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mental health

IAPT: The best laid schemes

5 Oct, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

Oh dear, Lord Layard will not be happy, but Zoe Williams will be. It looks like the wheels may be coming off the UK government’s plans to provide cognitive behavioural therapy for all – Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. With reports that there aren’t enough suitably-qualified therapists to go around and that funding may be in jeopardy, The Observer reports:

A flagship government strategy to train an army of therapists to get the nation off antidepressants and into work could be dramatically scaled back amid claims it is experiencing problems. More here.

I wonder if there is any provision for psychotherapy in David Cameron’s ‘Get Britain Working’ programme?

Do we need yet another homicide inquiry?

17 May, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

Last week NHS Yorkshire and Humber released the findings of an external investigation into the care and treatment of Benjamin Holiday. You can find the report here. In January 2005 Holiday, a young man with schizophrenia, killed a pregnant woman, Tina Stevenson, stabbing her in the street close to her home. He was under the care of a community mental health team and living at home with his mother. Having no recollection of the attack he pleaded guilty to manslaughter with diminished responsibility and has been detained indefinitely in a special hospital.

Department of Health guidelines (shouldn’t that be directives?) call for a series of reviews when a homicide has been committed by a person who has been in contact with mental health services:
1) A fast-track (72 hours) investigation to identify any necessary immediate action
2) An internal mental health trust investigation (within 3 months)
3) And finally, an independent investigation commissioned by the Strategic Health Authority.

The reasons for an external investigation are obvious: lessons must be learned to prevent such events happening again. But do they work? They certainly provide a revealing insight into the day to day care of someone living with a severe mental illness, affording a degree of transparency for relatives and carers that is rarely available elsewhere. And outcomes? There have been at least 400 homicide inquiries in the last 15 years yet the rates of homicide by people with mental disorder remains unchanged: 30-50 from 800 homicides annually, with fewer than 10 committed by people with a psychotic illness (the remainder largely related to personality disorder and drug misuse). The recommendations have become familiar too: improved risk assessment, better communication and better record-keeping. Another report isn’t needed to tell us that. The Holiday Inquiry illustrates their inefficiency. Tina Stevenson was killed in 2005; the inquiry reports four years later in which time things have changed. We have a new Mental Health Act, community treatment orders, crisis resolution teams and I’m sure that like elsewhere, services in Hull have been completely reorganised. The authors acknowledge that much of what they say was reported in 2006 by the mental health trust’s internal review.

Much has been made of bringing an end to the ‘blame culture’ in the NHS which encourages staff to cover up errors for fear of retribution. The new focus is on systematic factors that allow such errors to be made. It is human nature, however, to search for a scapegoat and in this inquiry: “…if we are allowed to indulge in one piece of viewing this investigation through a ‘retrospective-scope’ we would conclude this was a missed opportunity to possibly break into the cycle”. What they are referring to here is the decision by a social worker not to complete an application to detain Holiday under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act two months before the homicide. At the time however, he was agreeing to an informal admission, and following his discharge one month later he was seen by a nurse on two occasions and given his depot antipsychotic injection. It is just as plausible that by detaining him at that time he may have become less cooperative with treatment and disengaged completely – a classic example of hindsight bias.

Of course these points have been made before. In 1999 the DoH’s Safer Services report recommended that homicide inquiries be scrapped but they keep on coming. Clearly they fulfil a social need. The Department of Health guidelines state that mental health services must ‘be seen to investigate’ any serious incident and though not explicit, the allaying of the publics’ anxiety about the mentally ill is key. We used to have asylums to contain the mad, but now we have community care – an idea that now attracts as much vilification as political correctness. The fear of mental illness is as potent as ever and homicide inquiries serve to remind us that whilst they may live among us, they remain alien and dangerous – as illustrated by headlines such as this: Crazed Killers – trust’s failings exposed.

Welcome to the asylum!

