All tip, no iceberg: a new way to think about mental illness



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Symptoms of mental disorders are inter-connected.
Pixabay. , CC BY-SA

Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

Mental disorders are traditionally seen as rather like flowering bulbs. Above the ground we see their symptoms, but we know their source lies hidden beneath the surface. If we treat the symptoms without addressing the cause – cut off the flower without uprooting the bulb – they will just flower again later.

The idea that each mental disorder has an underlying cause is itself deeply rooted. We imagine that underneath the clinical symptoms of schizophrenia or depression there is an underlying disease entity. If treatment is to be effective and lasting rather than merely symptomatic it must target that concealed origin.

People have had many ideas about the form the unseen cause might take. Medieval physicians imagined a “stone of folly” that had to be surgically removed from a mad person’s head before sanity could prevail. Funnily enough, the best known painting of such an operation, Hieronymus Bosch’s The extraction of the stone of madness, shows the “stone” to be a flower bulb.


Wikimedia Commons

More recently, psychiatrists often suppose the hidden cause is neural, such as a brain disease or chemical imbalance. Psychologists sometimes prefer to invoke specific cognitive malfunctions or conflicts. What unifies them is the idea that a cluster of symptoms can be traced back to an underlying pathology.

This way of thinking makes perfect sense in some areas of medicine. A collection of bodily symptoms often points to an underlying disease process. Scarlet fever is revealed by a bright red rash, fever and a sore throat, all caused by an underlying bacterial infection. It would be folly to treat it symptomatically. Pacifying the rash with wet towels, taming the fever with aspirin and drinking tea with honey to soothe the throat would not attack the hidden, microbial cause.

Unfortunately mental disorder is not like infectious disease. Rarely is there a single, identifiable cause underlying a group of symptoms. Most psychiatric symptoms spring from a tangled multiplicity of causes. In addition, many symptoms are not specific to a single condition.

Billions of research dollars have been spent trying to locate the unique hidden cause of each mental disorder. The results have been spectacularly disappointing, not because mental health researchers are inept but because the causes of mental disorder are extremely complex.

To extend the botanical metaphor, mental disorders are less like flowering bulbs than like bamboo. An interconnected network of underground roots (hidden causes) generates many visible stems (symptoms). No stem can be traced back to a single root, and no root feeds a single stem.

The network approach to mental disorder

If there is no one-to-one link between symptoms and hidden causes, maybe we are better off putting aside the search for those causes. A new way of thinking about mental disorder argues just that, proposing that we focus full attention on symptoms instead.

Rather than seeing symptoms as manifestations of hidden disease entities – as the tip of an iceberg – this “network approach” tells us to examine how symptoms relate to one another. It argues the symptoms of a disorder cluster together not because they share a hidden cause but because they interact with and potentially reinforce one another.

The network approach to mental disorder, developed by Dutch psychologists Denny Borsboom, Angelique Cramer and colleagues, represents each symptom as a node in network. It draws links between these nodes to reveal the symptoms that are most strongly related, such as which ones influence other symptoms most powerfully and extensively.

For example, loss of appetite and weight loss are both symptoms of major depression. If researchers found they were closely related, and appetite loss drives weight loss, then an arrow would be drawn from the former to the latter. By this means a group of dynamically related symptoms can be represented by a network diagram.

A network diagram can show how symptoms are inter-related.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Several features of the resulting networks are particularly interesting. Certain symptoms can be shown to be central, related to many others, whereas others are more peripheral. Certain symptoms primarily cause others, whereas some symptoms are primarily caused by others.

Because mental disorders are seen as mutually reinforcing symptoms, clinicians should target central symptoms that cause many others. Successfully treating these symptoms should have broadly beneficial effects. It should reduce other existing symptoms and prevent the spread to new symptoms.

Certain symptoms may also be bridges from one disorder network to another. For example, sleep disturbance among people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may cause fatigue, and fatigue may serve as a bridge to the depression network by activating concentration problems and guilt.

Examples

Researchers have carried out network analyses of several disorders, using similar computational tools as those used in social network analysis, an approach to mapping relations among people. One study of several substance use problems showed that using the substance more than planned was usually the most central symptom. It was strongly related to having worse withdrawal symptoms and needing more of the substance to get the same effect (“tolerance”).

Several studies have explored anxiety disorders. A study of social anxiety showed that avoidance of potentially threatening social situations was a central symptom and thus a prime target for treatment. Research on PTSD following a catastrophic earthquake in China showed that sleep difficulty and hypervigilance for future threats had especially potent influences on other symptoms.

