Dogs that do not bark: ostracism, psychache and suicidality

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie...

The Way Out, or Suicidal Ideation: George Grie, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1 boring old man referenced this historical and alarming analysis on the evolution of melancholia to major depressive disorder.  Science?  Evidence?  Fuggediboudit.

MDD, the most influential diagnosis of the past 30 years, emerged from intraprofessional pressures and the ability of research-oriented psychiatrists to gain dominance within the profession. Most importantly, psychiatry needed a credible classificatory scheme to maintain its legitimacy in both the broader medical profession and the culture at large. As prominent depression specialist Gerald Klerman (1984:539) succinctly summarized: “The decision of the APA first to develop DSM-III and then to promulgate its use represents a significant reaffirmation on the part of American psychiatry to its medical identity and to its commitment to scientific medicine.” Medical legitimacy required easily measurable and reliable diagnoses. The diagnostic criteria grounded in the Feighner measure that emerged in the DSM-III to resolve the many unsettled diagnostic controversies—and that have remained mostly unchanged until the present—did produce a far more reliable system of measurement than the amorphous criteria they replaced. Yet, this particular diagnostic system was not tested against the many alternative classifications that were available during the 1970s that might have been as good or even superior to the Feighner criteria. Instead, their adoption resulted from the shared commitment to a view of psychiatric diagnoses and the path that the psychiatric profession should follow among the research-oriented psychiatrists who controlled the development of the DSM-III classifications.

The developers of the MDD diagnosis did not foresee the profound consequences it would have. They inadvertently developed criteria that encompassed what had previously been viewed as a number of distinct types of depressive conditions. Endogenous, exogenous, and neurotic forms of depression could all meet the expansive criteria of the MDD diagnosis. Moreover, because it could incorporate short-lived responses to stressful conditions, MDD was the most suitable label for many of the heterogeneous and diffuse complaints that many primary medical care patients present. Likewise, depression became the most prevalent form of mental illness measured in epidemiological studies because so many community members suffer from common symptoms such as sadness, sleep and appetite difficulties, and fatigue that need only last for a two-week period to be considered disordered (Kessler et al. 2005). The sweeping qualities of the diagnosis also made it the most attractive target for the vastly popular SSRI medications that came on the market a few years after the publication of the DSM-III. Primarily through pharmaceutical advertisements, ubiquitous messages associated the most common forms of distress with major depression. This condition became psychiatry’s most marketable diagnosis, driving mental health treatment, research, and policy. Ultimately, the Age of Depression that has engulfed the United States and much of the Western world since 1980 resulted from relatively esoteric changes in diagnostic criteria.

It’s all about c.v. building by a chief resident of a backwater psychiatry program.

Then there’s this – relational ostracism – an unwanted enforced state of thwarted belonging.  It can take many forms, and its effects are severe, persistent and devastating.

The impact of stranger-ostracism is strong and painful,and has been shown to lead to aversive psychological responses (i.e., a threat to four primary human needs—belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence; see Williams, 2001), and a rangeof detrimental behavioral responses such as social susceptibility (e.g., Maner, et al., Carter-Sowell & Williams, 2007), inappropriate mate choice (e.g., Winten et al., 2006), risk-taking behavior (e.g. Daleet al., 2006), and anti-social behavior (e.g., Warburton, Williams, & Cairns, 2006).Despite the prevalence of ostracism in interpersonal relationships, ostracism research to date has not systematically investigated relational ostracism (i.e., the silent treatment, or ostracism carried out by one partner on another).

What’s missing in both of the above?  Their relationship to suicidality and psychache.

There is such a dearth of literature about ostracism – and virtually none about clinical intervention, treatment and support for people who are targets – that it isn’t surprising to find it absent.

But Kipling Williams, Thomas Joiner and C Fred Alford’s work can form a pillar by which to build a clinical and research model to aggressively address unbearable psychache, develop strategies (which may include public health and social justice policy and programming) to minimize and remove ostracism in all of its ugly forms, and to reformulate how suicidality is assessed and addressed.