30 Apr, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

If they are not mad when they go into these cursed Houses, they are soon made so by the barbarous Usage they there suffer.
Daniel Defoe, Augusta Triumphans (1728)

“Civil lunatics are people that the society doesn’t want to be roaming around causing problems, unfortunately they are dumped in our prisons”, comments the controller of Enugu Prison in Nigeria. In this article from the BBC Andrew Walker visits a prison where people with mental illness may be detained indeterminately by court order, often on spurious grounds. Given the level of overcrowding in Nigerian jails, the prison service itself is keen for ‘civil lunatics’ to be diverted elsewhere – sounds familiar?

Prison Rehabilitation and Welfare Action
(PRAWA) is a human rights organisation lobbying for the discharge of the mentally ill from prisons. Since 2007 they have managed to get 54 people released from Enugu Prison, clearly an arduous task. And what happens in the community? You can read more about mental health care in Nigeria here.

Interesting fact: there are more Nigerians working as psychiatrists in the UK alone than in the whole of Nigeria.

Some are more equal than others

26 Mar, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

With free market capitalism seemingly spinning off into oblivion, despite the best efforts of our Supreme Leader and his G20 disciples, the benefits of globalisation for the world economy are looking a little shaky at the moment. Whilst it has brought an unprecedented increase in prosperity for some, for others low wages and an economy underpinned by massive debt mean that the world seems a more unequal place than ever before. These inequalities are of course not just international but intranational: countries are made up of classes.

In 2004 Michael Marmot charted the impact of inequality on health in The Status Syndrome. This month his text is joined on the shelf by The Spirit Level (Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett). Both books marshal an array of epidemiological studies to present a robust bottom line: there is a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social and environmental problems. What’s more, it isn’t just the poorest in the most unequal societies that suffer but the richest too. So according to Wilkinson, “countries such as the US, the UK and Portugal, where the top 20% earn seven, eight or nine times more than the lowest 20%, scored noticeably higher on all social problems at every level of society than in countries such as Sweden and Japan, where the differential is only two or three times higher at the top.” And those social problems range from obesity to big prison populations, from teenage pregnancy rates to, of course, mental illness.

That an unequal society leads to more mental distress may seem self-evident but a study recently published by the World Health Organisation – Mental health, resilience and inequalities – amasses a broad range of evidence to show that mental health problems are not only more pronounced in unequal societies, but that mental health is also key to understanding the impact of inequality on a range of other health outcomes. Dr Lynne Friedli, the report’s author, maintains that the chronic stress of struggling with material disadvantage is intensified by doing so in more unequal societies. In turn chronic stress has a deleterious effect on the neuroendocrine, cardiovascular and immune systems increasing the risk of disorders such as coronary heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Maybe so, although the strength of the evidence is contestable. But what’s to be done? Dr Friedli’s wish list seems rather optimistic:

• social, cultural and economic conditions that support family and community life
• education that equips children to flourish both economically and emotionally
• employment opportunities and workplace pay and conditions that promote and protect mental health
• partnerships between health and other sectors to address social and economic problems that are a catalyst for psychological distress
• reducing policy and environmental barriers to social contact

This sounds too much like ‘motherhood and apple pie’ to me, although a strident call for wealth redistribution would probably be asking a lot of WHO. Of course, the UK government would claim that they have made considerable progress in all of these areas over the last decade. If that is the case, why is there a need to convene a new National Equality Panel to show how your chances in life are influenced by, among other things, ‘how much money you earn’? We are also awaiting another review of Health Inequalities in England to show us the way.

Gordon Brown is busy trumpeting the need for economic and financial reforms ahead of the G20 meeting, or as it has now been rebranded: the London Summit. An opportunity to redress global imbalances? Not bloody likely. I’m more inclined to believe this pithy observation from the Financial Times: “A crisis-torn world is in no mood for the heavy lifting of global rebalancing. Policies are being framed with an aim towards recreating the boom. Washington wants to get credit flowing again to indebted US consumers. And exporters – especially in Asia – would like nothing better than a renewal of demand led by the world’s biggest consumer. It is a recipe for disaster.”

