A Primer On Atypical Depression

At CONvergence two weeks ago, I and a few other people did a panel on myths about mental illness. It was really great, and I hope that there will be a video of it up eventually. At one point, I tangentially mentioned atypical depression, a type of depression that is sometimes contrasted with melancholic depression, or the “typical” kind.

Atypical depression is the type that I have, and that might be part of the reason it took me something like seven years to realize that I had depression at all. A few people have since told me that they didn’t even realize atypical depression was a thing. So I decided to write a brief overview of it in the hopes that more people who don’t have a name for what they’re going through might find a name for it.

There are some “classic” depression symptoms that most people think of when they think of depression: being numb or sad most of the time, being unable to take joy in things you used to like, insomnia, and loss of appetite and weight. You think of the person lying in bed unable to care about or take pleasure in anything.

Atypical depression has a rather different set of features. Instead of insomnia, you may have hypersomnia (oversleeping). People with atypical depression might regularly need to sleep 10 or 12 or even more hours. Instead of loss of appetite, you may overeat and/or gain weight. Instead of being numb or just uniformly sad, you have high mood reactivity, or mood swings. You may find that you’re able to enjoy things and feel happy when things are going very well, but as soon as things are neutral or even just a little bit bad, you feel horrible again. There are two other symptoms that are sometimes present: leaden paralysis, or the feeling that your limbs are very heavy and difficult to move, and high rejection sensitivity, which means being overly concerned about people not liking you or rejecting you, to the point that it impairs your social functioning.

Unsurprisingly, these different sets of symptoms mean that different types of antidepressants may work best for each type. I will quote Wikipedia here, since it’s sourced and there’s no good reason to rephrase it:

Medication response differs between chronic atypical depression and acute melancholic depression. Some studies[4] suggest that the older class of antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), may be more effective at treating atypical depression. While the more modern SSRIs and SNRIs are usually quite effective in this illness, the tricyclic antidepressants typically are not.[1] The wakefulness-promoting agent Modafinil has shown considerable effect in combating atypical depression, maintaining this effect even after discontinuation of treatment. [5]

I don’t know how useful this information is to you if you think you may have atypical depression, but at least now you know that if your symptoms fit this pattern but your psychiatrist prescribes you a tricyclic antidepressant without further explanation, it might be worth bringing up this research. In addition, if SSRIs haven’t been working for you, you might ask your psychiatrist about trying MAOIs rather than a different SSRI or a higher dose of the same one.

In terms of therapy, I can’t seem to find any studies on the effectiveness of different types of therapy on the different types of depression (that may be because Google Scholar is actually a terrible search engine), but my educated guess would be that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) would be extra helpful for atypical depression as opposed to melancholic depression. DBT is a type of therapy developed specifically to treat borderline personality disorder, which involves lots of mood swings, rejection sensitivity, and general troubles with managing emotions. DBT contains a lot of the same techniques as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT; the standard of evidence-based treatment), but it also emphasizes mindfulness and learning to cope with strong emotions. Atypical depression, with its mood swings and interpersonal issues, might be especially amenable to it.

To the extent that psychodynamic therapy is effective (actually, plenty of studies suggest that it might be), it might also be more effective on atypical depression than other approaches. Atypical depression tends to have an earlier onset, and people may experience it as an aspect of their personality that is rooted deeply in their life experiences. When practiced well, psychodynamic therapy may be useful for resolving these issues. But none of this is to say that standard CBT should not be tried.

During my senior year of college, I asked a professor who studies the neuropsychology of mood disorders whether or not he knew of any research on neurological differences between atypical and melancholic depression. After all, there’s been plenty of research on how depression affects the brain–in terms of active brain regions, neurogenesis (growth of new neurons) in various regions, and so on. Were all these studies really done using patients who might’ve had what looks like two nearly-completely different illnesses? Apparently. My professor wasn’t aware of any such studies, and I’ve only found one myself: some research that examined which hemisphere of the brain responds more to a particular face test, and in atypical depression patients, the right hemisphere was much more active than it was in melancholic depression patients and in non-depressed controls. The authors write, “This is further evidence that atypical depression is a biologically distinct subtype and underscores the importance of this diagnostic distinction for neurophysiologic studies.”

There also seems to be some evidence that atypical depression in particular is linked to thyroid dysfunction, which may explain some of the physical symptoms. However, the results seem to be rather complicated and confusing, and it’s definitely not a simple causative link.

