Last month’s radio programme about lobotomy (1) is interesting because it slightly departs from the usual historical scripts, which are: evil psychiatrists used lobotomy as a destructive form of social control, or well-meaning but weak ones rubber-stamped the decisions of others, such as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
It emphasises that the inventor, and two of the main promoters of lobotomy were in fact not psychiatrists. Politician and neurologist Egas Moniz started the ball rolling. Then, American neurologist Walter Freeman, and the British surgeon Sir Wylie McKissock, both continued to do thousands of operations despite evidence for uncertain therapeutic results.
Historical radio and TV programmes about the bad aspects of the old asylum system (which I don’t advocate returning to, but will say it was always underfunded) are often a means, I think, of deflecting attention from current NHS mental health failings. Other occasional broadcasts about the mental health systems of second- or third-world countries generally have the same function.
At least this one is a little different. However, it seems to me that there is a clear parallel between lobotomy and another kind of invasive operation for a serious behavioural (and often psychiatric) disorder today.
Although obesity surgeons are not household names (yet), there has never been a proper trial of gastric banding or the more serious procedure of partial gastric reduction, despite thousands of operations being done annually (2). The rush to surgery is delaying the development of new non-surgical treatments, and the application of at least one recently developed and partially tested treatment (for obesity-linked ADD / ADHD).
The programme-maker did not draw attention to this obvious parallel. Was he or his boss warned off by England’s Department of Health, which for much of the last decade had surgeons both as chief medical officer and as a health minister? Or was it (perhaps more likely) BBC self-censorship?
BBC journalists don’t themselves seem to believe, any more, that the “licence fee” protects their independence because it is supposedly “not a tax”. But they continue to resist the suggestion that their work should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
So ordinary patients who have experienced poor results, infections or other complications from bariatric surgery, may never be able to discover the extent of any such BBC collusion. The same goes for relatives who, following one of the thankfully few deaths directly caused by bariatric surgery, may take a retrospective interest in how this surgical descendant of lobotomy was promoted.
(2) See my previous pieces on obesity: https://drnmblog.wordpress.com/category/obesity/
Drafted 2nd December; final version 8th December
Some people with ADD / ADHD use cannabis regularly, and I have had patients who moved on to prescribed ADD / ADHD medication, finding it both more helpful and lower in unwanted effects than cannabis.
As the diagnosis of ADD / ADHD grows in the UK, I suspect this will become more of a factor in the debate about whether cannabis should be criminalised to a lesser extent, or even decriminalised altogether.
I don’t have a formal professional view either way on that issue, especially as I’m not a specialist in “Substance Misuse”. But I would say that the arguments of the leading UK advocate for reducing criminal sanctions on cannabis, Professor David Nutt, seem far from clear-cut.
On his Blog (http://profdavidnutt.wordpress.com), Professor Nutt suggests that the risk of increasing schizophrenia in young people, which could result from decriminalisation, is not of great concern. On his own figures, for every extra million young men using cannabis, about 200 might develop schizophrenia who wouldn’t otherwise do so.
His argument seems to be that alcohol use would probably decline (because of switching from alcohol to cannabis), and the benefits from that would outweigh any cannabis-related harms.
He might be right, but I think at least two aspects of the debate have not received as much attention as they should.
First, it does seem very difficult to compare the harm of an often devastating psychotic disorder, with alcohol-related problems. Is it really as simple as saying that improving and extending life for tens of thousands of people, by reducing their alcohol intake, logically outweighs the risk of “only” a few hundred people developing schizophrenia?
Secondly, I think the wider debate about “harm reduction”, and Professor Nutt’s related view that UK medical doctors should be able to prescribe cannabis (as they can elsewhere in Europe) would benefit from an acknowledgement that medical prescribing of some mind-altering substances has been, and remains, too lax.
When UK general practitioners, from the mid-1990’s, were widely encouraged to prescribe antidepressants after little more than a ten-minute consultation, this state-approved practice was never properly tested. The concerns about misuse and harms of Seroxat and other antidepressants followed.
Of course, as a specialist prescriber of mind-altering substances myself (hopefully, always as a reasonable therapy), I have a direct vested interest. But it does seem to me that promoters of medication, whether natural or synthetic, branded or generic, freely available or eye-wateringly expensive, would generally be more credible if they listened to my (free) advice.