Evidence mounts that CBT is bogus

12 Mar, 09 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

So writes Zoe Williams in the Guardian newspaper. To be fair, she is taking a swipe at the UK government’s latest wheeze: cognitive-behavioural therapy for anyone finding themselves unemployed in the recession. I’m no CBT evangelist myself and think it gets an all too easy ride, often at the expense of other talking treatments. It’s no quick fix and certainly not a panacea. Like other evidence-based treatments for anxiety and depression CBT works for some people but not for others, and I am not at all convinced that Lord Layard’s army of CBT therapists will cure the nation’s ills. However, Ms Williams’s assertion that cognitive behaviour therapy is bogus is frankly, er, bogus. In fact this article is typical of the lazy, ill-considered journalism that serves to reinforce the stigma that shadows mental illness and its treatment.

I appreciate the difficulties of unravelling professional jargon in a short newspaper article but her attempt to describe CBT in a prison workshop is laughable: “[it] dismantles cognitive illusions, of which prisoners have many (among them high self-esteem, which causes them to esteem their own needs over other people’s)”. Does that make sense to you? For a rather more comprehensible explanation of cognitive-behavioural therapy have a look at this leaflet.

The next step of course is to rope in a guru, in this case the ubiquitous Oliver James, a psychologist who reigns supreme in the field of media-shrinks following the excommunication of Raj Persaud. Apparently James is the pre-eminent anti-CBT fury [sic] and his evidence for the bogus nature of this treatment? One study published in 2004 showing that after 18 months CBT was of little benefit in comparison to no treatment, James summarises, “CBT gives sufferers the illusion that they’re feeling better…it’s hypnosis basically”. Actually this paper isn’t a study or a trial of CBT. It’s a review, a critique of the problems involved when using randomised trials to provide evidence for talking treatments in general. Not quite the same thing then…and no mention of hypnosis either. There are however, an increasingly large number of trials and reviews of trials showing that CBT does work particularly well for anxiety disorders, but also for depression. Rather than relying on one expert and one paper you might be better off sticking with Google.

When it comes to discussing health, the Guardian journos might learn a thing or two from the oft-maligned Red Tops. Take a look at these pieces by ‘Dr Keith’ of the Sun on epilepsy and risk: clear, concise, and importantly, comprehensible.

A Tale of Two Studies: abortion and mental health

17 Dec, 08 | by Steven Reid, Evidence-Based Mental Health

I came across both of these statements in the medical press last week:

  1. Abortion does not cause mental health problems, says large review
  2. Abortion is bad for your mental health

Which one to believe? The first was a news headline in the BMJ, referring to a recently-published systematic review published in Contraception, a journal dealing with matters related to…contraception. The second is the editorial summing-up of a cohort study in the current issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry. In the hotly-contested battle over abortion and choice these contradictory findings will be welcomed as further ammunition by both sides.

Have a look at the two papers though, and it’s not so clear that their findings really are in such stark opposition. The systematic review summarises 21 studies looking at elective abortion and long-term mental health outcomes. As is usually the case with observational research poor quality studies found the biggest differences. The highest quality studies (using better methods) found few, if any, differences in psychological outcomes between women who had abortions and the comparison groups. The second study is an analysis of data from a birth cohort in New Zealand – it arrived too late for inclusion in the systematic review but would clearly be considered good quality. Here some differences were found: abortion was associated with a small increase in risk. Women who had an abortion were 30% more like to have subsequent mental health problems (depression, anxiety, or drug misuse) when compared to other pregnancy outcomes.

You can try and explain this positive finding by looking at the differences in methods and comparison groups, as well as differing abortion legislation in the UK, US and New Zealand, but it’s difficult to argue with the authors’ comment that “for a minority of women abortion is a highly stressful life event which evokes distress, guilt and other negative feelings that may last for years.” That seems pretty obvious to me and raises the question of whether in this instance more research really is needed.

So do these studies inform the debate on abortion? I’m not convinced that they will add much to what are primarily moral arguments but one consistent finding is the lack of evidence that abortions reduce the risk of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy. Despite this, over 90% of abortions in the UK are undertaken on the grounds that to proceed with the pregnancy would pose a serious threat to the mental health of the woman. Isn’t it time that the law acknowledged reality: that access to abortions in the UK is largely unrestricted?

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