Although the diagnostic criteria for depression contain both sets of symptom patterns and there’s even a special indicator for “atypical features,” the popular conception of depression is of the melancholic type, not the atypical type. This means that many people, believing that depression necessarily means “being completely miserable all of the time always,” may not realize that they might have depression and can benefit from treatment.

Atypical depression presents a classic boiling-frog problem. Because you are in fact capable of feeling happy for short or medium stretches of time, it can take a serious increase in symptom severity to realize that there’s anything wrong. Incidentally, as I mentioned, atypical depression also tends to have an earlier onset than melancholic depression, which means that you may spend your entire post-childhood life that way. For some people, certainly for me, it felt like it was “just my personality.” To make things even more confusing, the rejection sensitivity tends to be present even during periods of time when the rest of the symptoms are in remission. But when it comes to mental health, nothing is ever really “just your personality” if you don’t want it to be.

Hopefully, this overview will help people–at least the people who read this blog–broaden their awareness of what depression is. If there’s anything I missed in terms of research, by the way, please let me know. As I mentioned, my Google Scholar-fu is much worse than my Google-fu.

Depression Is Not Sadness (Again)

[Content note: mental illness, depression, anxiety, suicide]

When I think about the frequent charge that therapists and psychiatrists and those who work with them are trying to “medicalize” “normal” emotions like sadness and fear, I think that people don’t really understand how emotions like sadness and fear can be distinguished from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

I’ve tried to explain this to many people multiple times, in person and through writing, and so have many other people with mental illnesses as well as professionals in the field. Yet people continue to conflate emotions and illnesses, or rather to assume that mental healthcare advocates are conflating them. It’s often difficult to continue engaging patiently with this claim.

Even those who are knowledgeable about illness and disability make this error. In an otherwise-fantastic blog post about the medical model of disabilityValéria M. Souza uncritically cites this very inaccurate view of antidepressants:

In The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era, Lennard Davis affirms: “A drug would be a prosthesis if it restored or imitated some primary state that appears to be natural and useful” (64). Davis makes this statement in the context of his argument that SSRIs are not “chemical prostheses” for depression, since happiness is not a “primary state” of being and since there is compelling evidence to suggest that SSRIs do not actually work (Davis 55-60).

I’ll address the SSRIs-not-working thing first since I have less to say about that and it’s not as relevant to this post. The reality seems to be more that SSRIs work well for some people but not at all for many other people and we haven’t really figured out why they work for some people but not others, or more specifically, which types of people they work for and which they don’t. And on a personal note, I’m a little tired of being told that SSRIs “don’t work” when they’re part of the reason I didn’t try to off myself four years ago. There is compelling evidence to suggest they do not actually work and there is compelling evidence to suggest that they do actually work, so I’m comfortable saying that the jury’s still out on this one.

More to the point: antidepressants are not meant to cause “happiness” because depression, the illness they are meant to treat, is not defined by a lack of “happiness.” Depression involves a constellation of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that make happiness very difficult or even impossible. These symptoms have a number of other deleterious effects which vary for different people. There are many ways depression can ultimately “look,” such as being unable to get out of bed, being unable to hold down a job, bursting into tears several times a day over tiny inconveniences or in response to nothing at all, losing your sex drive, being unable to sleep, having to sleep over 12 hours a day, having severe memory loss, losing the ability to enjoy any previously enjoyable activity, experiencing complete emotional numbness, obsessing over death and suicide, physically hurting yourself, or attempting suicide.

Maybe being “happy,” whatever that even means, isn’t a “primary state,” but I would argue that being able to live a relatively normal life in which you can go to school or have a job, have relationships with people, and not want to kill yourself is a “primary state.”

Being treated for (and, hopefully, recovering from) depression does not give you extra things that other people don’t have, such as constant happiness and optimism. It gives you what everyone else has had all along, which is a reasonable and age-appropriate amount of control over your emotional state and the ability to create your own happiness if you want to and make the effort.

By the way, you can definitely be miserable and unhappy without having a diagnosable mental illness, but it’s rare to find a person whose unhappiness is truly caused entirely by their own voluntary actions. Depression can also develop as a result of voluntary actions; for instance, if you have a number of career options available to you but you choose an extremely stressful and mind-numbing (but perhaps lucrative?) option, you might end up becoming depressed because of it. At that point, your best bet might be to find a way to make a career change, but it’s likely that you’ll also need therapy to help undo the maladaptive mental habits that the situation has created. (Medication might help too, but in a case like this I’d personally recommend therapy first.)