I went back to school myself yesterday, starting an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. This follows on from my last blog piece, because quite a few other “Dickens obsessives” have done this course, and some of those teaching on it seem to acknowledge similar afflictions…
Many of my patients, especially those with ADD / ADHD, have thought about picking up where things went wrong in their own education. This may mean going back to do a similar course to the one which they dropped out of; or deciding that was the wrong choice anyway, and studying something quite different.
Although I have dropped out of a couple of courses myself in the past, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen this time. To some extent this is because I believe that I understand my own mild ADD tendencies better (1): my nineteenth-century interest is not an “obsession” in the clinical sense of being related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but more of a recurrent ADD / ADHD “hyperfocus”.
When the comedian Rory Bremner talked about his possible ADHD in May this year, it attracted a lot of media attention. But I was uneasy, feeling that the half-hour BBC radio programme appeared to risk trivialising his problems: nearly forgetting his lines on stage, losing things, being a bit disorganised. Hardly a definite case for treatment in someone who is, after all, a very succesful entertainer.
There was no mention of his own past history of anxiety and depression (2), conditions which are well-documented as being linked to ADD / ADHD. In my experience, ADD / ADHD is often a direct cause of anxiety and depression, not least because disorganisation and impulsivity lead to negative life events.
A couple of weeks ago the mental health charity SANE launched its “Black Dog” campaign, to re-raise awareness of depression (3). Despite Bremner being a prominent part of SANE’s campaign, it attracted nowhere near the same media coverage nationally.
I have no idea whether Rory Bremner’s past problems with anxiety and depression had any link with ADHD. But it does seem worrying that the May BBC radio programme did not explore the possible harmful consequences of undertreatment.
*See The Gift of ADHD?, below at: https://drnmblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/the-gift-of-adhd/
Drafted by 5th August 2011, published at DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 6th October 2011
Until recently, most of my ADD / ADHD patients who did well on a trial of medication, were then able to obtain further NHS prescriptions from their GP.
My website highlights the 2009 NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) ADHD guidelines, because the guidelines are strongly in favour of diagnosis and treatment choice. When NICE was set up as a state-funded body in 1999 there was a commitment, which was made legally stronger in 2005, that the NHS would be provided with enough money to follow its recommendations.
Last year, the new Government’s Conservative Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, abolished this legal commitment for GP’s to follow NICE guidelines.
Under financial pressure to reduce prescribing, GP’s look at adult ADD / ADHD, and see that no medication is licensed. Unless the GP has direct experience of treatment benefits, this relatively new diagnosis inevitably becomes a target for cost reduction.
The fact is, medication licensing is really about the claims that a pharmaceutical company can make for its product, rather than what clinicians can prescribe (and the NICE guidelines are more relevant to that). But such distinctions make little difference to GP’s, especially when fully licensed ADD / ADHD treatment in children and teenagers is still often opposed by prominent NHS academic psychiatrists.
My own experience is that ADD / ADHD medication, together with counselling and psychotherapy which takes diagnosis properly into account, can improve interpersonal and work functioning enormously. If patients do have to fund diagnosis and treatment themselves, it is likely to be well worth it, as long as they have moderate or severe ADD / ADHD. Treatment could even be cost-effective if the ADD / ADHD is milder: what price can you put on better relationships?
Drafted by 2nd July 2011, published at DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 6th October 2011
Presentation / Debate at SimplyWellBeing adult ADHD group meeting: Hammersmith Irish Cultural Centre, 20th March 2011
“Thanks again to Andrew [Lewis] for inviting me to offer a few comments on whether ADHD can have advantages, or should even be seen as a gift, rather than a disorder.
Just to mention that when I talk about “ADHD”, I mean what I usually write as “ADD / ADHD”, because the distinction is important to many people who do not have significant hyperactivity.
It’s now just over a year since I first met Andrew. In that very first meeting, he suggested I give a talk in this Sunday morning group, on ADHD diagnosis and medication. The fact that I’m back now suggests that he does not entirely regret that impulsive decision.
If we look at impulsivity, rather than the other two aspects of ADHD, inattention and hyperactivity, it’s probably easiest to see the potential advantages. Another word for impulsivity is spontaneity, and many people who are the opposite of impulsive, who never do anything unless they have thought through all the possible consequences, often feel oppressed by their lack of spontaneity. People who lack spontaneity may well have mild Asperger syndrome or autistic spectrum conditions.
One interesting thing about ADHD, which Andrew and I have discussed, is that if you look at perhaps the four most prominent US specialists, the psychiatrists Ed Hallowell and John Ratey say that ADHD often, maybe always (1), has advantages of creativity and originality; while the psychologists Russell Barkley and Thom Browne both tend to say that abilities and talents in an individual are separate from ADHD.
