The year 2008 is coming to a close. I am writing this newsletter on the
last day of the year, and I hope all of my readers who celebrate
Christmas enjoyed theirs.
This issue is the first to provide an article that both stands alone,
and serves as background information for next issue's article. The
article addresses the seemingly trivial concept of diagnosis, which
turns out not to be so trivial after all. I think you'll find that it
leads to some surprising conclusions. As for the subject of the
follow-on article, you'll have to wait for the next issue to find out!
What would Christmas be without a few presents under the tree? Well, if
the article on diagnosis is the present, then the humor section will
provide a few stocking-stuffers from Santa. Enjoy, and have a Happy New
Kevin Thompson, Ph.D.
P.S. As always, if you do not wish to receive email from me, please let
know, and I will remove your name from my list.
Do you have experiences you would like to share about how you have
coped with mental illness? Uplifting stories? Educational stories?
Email me with your idea, and if it makes sense, I will be happy to
include it in a future issue.
Funny stuff from around the Internet.
Psychiatrist's Christmas Carols,
from the ULC Seminary Forum
A Christmas Carol for every Psychiatrists' Diagnosis...
Schizoprenia: Do You Hear What I Hear?
Multiple Personality Disorder: We Three Queens Disoriented Are
Dementia: I Think I'll Be Home For Christmas
Narcissistic: Hark The Herald Angels Sing About Me
Manic: Deck The Hall and Walls and House and Lawn and Streets and Stores
and Office and Town and Cars and Buses and Trucks and Trees and Fire
Paranoid: Santa Claus Is Coming To Get Me
Borderline Personality Disorder: Thoughts Of Roasting On An Open Fire
Personality Disorder: You Better Watch Out, I'm Gonna Cry, I'm Gonna Pout, Maybe I'll Tell You Why
Complusive Disorder: Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells
ADHD: Hark the herald angels sing
ba-rum-pa-pum-pum in the little town of Bethlehem up on the housetop in
a winter wonderland one foggy Christmas Eve hey how bout them Bears no
I don't want to switch to Sprint but thank you for shopping at K-Mart.
Snotty Physician's Office Receptionist
, from AllNurses.com
An older gentleman had an appointment to see the urologist who shared
offices with several other doctors. The waiting room was filled with
As he approached the receptionist desk he noticed
that the receptionist was a large unfriendly woman who looked like a
Sumo wrestler. He gave her his name.
In a very loud voice, the receptionist said,
'YES, I HAVE YOUR NAME HERE;
YOU WANT TO SEE THE DOCTOR ABOUT IMPOTENCE, RIGHT?'
All the patients in the waiting room snapped their heads around to look at the very embarrassed man.
He recovered quickly, and in an equally loud voice replied,
'NO, I'VE COME TO INQUIRE ABOUT A SEX CHANGE OPERATION,
BUT I DON'T WANT THE SAME DOCTOR THAT DID YOURS.'
At the Pearly Gates
, also from AllNurses.com
Three nurses go to heaven, and are awaiting their turn with St. Peter to plead their case to enter the pearly gates.
The first nurse says, "I worked in an emergency
room. We tried our best to help patients, even though occasionally we
did lose one. I think I deserve to go to heaven." St. Peter looks at
her file and admits her to heaven.
The second nurse says, "I worked in an operating
room. It's a very high stress environment and we do our best. Sometimes
the patients are too sick and we lose them, but overall we try very
hard." St. Peter looks at her file and admits her to heaven.
The third nurse says, "I was a case manager for an HMO."
St. Peter looks at her file. He pulls out a
calculator and starts punching away at it furiously, constantly going
back to the nurse's file. After a few minutes St. Peter looks up,
smiles, and says, "Congratulations! You've been admitted to heaven ...
for five days!"
Why Men Shouldn't Write Advice Columns
, from Drell's Descants
I hope you can help me here. The other day I set off for work,
leaving my husband in the house watching the TV as usual. I
hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards down the road when my
engine conked out and the car shuddered to a halt. I walked back
home to get my husband’s help.
When I got home I couldn’t believe my eyes. He
was parading in front of the wardrobe mirror dressed in my underwear
and high-heel shoes, and he was wearing my make up.
