  It seems that one of the places this utility is revealed is in whether or not we can show our work- make use of an idea in a way that is repeatable and observable (what we say/don’t say, do/don’t do).  As a therapist, I really endeavor (and hope other professionals) to give ideas that can be used by anyone, ideas that are practical enough to show the work that specifically addresses an identified problem, not something that simply gives us the feeling that we are doing something.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

Attitude of Platitude

Talking with a client the other day, the subject of platitudes came up.  Many of us use them routinely.  Whether opining about inferences made, used polemically, or giving feedback to a friend or loved one, they’re used fairly often in all different kinds of discourse.  These certainly occur in therapy, twelve step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Co-Da, ACA, Overeaters Anonymous, etc).  We hear them at church/synagogue.  They’re used copiously in political speeches and discussions.

Many years ago, a friend began saying to me when discussing platitudes, “Cliche alert!  Cliche alert!” ala the robot from “Lost in Space”.  It was his way of indicating that the user was often either not really saying anything, and/or wasn’t really aware of the content or context of the cliche being used.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “It is because we have at this present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.”  What I think he was getting at was pretty fundamental, and horror-producing… we all claim a right to truths and perceptions without really going through any real self or “concept” examination, and impose a subsequent template on the world in its wake.

That’s a fantastic way to create and/or perpetuate problems.  Am bringing it up because it seems that platitudes are a common ways this occurs.  Not that many platitudes or cliches aren’t true, just that we often don’t seem to examine if we’re using them, truly understand them, use them in context and the like.  I often see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use cliches and platitudes simply because they don’t know what else to say.

Going back to twelve step programs, one cliche that is often used is “attitude of gratitude”.  With equal measure, it seems that an “attitude of platitude” is what is often in use.  Ideas like “just do what you’re doing”, “keep it simple”, “I decide for me, you decide for you, we decide for us”, and more are arguably great ideas.  These ideas even have utility for depression, relationships, self esteem, addiction, grief, loss and more.  However, our command of the language doesn’t necessarily indicate a real handle on what they mean or how/when/what context to use them and make them practical.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

One Less Supervisee.

Yes!  As of today, I have one less supervisee… Brendan Thyne passed the second section of his licensing exam!  He has always been a fantastic therapist, and this is a great thing to happen for everyone, patients and colleagues alike.  Brendan Thyne, LMFT.  Nicely done Bren… you rock, and can’t say enough about who you are and the work you do.

Recognition for Partners in Recovery

Last Monday (9-26-11), Judy McGehee MFT, Melissa Lamoureux MS, Erika Gayoso MA, Ted Aaselund PsyD, Michael Cardenas, Jeffrey Craig, Jessica Wilson, Elvia Cortes MA and myself were recognized by the board of the Glendora Unified School District at their monthly meeting.  Formally, the agency is called “Partners in Recovery”, a nonprofit organization of clinicians providing services in Glendora and surrounding communities.

Judy, and I have been providing clinical supervision (a necessary component for grads and soon-to-be grads to get their “hours of experience” to sit for licensure as therapists or social workers) for the above mentioned interns and trainees.  Trainees are obtaining hours to graduate with their Masters degrees, interns are working on their hours (3000 hours of service over 104 weeks) to sit for the licensing examination with the Board of Behavioral Sciences.  In turn, the supervisees (the ones above and others from previous years) have provided thousands of hours of free services to the Glendora Unified School district, from elementary thru high school.  The supervisees from Partners have been assisting with issues of depression, abuse, family discord, eating disorders, suicide, addiction, grief and loss, bullying, self esteem, anxiety problems and more.

The program has been running since 2009 with Judy at the helm, and will continue at least through this year.  Judy, Ted, and the interns/trainees are all highly skilled clinicians.  It is a fantastic way for people to get services that might not have otherwise.  Nicely done everybody.

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