I think a better way to explain the difference has been that, at least in my experience of mental illness versus mental health, there are things that mentally healthy people can do to significantly increase their level of happiness, whereas people who are going through a bout of mental illness can rarely make a huge difference just by stopping and smelling the roses or making more time to play with their kids or enrolling in a cooking class or whatever. They can maybe make a small difference, but it’s unlikely to reduce the mental illness symptoms themselves. I used to get so frustrated at things like The Happiness Project and other initiatives of that sort, until I finally realized that they weren’t aimed at me because happiness would literally not even be a possibility for me until I treated my damn mental illness.

(That said, things like that can be very useful for someone whose mental illness is in remission or otherwise low-grade. Right now, I’m not fully symptomatic for depression but I’m aware that it can probably come back at any time, so I do a lot of things to keep my mental health strong to try to avoid it coming back.)

It’s difficult to tease out all the complicated interactions between mental illness, mental health, and happiness, and of course it varies for different people. In my experience–which includes my personal experience, my interactions with friends and partners, and my studies and clinical experience, here it is in a nutshell: untreated/unmanaged mental illness makes happiness virtually impossible to achieve. Treating or managing your mental illness, whether through medication, talk therapy, or personal lifehacking, helps make happiness possible to achieve. But the work of achieving it is still yours to do. No drug or therapist can just give you happiness.

And most people with mental illnesses realize this. I haven’t met anyone who was just like “I wanna go to the psychiatrist and get a pill and just be happy always forever.” Most of us just want to stop crying all the time, or stop having panic attacks whenever we need to interact with new people, or stop having intrusive and scary thoughts of killing ourselves, or stop lying awake for hours each night because we can’t stop imagining all the bad things that could happen to us.

“Happiness” is the cherry on the sundae of mental health. You need to put the ice cream and the syrup and the whipped cream in the cup first.

(I’m not sure what it says about me that in reality I actually despise maraschino cherries and always ask for them to be left off my sundae. This is an analogy that was definitely intended for the presumably more normal people who will read this.)

If you still think that what we call “depression” is just an attempt to medicalize “sadness,” then you don’t know what one or either of those things are. So I’ll illustrate with an example of an internal monologue I have had when I was sad, and one I have had when I was depressed. The subject is the same, but the emotional response isn’t. See if you can figure out which is which!

I really wish I had a partner. It’s lonely not having anyone to come home to and it feels crappy seeing all my friends with their partners even though I know I should be happy for them. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just not that attractive or likable as a person. It seems like I’m the only person not dating anyone. I hope I meet someone soon, but I don’t know when or how that will happen and I’m not that optimistic about it right now. 

I really wish I had a partner. I feel like a complete worthless failure because literally everyone else I know is seeing someone and I’m not. I’ll probably never find anyone and I’ll just be lonely for the rest of my life and there won’t be anyone to call 911 if something happens to me and they’ll find my body in my apartment days later because nobody gave enough of a fuck to check on me. Not like I blame them. I’m so ugly and stupid that I don’t know why anyone would even want to hang out with me, let alone go out with me. Everyone’s probably pitying me because I don’t have anyone and everyone can tell that it’s because I’m completely pathetic. I feel like I might as well not even exist because what’s the point of going through life alone and unloved?

One of those is a sensical reaction to lacking something in your life that’s important to you (a romantic relationship); the other is over-the-top. The emotional response in the second example is disproportionate; it doesn’t make sense to leap all the way from “I’m sad because I wish I had a partner” to “I’m a worthless failure and will die alone.”

That second monologue contains a number of characteristic cognitive distortions associated with depression, such as all-or-nothing thinking (I have to have a partner or there’s no point in even living), disqualifying the positive (the good aspects of my life are irrelevant; it’s all bad because I’m single), mind-reading (everyone must be pitying me), fortune telling (because I don’t have a partner now, I will never have one), catastrophizing (something bad will happen to me and I’ll die alone in my home because nobody will help), personalization (it’s completely my fault that I don’t have a partner; none of it comes down to chance or being in the wrong environment or anything else), and emotional reasoning (I feel like a failure because I’m single; therefore I definitely am a failure).

While mentally healthy people do make cognitive distortions too, mental health is a spectrum: the more you’re able to refrain from thinking in these harmful ways, the more mentally healthy you’ll (generally) be. If you look at the first monologue, you’ll see some slight distortions, like the fear that you’re unlikeable or unattractive just because you happen to be single, or the perception that you’re the only person not dating when that’s obviously not true. But only in the second example do these irrational thoughts become all-encompassing. And, importantly, only the second example involves thoughts of death and suicidal ideation.