Turning to depression, a study of short term fluctuations in symptoms revealed the centrality of loss of pleasure in the symptom network. It activated an assortment of other symptoms including sadness, loss of energy and interest in activities and irritability. In contrast, sadness, crying and a loss of interest in sex were incidental.

Another study showed that depressed people whose symptoms were more densely connected were more likely to have persistent depression two years later. This finding accords with the network view that symptoms of mental disorders can be self-reinforcing. People whose symptom networks form a tighter web may therefore have greater difficulty overcoming their problems.

Implications

The network approach has several important implications. For researchers, it suggests that the search for single causes of mental disorders is quixotic. Of course, symptoms have an assortment of social and neurobiological sources, but these sources are highly unlikely to be unique to one condition.

For practising psychiatrists and psychologists the network view implies that symptoms should be taken seriously in their own right and not seen merely as pale manifestations of underlying disease. Treatments should directly target particular symptoms, not a fictitious hidden cause.

Boorsboom and Cramer make this point amusingly in regard to major depression.

If [depression] does not exist as an entity that exists independently of its symptoms (like a tumour does), attempting to treat it analogous to the way medical conditions are treated (cutting away the tumour) is like trying to saddle a unicorn.

The ConversationThe network approach also has a strong message for all of us who care about mental health and illness. We should abandon the last vestiges of our belief that mental disorders are best seen as medical diseases. The symptoms of depression, PTSD, or social anxiety don’t point to an underlying disorder. They are the disorder.

Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mental health funding in the 2017 budget is too little, unfair and lacks a coherent strategy



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Mental health remains chronically underfunded.
from shutterstock.com

Sebastian Rosenberg, University of Sydney

This week’s federal budget allocated A$115 million in new funding over four years. This is one of the smallest investments in the sector in recent years. The Conversation

For instance, the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) added more than $5.5 billion to mental health spending in 2006. The 2011-12 federal budget provided $2.2 billion in new funding.

This compounds a situation in which, in 2014-15, mental health received around 5.25% of the overall health budget while representing 12% of the total burden of disease. There is no reason those figures should exactly match, but the gap is large and revealing.

They speak to the fact mental health remains chronically underfunded. Mental health’s share of overall health spending was 4.9% in 2004-05. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, funding has changed very little over the past decade.

We lack a coherent national strategy to tackle mental health. New services have been established this year, but access to them may well depend on where you live or who is looking after you. This is chance, not good planning.

Hospital-based services

The general focus of care when it comes to mental health remains hospital-based services. Inpatient – when admitted to hospital – and outpatient clinic care or in the emergency room represent the bulk of spending. (The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare includes hospital outpatient services under the heading “Community”, which makes definitive estimates of the proportion of funding impossible.)

Outside of primary care such as general practice, or Medicare-funded services (such as psychology services provided under a mental health care plan), mental health services in the community are hard to find.

An encouraging aspect of this year’s budget is the government’s recognition of this deficiency. The largest element of new mental health spending was a commitment to establish a pool of $80 million to fund so-called psychosocial services in the community.

As Treasurer Scott Morrison said in his budget speech, this money is for:

Australians with a mental illness such as severe depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia and post-natal depression resulting in a psychosocial disability, including those who had been at risk of losing their services during the transition to the NDIS.

Yet, the money is contingent on states and territories matching federal funds, meaning up to $160 million could be made available over the next four years if the states all chip in with their share of $80 million. But this commitment was made “noting that states and territories retain primary responsibility for CMH [community mental health] services”. Whether the states agree is another matter.

This new funding seems partly a response to the federal transfer of programs such as Partners in Recovery and Personal Helpers and Mentors to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Both these programs offered critical new capacity to community organisations to provide mental health services and better coordinate care.

Partners in Recovery was established in the 2011-12 budget with $550 million to be spent over five years. Personal Helpers and Mentors (along with other similar programs) was established in the same year with $270 million in funding over five years.

With these programs now (or soon to be) cordoned off to recipients of NDIS packages, the 2017 budget measure appears to be designed to offset their loss. However, not all states may choose to match the federal funds. And some may choose to do so but try to use new federal funds to reduce their own overall mental health spending.

States already vary in the types of services they offer. All this raises the prospect that people’s access to, and experience of, mental health care is likely to vary considerably depending on where they live. In a budget espousing fairness, this is a recipe for inequity.

Lack of coherent strategy

The budget does attempt to improve the uneven distribution of mental health professionals by providing $9 million over four years to enable psychology services to rural areas though telehealth. It’s well known mental health services in the bush are inadequate.

