MentalMeds News
A Newsletter from
Issue 10

Dear Reader,

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 Year!

Kevin Thompson, Ph.D.

P.S. As always, if you do not wish to receive email from me, please let me know, and I will remove your name from my list.

Table of Contents

Calling for Articles

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 Hydrants and.........

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

Obessive 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

An older gentleman had an appointment to see the urologist who shared offices with several other doctors. The waiting room was filled with patients.
    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,


    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,


At the Pearly Gates, also from

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

Dear Walter:

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

Dear Sheila:

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 illness.

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 infection.

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.
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.

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 history.

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 wrong.

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 newsletter.


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.

Are 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