Last week, I saw a new patient who was referred to me by her therapist for evaluation for med management, specifically, for depression.
The therapist wasn't certain the patient needed meds. And the patient wasn't sure she needed, or wanted meds.
She was suffering-that was the only certain thing.
I'm a decent psychopharmacologist, despite the fact that I mostly do therapy and analysis. The reason I'm good with meds is not because I'm an expert on the Cytochrome p450 system, or I'm the first shrink on the block to prescribe a brand new med. I believe it's because I listen to my patients, so important feelings/experiences/symptoms don't get overlooked, or boxed into neat little 15-minute med check categories that don't really fit.
So I listened to this patient, and while I was listening, I started thinking about everything I've learned regarding DSM-5. Like, maybe Major Depression, as defined by the DSM, doesn't really exist. (Note: I am NOT saying I don't believe depression exists. I'm just referring to the DSM definition of depression). And even if it does exist in DSM form, if I run through the checklist, and the patient meets five of the nine criteria, does that imply that she'll benefit from medication? And if she doesn't meet 5/9, does that mean she won't?
And what about the meds? What exactly am I treating? And how? A world-outlook? A traumatic childhood loss? If I can't be sure there's a disease process going on, and I can't be sure which aspect of the disease, if such it is, I'm treating, and no one even knows how the meds work, then why would I medicate?
I thought about how easy it would be to say to her, "You meet criteria for MDD, here's a pill, take it and you'll feel better." But I just couldn't bring myself to do that. I didn't believe it would help.
This is not the first patient I've sent home prescription-less. But it's the first time I've thought about it this way. In the past, I might've said to myself, the patient doesn't meet criteria, and therefore doesn't have the disorder in question, and consequently won't benefit from medication for this condition.
But now I'm reminded of the joke about the philosophy exam question, asking students to describe the physical characteristics of the chair at the front of the room. One student's response: What chair?
I came up with the following analogy: Suppose I decide that people who have more than 5 bad hair days per month carry a diagnosis of BHDD (Bad Hair Day Disorder). Am I describing an entity? Yes, people who have too many bad hair days. Does that make it a disorder, or disease?
I'm not sure the analogy is valid. At least some of the DSM diagnoses have a basis in clinical experience.
The truth is, and I realized this while I was writing, that I do find the DSM criteria for MDD useful, as a line of questioning.
This patient did not fit into any nice little DSM category. And I didn't try to make her fit. My thinking was, let's explore what she's been experiencing, using DSM criteria as a starting point. And that was useful.
I haven't purchased a copy of DSM-5. I don't want to. And I resent that, despite all the protests to the contrary, it remains the "bible" of psychiatry, and decisions are made based on its contents-reimbursement decisions, legal decisions.
But I do wish it could be what it professes to be: a guideline. Then it could sit on my book shelf with all the other books I use as references and guidelines, not with pride of place, and not with shame, either.