This investment seems sensible, but $9 million pales in comparison to spending on the Better Access Program, which I have calculated to be $15 million each week. This program provides Medicare subsidies for face-to-face mental health services under mental health care plans. While this program is available for those in rural areas, accessing it is more difficult than in cities.

This budget’s commitment to mental health shows a lack of an overarching strategy. Rather than offering a coherent approach to mental health planning, this budget continues Australia’s piecemeal, patchwork structure, where the system is driven mostly by who pays rather than what works or is needed.

The development of a national community mental health strategy would be most welcome now. This would demonstrate how the primary and tertiary mental health sectors will join up to provide the blend of clinical, psychological and social support necessary to finally enable people with a mental illness to live well in the community.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, albeit slowly, the well-known problems in mental health across Australia are being addressed. But the small pool of funding in this year’s budget says otherwise. And the lack of coherent strategy is a shame. You can’t complete a jigsaw puzzle if you keep adding new pieces.

Sebastian Rosenberg, Senior Lecturer, Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Therapy for life-threatening eating disorders works, so why can’t people access it?



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Eating disorders are among the leading causes of hospitalisation for mental-health-related issues in Australia.
from shutterstock.com

Richard Newton, University of Melbourne

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that have one of the highest death rates of any psychiatric disorder. Among people with anorexia nervosa – who commonly deprive themselves of food due to an obsessive fear of gaining weight – this rate is more than five times greater than in the general population. The Conversation

All eating disorders are associated with significant, wide-ranging physical health complications such as starvation, cardiac arrest (sudden loss of heart function), kidney problems, food intolerance and fits. These are among the leading causes of hospitalisation for mental-health-related issues in Australia.

Because serious medical complications so frequently accompany eating disorders, they defy classification solely as mental illnesses. They should be viewed as complex health-care issues requiring urgent and multidisciplinary care.

Yet many health-care providers have not been provided with enough basic education and training to be able to recognise and respond appropriately to someone presenting with an eating disorder. So despite their severity, eating disorders often go unrecognised.

This leads to substantial economic costs for the Australian health system and devastating effects for sufferers, loved ones and the communities that surround them.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders have been around through recorded history. Even an ancient Egyptian tomb painting depicts a noble self-inducing vomiting.

There are several types of eating disorders. These include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Collectively, these are characterised by abnormal eating behaviours, poor body image, overemphasis on weight and shape, and extreme weight-control behaviours.

In the case of anorexia, such behaviours lead to severe weight loss and often life-threatening complications. Vomiting, laxative abuse and excessive exercise can be features of both anorexia and bulimia, as can binging and purging.

Unlike the severe weight loss associated with anorexia, bulimia is characterised by the presence of binging and usually purging at a relatively normal weight. Binge eating disorder features frequent binging, in the absence of purging or other compensatory behaviours, which often leads to significant weight gain.

Eating disorders are also commonly accompanied by low self-esteem, guilt and disgust, along with depression, severe anxiety and suicide risk.

Who gets eating disorders?

There are psychological, environmental and biological (including genetic) risk factors for developing eating disorders. A genetic predisposition in combination with poor body image is one of the strongest predictors of disordered eating.

Poor body image has been reported in nearly half of Australian women and over one-third of Australian men. Disturbingly, the rate of body-image concerns is even greater in children and adolescents. A study of Australian children found up to 61% of girls and boys between the ages of eight and 11 are trying to control their weight.

Around 10% of the Australian population will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, and the rate is increasing. For example, one study observed a two-fold increase in disordered eating between 1995 and 2005 in South Australia. And a more recent study in the same state observed a more than two-fold increase in extreme dieting and binge eating between 1998 and 2008.

While the reasons for this increase have not yet been fully explored, they may be related to increasing concerns about weight in the general Australian population.

Contrary to the long-held belief eating disorders are the domain of wealthy young females, the greatest increase has been observed in older people, males and those in lower socio-demographic groups.

This may be due, at least in part, to inadequate access to treatment, differences in people seeking treatment, or detection in under-represented groups, and stigma surrounding the development of a disorder commonly associated with a specific (different) group in the community.

How are they treated?

A number of evidence-based treatments are available for eating disorders. It is important to note that no single approach will be effective for all individuals.

People who are unable to access effective treatment early experience greater duration and severity of illness. They then need more complex, prolonged treatment.

Structured, psychological therapies are considered the cornerstone of treatment for eating disorders. For adolescents with anorexia, this takes the form of family-based therapy. This involves helping the whole family support the person with the disorder.

In adults with eating disorders, evidence shows a minimum of 20 sessions of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – which challenges learnt ways of thinking – is necessary. In severe cases of anorexia, at least 40 CBT sessions that include a strong emphasis on restoring healthy eating attitudes and behaviours are required.