I am 32, my husband is 34 and we have been married
for twelve years. When I confronted him, he tried to make out that he
had dressed in my lingerie because he couldn’t find his own
underwear. But when I asked him about the make up, he broke down and
admitted that he’d been wearing my clothes for six months. I told
him to stop or I would leave him.
He was let go from his job six months ago and he
says he has been feeling increasingly depressed and worthless. I love
him very much, but ever since I gave him the ultimatum he has become
increasingly distant. I don’t feel I can get through to him
anymore. Can you please help?
Sincerely, Mrs. Sheila Usk
A car stalling after being driven a short distance can be caused by a
variety of faults with the engine. Start by checking that there is no
debris in the fuel line. If it is clear, check the jubilee clips
holding the vacuum pipes onto the inlet manifold. If none of these
approaches solves the problem, it could be that the fuel pump itself is
faulty, causing low delivery pressure to the carburetor float chamber.
I hope this helps.
Women in Leather,
from Running Forums
Why is it that a mans blood pressure goes up, his heart rate goes
up, his breathing rate increases and he begins to sweat when ever he
gets near a woman in leather?
She smells like a new truck.
Send me your
favorite joke, funny story, or amusing picture, as long as
it is related to mental illness. Keep it upbeat, please! Jokes
involving mental illness are welcome, but jokes that demean mental
illness are not. If it's appropriate, I'll put it up on the humor page.
Diagnosis: A Misunderstood Word
The Meaning of Diagnosis
The concept of diagnosis (the identification of the nature and cause of
a disease, or injury) has a central role in medicine. It is a
familiar concept, as we are accustomed to visiting our doctor with a
problem, having some tests done, and coming away with a diagnosis
and treatment. Yet for all of its familiarity, the medical concept of
diagnosis does not mean what most people think it means, and the
difference between the perception of diagnosis, and the reality, leads
to confusion when the patient's problems have to do with mental
Suppose, for example, that you visited your doctor with a case of strep
throat, which is a sore throat caused by an infection of the
bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes
Your doctor would ask questions about your symptoms, examine your
throat, possibly order a throat culture or other test, provide a
diagnosis of strep throat, and prescribe an antibiotic to fight the
The strep-throat example contains all of the elements of a medical
visit that patients take for granted, including a diagnosis (strep
throat) that identifies the specific cause of the problem (its etiology
, in medical terms), which makes possible the selection of a specific treatment that is known to work.
Now, contrast the neat picture of strep throat with that of meningitis
, which is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord (the meninges
). Meningitis is diagnosed based on symptoms such as neck stiffness, fever, headache, and so forth.
Superficially, the diagnoses of strep throat and meningitis appear
similar: A doctor provides the diagnosis based on symptoms and tests.
However, there is a very important difference between the two diagnoses.
- In the case of strep throat, tests identify the specific cause of the illness (Streptococcus pyogenes), and the name of the diagnosis even reflects this cause. (I will call this an etiological diagnosis.)
- In the case of meningitis, the specific cause is usually unknown
(it can be any of numerous viruses or bacteria), and the name of the
diagnosis reflects not the cause of the disease, but its primary
effect, i.e. inflammation of the meninges. (I will call this a symptomatic diagnosis.)
These two examples reflect the fact that there are two types of
diagnosis: One identifies the specific cause of an illness, while the
other is essentially a name for a group of symptoms or effects. While
the diagnoses may seem similar to the patient, their implications for
choice and effectiveness of treatment are significant.
- An etiological diagnosis enables the doctor to prescribe a treatment that addresses the specific cause of the illness.
- A symptomatic diagnosis does not identify a specific cause, and
so the only options available to the doctor are those that offer
symptomatic relief (such as medicine to relieve pain, fever, and
swelling), or which may treat the underlying cause successfully, but
for reasons that are unknown (such as the treatment of malaria by
quinine, whose effectiveness was clear centuries before its mechanism
of action was understood).