Who is right? Despite what Andrew may be going to say, I think this is logically a very difficult question. I really don’t know the answer, and for the moment I’m not convinced that it really matters, as long as the individual person with ADHD is advised that the self-understanding, and possibly treatment, which goes with the diagnosis, tends to free up previously undeveloped abilities and talents. Both sides of this particular debate agree on that.
Hallowell, Ratey, Barkley and Browne are working and writing in the US, and not the UK. There is a reason, I think, why we should perhaps make sure the psychologists’ views are heard over here, maybe even at the expense of the psychiatrists’, at least for a while. And I am speaking as a psychiatrist myself.
The more you stress the advantages of any disorder or condition, the less serious you tend to make it sound. Even before the current climate of financial savings, which is affecting the NHS, public opinion in the UK was very sceptical about ADHD.
The idea that you need assessment by a professional, for a neurodevelopmental condition that is a hidden gift, could sound like an indulgence to many people. I might be wrong though, because diagnosis of dyslexia has increased substantially over the last couple of decades,
despite similar claims.
The idea that you need treatment for a hidden gift, with ADHD medication which can have side effects, and can sometimes be abused, will probably sound like “enhancement” rather than “treatment” to many sceptics. I am not at all sure that the UK is ready to allow psychological enhancement with Ritalin right now.
Again, I might be wrong, and it could be that concerns of this kind motivate the better development of non-medication-based approaches, as well as medications other than Ritalin.
But for the moment I will stick to talking about treatment of a “disorder” rather than a “diversity” or even a “condition”, and leave it up to my patients to decide whether the gifts that their ADHD has been holding back, are part of their ADHD or not.”
(1) I think they lean towards “always” rather than “often”. But they are not fully explicit on this: see Delivered from Distraction (2005), pages 5 and 14-15
Oliver James (see the previous Blog piece, 4th February) is unpopular with many people and parents affected by ADD / ADHD. Not a big surprise, given his strong view that genes have been over-emphasised, and early parenting neglected, as causes of all the common mental and behavioural disorders. Also his rampant anti-Americanism (1) (it is probably significant that ADD / ADHD diagnosis and treatment, especially for adults, has largely developed in the US).
I think that he is largely wrong on those key issues, but also that his books still contain interesting and sometimes valid points. He is right, for example, to suggest that many people can gain as much “insight” from “work, sport or art”, as from psychotherapy (2).
There is no magic formula to reveal who will, or will not, be helped by psychotherapy. And James even implies that “therapy culture” could make you worse (3), although this is more of a comment on reality television than ordinary professional practice.
His linking of the Positive Psychology movement with materialism and consumerism is doubtful to say the least, because academics like Seligman have constantly stressed the primacy of interpersonal relationships for promoting happiness and preventing depression. I wonder if James was trying to make a somewhat different point about the limits of his own “Affluenza” argument: below a certain level of material provision family and social life become difficult, and psychotherapy of any kind should not collude in denying that.
As for ADD / ADHD, it is disappointing that books written in 2002 and 2007, while recognising that autism may be substantially genetic, do not accept the same might apply to other developmental conditions.
Where I agree with Oliver James most of all, in these books, is the sense that exploration of the past through psychotherapy is an uncertain process, and that objective sources such as accounts from others, or school records, should be sought wherever possible. His recommendation to “Interview your mother or father or a sibling or an adult who was close to the family when you were small” (4) sounds close to a description of the diagnostic history-taking approach used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists.
Therefore I think it a bit of a regression when he appears to suggest, in Affluenza, that psychotherapy may reliably uncover buried memories from childhood (5). Despite a clear non-endorsement of transference-based reconstruction (6), he fails to offer any warning about the possibility of “false memories”, either overly negative or positive, being created in the psychotherapy process itself.
(1) They F*** you up (2002) paperback: p228 (2) p259 (3) p246 (4) p182
(5) Affluenza (2007) paperback: p442: “…help with directly recalling what went on in my childhood”
(6) p442: Avoid the therapist “…if they fob you off with ‘We will investigate how your past is affecting you through the way you relate to me’”
I only share James’ views about using transference as investigation: the therapeutic technique may be useful for some people, as long as the therapist does not make claims for reliable historical reconstruction.
Thanks to Andrew Lewis and Richard Sherry for comments on these two pieces.