A multidisciplinary team is best equipped to address the complex nutritional, medical and psychological needs of someone with anorexia.

Increasing funding to improve outcomes

The total social and economic costs of eating disorders in Australia exceed A$69 billion per year. These costs can be reduced with early detection.

Most people with eating disorders go a long time before receiving adequate care. One study of over 10,000 adolescents found that, while nearly 90% of those with an eating disorder contacted a service provider for help, in only a minority (3-28%) of cases were the services specifically for their eating disorder.

Factors such as denial, shame, stigma and a lack of recognition of eating disorder symptoms by health-care professionals are likely contributors to this discrepancy.

Medicare provides Australians with funding for ten sessions with an allied mental-health professional (such as a psychologist or social worker). This is below the minimum treatment recommendation of 20 sessions for all eating disorders.

We should not accept a system that prevents people with a severe life-threatening mental illness from accessing a treatment that is available, effective and will save costs in the long term.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt recently requested the Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce investigate increasing Medicare coverage to treat people with an eating disorder. We urgently need early identification of eating disorders and the delivery of quality, targeted treatments at evidence-supported durations.

This article was co-authored by Tina Peckmezian, Principal Research Officer at The Butterfly Foundation.


If this article has raised concerns for you or anyone you know, call Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

People with eating disorders or their families can get help at the Butterfly Foundation, 1800 33 4673, or The National Eating Disorders Collaboration.

Richard Newton, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Haphazard Posting


The last several months (and indeed the majority of the year – if not longer) has been marked by the haphazard and irregular nature of my posting to my Blogs and the updating of my websites. This is likely to continue for some time and for an indefinite period of time. Why? I have been battling depression (essentially), though I have no real understanding of why/how it has come about. A number of years ago I was involved in a car accident that nearly killed me and I suffered a brain injury as a result of the accident. I am as fully recovered as I am likely to be and it has not really left a great permanent impact on my life – though this depression may prove to have been its lasting legacy.

I have thought of closing down the Bogs and websites on a number of occasions – but have not really wanted to do so. I would like to return to them with the same enthusiasm that I once had, though I am obviously unsure when that will be. Also, closing down the sites would be like yielding to the mental illness and sliding further down the slippery slope, which is not something I want to do. So it’s six of one and half-dozen of the other as regards what to do.

So if you have been a regular reader/user of my sites I ask for your continuing patience and understanding – normal service is something I am aiming at returning to. I just don’t know when that can/will be.

 

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRES UPDATE – Friday 13th February 2009


In stunning news tonight the number of houses destroyed in Victoria’s bushfire disaster has blown out to 1800 homes and will possibly exceed 2000 houses by the end of the crisis. There are now 7000 people homeless and large numbers of people are living in tents set up by the Australian Army in such places as Whittlesea. The death toll is currently 181 but set to exceed 200 (possibly 300).

Over $100 million has been donated thus far in the Red Cross Bushfire Appeal, which as wonderful as that is, will go nowhere near covering the enormous monetary cost of these bushfires in Victoria. Perhaps that will cover 200-300 homes and a couple of hundred cars. The cost of these bushfires will be huge – and what can replace the lives lost?

One man has been arrested and charged over the Churchill fire that has killed at least 21 people. He has been taken to a safe location for his own protection. He is said to be in a fragile mental condition. Does this mean we may here the ‘mental illness’ defence? I hope not – that is unacceptable as far as I am concerned.

Healesville has been under threat today, with embers raining out of the sky onto that town early this morning. The fires are about 1 km from Healesville at last report.

ABOVE: Marysville Survivors Jill and Richard Hodge Share their Experience

Hilton Escapes Prison


No surprises here I would expect – after only three days Paris Hilton has been released from her jail sentence and allowed to go home under house arrest in her mansion. Now there’s a severe punishment. She won’t be doing anything wrong again, not after being punished in such a severe manner.

Now if the same rules apply to everyone, isn’t it wonderful that criminals can be released under house arrest for suffering such trauma as Paris has in three days of her short sentence. Reports have it that she was suffering a rash of all things – by all means, she should go home and not suffer such severe treatment at the hands of authorities. How shocking, why should criminals have to serve out there sentence when they have such a life threatening illness. All criminals who suffer a rash should be released under house arrest immediately.

Of course, there was also a report of some type of mental illness/stress related condition. I suppose you would be somewhat stressed if you were in prison because you committed a crime – how would it be a punishment if there was not some stress involved?

Reports have it that the judge who sentenced her is not happy that Paris has been released under house arrest and that she should have served out her entire sentence – no disagreement from me.