Diagnosis and Mental Illness
The relevance of this discussion to mental illness is simple: Diagnoses
of mental illness are of the symptomatic type, not the etiological type. In
other words, the diagnosis of depression, bipolar disorder, or
schizophrenia is essentially a label applied to a set of symptoms that
commonly occur together. The diagnosis does not reflect the underlying
cause of the disorder (its etiology), and usually does not even involve
diagnostic techniques other than a review of the patient's symptoms and
The unfortunate truth is that the causes of serious mental illness
are not known. The various theories proposed to explain them, which
involve concepts such as neurotransmitter concentrations and
receptor densities, probably have some degree of validity, but they
cannot be tested in patients, and lack the specificity required to
design treatements that precisely address the causes.
Critics of the pharmacological (medication-oriented) treatments of
mental illness, such as the Church of Scientology, frequently claim
that the inability to provide a etiological diagnosis for any mental illness
invalidates both the diagnosis, and the justification for medications
used to treat the illness. Their claims make superficial sense, as the
cause of mental illness is unknown, but their conclusions are simply
In reality, most
of the ills we encounter on a daily basis not only
have unknown causes, but are treated without obtaining any kind of
diagnosis. Consider, for example, the person who takes nonprescription
pain medicine for an occasional headache, or a decongestant for the
"common cold" (another symptomatic diagnosis). Few people refuse to
seek symptomatic relief just because they cannot obtain an etiological
diagnosis of their discomfort, and rightly so. The fact that the
diagnosis of mental illness, and treatments available for it, are
symptomatic in nature, does not make the treatments useless! Many
people have discovered profound relief through effective psychiatric
medications, and live much happier lives as a result.
The Future of Diagnosis
Yet as useful as the concept of diagnosis has been for medicine, the
challenges raised by mental illness lead me to think that it is
becoming less relevant. Given the central nature of diagnosis to
medicine, this is a shocking concept. After all, how can we treat
illnesses that we cannot diagnose?
The short answer is that we are already
treating illnesses we cannot diagnose. The tidy categories of mental
illness provided in diagnostic guidelines, such as the DSM-IV, often do
not map neatly to the problems patients bring to their doctors. Just
how useful is a diagnosis if three different doctors can diagnose the
same patient as suffering from depression, anxiety, and bipolar
disorder? How meaningful is a diagnosis of depression if the effective
medication turns out to be an antipsychotic? While the diagnostic
labels have some value, they clearly do not provide reliable guidelines
to treatment. They are simply the best that we can do right now.
To the extent that we understand anything about the etiology of mental
illness, this situation is not surprising. One thing that seems clear
is that depression, schizophrenia, and other mental
illnesses do not typically arise from simple causes, such as a lesion
in one part of the brain, or a failure to produce enough of a
particular biochemical. Instead, they arise from abnormalities of
nerve-cell populations, neurochemistry, and electrical activities
distributed throughout much of the brain and nervous system. If so,
then there is no single, localized, identifiable cause for (say)
depression, even in principle. As a result, no medication can simply
cure the problem in the sense that an antibiotic can cure an infection.
A true cure would have to restructure the brain and nervous
system of the patient, in a fashion customized for each person, a
capability that is far beyond the medical science of today.
If neither diagnosis nor treatment can truly address the reality of
mental illness, then where does that leave us? Eventually, many decades
in the future, I suspect that genuine cures will become available, but in
the near term, we are limited to increasingly effective symptomatic
treatment, which is still of great value. The challenge, then, is to
find ways to optimize treatment for conditions that do not have precise
diagnoses. I will take up that challenge in the next issue of this
The popular conception of diagnosis as a precise description of an
illness and its cause, which enables precise treatment, has always been inaccurate.
It is true in many cases, and useful when true, but diagnoses
are often labels applied to groups of symptoms, and do not address
the specific cause of the illness.
Further, while diagnosis and treatment have long been partners in the
practice of medicine, the usefulness of that partnership is
weakening because of the particular challenges posed by mental
illness. The concept of diagnosis is not likely to disappear, but
alternative ways of thinking about illness are likely to become more
useful in the future. In the meantime, those of us who live in the
present can be grateful that symptomatic relief for mental illness,
while imperfect, can provide tremendous benefits.
You Looking for Writers?
If you are looking for articles on mental-health and medication issues,
for an online or printed publication, send me a note. I write for
various publications, and may be able to help.
MentalMeds News --
Copyright © 2008 by Kevin Thompson
May be freely distributed in whole or in part, provided material is
attributed to Kevin Thompson, Ph.D. at www.MentalMeds.org