The highest priority items for me would be to deep six “suicide assessment” in favor of distressors as described by Joiner’s three domains of perceived burdensomeness, thwarted belongingness and the capacity/rehearsal to tolerate self-inflicted death.

The second is to couple all assessment with immediate and adequate distress reduction which does not entail threats of or actual involuntary confinement, intrusive observation, forced medication, any type of restraint or anything other than active multi-sensory comfort, safety and mutually deemed appropriate and acceptable interventions, resources and supports.

One more thing that is never addressed in relation to psychache:  the extraordinary amount of physical and psychological energy toll it takes.  The relational ostracism study illustrates that for many, being a target is permanent as long as the “source” is present.

When one is powerless to escape ostracism, has no ability to affect a preferred future, and is effectively trapped, suicide becomes more salient as an alternative to put a permanent ending on an intolerable condition.

Here I discovered a study about people with severe/terminal illnesses who wish to hasten death – WTHD. Of course it doesn’t include people with psychiatric diagnoses (those people are nuts, donchaknow), but it fits right in with Joiner’s theory:

WTHD as a way of ending suffering

Among participants in the studies included, the WTHD also emerged as a way out, and in some cases [45][69] as the only way of ending their physical and psychological suffering. Death was not considered as an aim in itself, but rather as an escape. Indeed, the idea of putting an end to their life brought a sense of relief to some patients.

In the study by Schroepfer [71] the WTHD was regarded as a way out or as a means of relieving loneliness, fear, dependence, a lack of hope and the feeling that life was no longer enjoyable. The study by Nissim et al.[69] suggested that in the face of oppression and despair, death could be seen as the only alternative, with the WTHD being the essence of a plan to relieve suffering. Similarly, Lavery et al. [45] reported that the WTHD was seen by participants as a means of limiting disintegration and loss of self.

In five of the studies reviewed [14][46][69][70][71] the participants also described the WTHD as a way of reducing the suffering being caused to family and carers. Coyle and Sculco [14] interpret this as a gesture of altruism, since the WTHD is motivated by a desire to relieve the family of the burden of care and of witnessing their relative’s progressive deterioration. However, although the WTHD was driven by such a motive in some patients [71], in others (or simultaneously in the former patients) the desire to cause no more pain to their relatives led them to precisely the opposite conclusion, i.e. they repressed the WTHD. As such, their wish to protect their family took precedence over their own wish to hasten death [71].

And so we circle around to Alford’s “knowledge as disaster” concepts. See the About page for a listing.

Until the key elements of this circl(ing the drain) are interrupted permanently and predictably, suicidality will go on unabated, unaddressed and just as vicious.

The strangest part?  Psychiatry, with all of its disorders, doesn’t ever mention suicidality, psychache, thwarted belongingness, perceived burdensomeness and rehearsed capacity for self-inflicted death.

But suicide is on the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) radar – and of course, its proposed listing as suicide behavior disorder is nonsensical and is made up à la the Mad Hatter.

Cui bono?

I haven’t blogged about meta psychiatry much.  If you are following the unfolding DSM debacle, you may well see the demise of extant US psychiatry (take it away, 1 boring old man). As I responded to Steve Balt’s weasel words excuse-filled post, I believe that psychiatry has broken the social contract. UPDATE: Steve deleted my response and apparently banned me from commenting. In a perverse way, I’m pleased because it validates what I am writing here.)  It deserves to have limits placed on it via licensure restrictions and practice proscriptions. It should be demoted to technician helper status, and it should no longer be viewed as having the right to call itself a medical specialty.  Indeed, psychiatrists should be mandated to practice as physician’s assistants – under the direct supervision and accountability by a physician.

US psychiatry is having a Flexner Report (pdf, but well worth the hassle) moment, and here’s hoping that a modern day Flexner – or committee – will appear, free of conflicts of interest (snort), and raring to delve into every psychiatry department of every medical school, academic medical center and private and public psychiatric facility.

The key question here is who benefits?  In the case of the licensed helping professions, the underlying ethic historically has been that the patient’s interests are first and foremost, and that the helping relationship is one of beneficence.

Well, let’s see:

Are there clear standards of practice and care in psychiatry?

Beyond that of assessment of “symptoms” and socially defined unacceptable and undesirable behaviors (dangerousness, aggression, agitation), and establishing a therapeutic alliance, no there are not.  You will not find any Cochrane meta analyses of psychiatric care demonstrating efficacy, patient cure or higher quality of life, effective palliation or patient satisfaction. There are no medical diagnoses which fall under psychiatry.  Bunches of symptoms labelled arbitrarily with “disorder”, but no biologically-based pathophysiology.  That falls under neurology, or as manifestations of symptoms of endocrine, cardiac and infectious diseases.

What are the drivers of psychiatry?

Sources of reimbursement demand patient diagnoses, even if there is no “disorder” present.  The absence of a pathologic diagnosis means that the psychiatrist will not be paid by a third party.  Ergo, the patient becomes the means to the psychiatrist’s ends. Stigma?  What the hell do they care? Well, actually, distress from stigma is a source of their business.

Practice and professional autonomy.  No one can tell the psychiatrist how to practice.  Indeed, the literature is filled with admonitions for psychiatrists to use their “informed intuition” and “professional judgment.”  There is no difference between this and the practice of quackery.  None.  It’s based on nothing scientific, reproducible and ethical.  Moreover, in using intentionally flowery and obscure terms such as psychoeducation and psychopharmacology, psychiatrists try to make patient education and medication prescription something mysterious, specialized and requiring advanced knowledge and practice. That is deceptive, inaccurate and serves only the psychiatrist’s interests in perpetuating a sham specialty.

How does extant US psychiatry practice benefit patients?

It doesn’t. Patients present seeking help for distressing symptoms – feelings, emotions, perceptions, thinking and behavior which interferes with their perceived quality of life. Alternatively, they present involuntarily when law enforcement becomes involved.

The therapeutic alliance is a dishonest relationship which is presented as one of equals, partnering to address distressing symptoms.  In reality, it is a sham cover for the psychiatrist to retain control and power and to coerce the patient into compliance with the psychiatrist’s ordered treatment.  Many, if not most, medications used by psychiatrists cause iatrogenic harm – up to and including death.  Patients are not routinely warned about these, and so cannot and do not make informed decisions about taking them.  The adverse effects of them are the most common reasons that patients stop taking them, which is entirely their right.

Psychiatric hospital facilities are prisons.  There is no therapeutic benefit to patients.  The routines used in them are designed to maintain power and control over patients by staff, to facilitate custodial functions (eating, hygiene, activity), and to intrusively observe patients/inmates.  Most deny inmates access to fresh air, direct sunlight and nature.  Diets are non-nutritive. Patients are denied visitors, their dignity, and their civil rights.

Most of all, the psychiatrist/patient relationship is judgmental, dehumanizing and designed to keep the patient under the psychiatrist’s “care” on a chronic basis.  The emphasis is on continuity, not cure.

Everything about this is unethical, unprofessional and wrong.

Why write about it here?

People who suffer with suicidality need a place of absolute safety to discuss their feelings of unbearable distress.  They need to be able to speak with someone who is knowledgeable about the distressors and their causes, tolerates having someone else share this distress, and has the capability and professional experience to support and coach them to lower their level of distress to the point that they can then address alleviating the underlying causes.

Patients need to be equal partners in the relationship, and their needs, wants, desires and functional goals should be paramount within the constraints of civil society. (Psychiatry is alone in hosting a forensic subspecialty and working for law enforcement agencies [prisons and jails] as well as serving as for-profit expert witnesses in court trials.)  There should never be a threat of law enforcement involvement as a condition of care.  There should be no threat of involuntary incarceration – forget about calling it hospitalization – it’s no such thing.

In the Reading List, I’ve included some programs and interventions which do this.  But to date, I’ve not found a single licensed provider of any sort who has the above skill set and practices by the stated objectives. And while support groups can be helpful in long term coping and adaptation, I think that acutely distressed people deserve to have competent, capable and non-coercive, humane care.

That care is decidedly not to be found within extant US psychiatry.