Note also that in the first example, being single is causing sad feelings, whereas in the second example, the emotional responses are not primarily caused by the singleness. Perhaps being single is the immediate trigger of the extreme sadness and negativity, but what’s really causing it is depression. A depressed person who is miserable about being single will not stop being miserable if they stop being single; they will usually be miserable about other things. That’s exactly what happened to me back when I was having that monologue. I’d inevitably get into a relationship and then be miserable because I didn’t think my partner liked me enough, or because I was worried about school, or because I felt like all my friends hated me, or because I hated myself, or just because.

Depression can trick you into thinking that you’re depressed “about” something. You’re probably not. You’re depressed because you have depression, and luckily, you can treat it.

Sadness, on the other hand, is about things. You can be sad because you’re single or because you got a bad grade or because you hate your job. Sadness is a normal, healthy reaction to experiencing things that you don’t like. It’s a useful and important emotion because it tips us off to situations that we should try to change if we can. Sadness can prompt us to take a step back and think about things and how we would like them to be better.

Medicalizing sadness and medicating it away would probably harm individuals and also our society as a whole. It would make things pretty boring. Isn’t it great that antidepressants and therapy are not actually trying to do that? Isn’t it great that we can help people avoid catastrophic, paralyzing, life-ruining sadness and fear like the ones associated with mental illnesses, while helping them get in touch with healthy and situationally appropriate sadness and fear? That we can help them understand their emotions and use them to change themselves, their lives, or the world, without having their lives completely governed by them?

Indeed. Depression is not sadness. Anxiety is not fear. Nobody is actually trying to eradicate sadness and fear.

~~~

At Skepchick, Olivia has a great take on this, concluding that:

I do think that it’s important to address our societal phobia of sadness, grief, and pain. But the way to do that is not to throw the mentally ill under the bus by implying they are running from their negative emotions when they seek out treatment. It also doesn’t mean casting shade on the few tools for treatment of mental illness that we actually have evidence are effective. A diagnosis of depression does not say “this person is too sad”. It says “this person can’t function the way they would like to because their emotions are consistently out of control”. There is a world of difference between those two statements.

Depression and the Lie of the “Real Self”

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Mitchell of Research To Be Done has a fantastic post up about this idea that when you’re on psychiatric medications, you’re not “the real you.” I’ll shamelessly quote about half the post:

This is just a for the record, for everyone, whether you’re talking about antidepressants or any other form of medication or life circumstances: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE “REAL YOU”.

You know why? Because HUMAN BEINGS ARE CONTEXT-DEPENDENT CREATURES.

You are the real you when you’re being flirty and charming and totally hitting it off with someone adorable. You are the real you when you’re crying on the floor of your room and wishing the world would end. You are the real you when you’re living it up on vacation and you are the real you when you’re just getting through the day at a boring job. You’re the real you when you’re on vacation and hate everything about it, and you’re the real you when you’re flying through the day at an amazing job. You are the real you when you’re at a party, and you’re the real you when you’re staying in with your cat. You are the real you when you’re drinking, when you’re high, when you’re reading, when you’re fucking, when you’re lonely, when you’re surrounded by friends, when you feel absolutely worthless, when you’re brimming with confidence, when you wish the universe would leave you alone, and when you love everything about it. You’re the real you when you’re unspeakably angry and hate everyone, and you’re the real you when you’re ecstatically in love and feeling on top of the world.

“THE REAL YOU” IS A MEANINGLESS TERM USED BY PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW HUMAN BEINGS WORK.

I wanted to expand on that idea a bit and talk about why it’s extremely harmful to people who are suffering from mental illness.

When I was depressed, I believed that Depressed Me was The Real Me. Not only that, but I believed that my depressed view of the world was The Most Accurate View Of The World. That when I was depressed and thought that everyone hated me and that I was an alien in this world who should die because I don’t belong here, that was, in my opinion, the most authentic view I could possibly have.

A large part of me feared recovery. Cheerful people grated on me, and of course, in this optimism-fetishizing culture, I thought that the only alternative to miserable depression was peppy, bubbly cheerfulness. That, after all, was what everyone seemed to want me to be, and that felt wrong wrong wrong.

There were a lot of reasons for my belief that depression was “real” and happiness was “fake.” First of all, as I just mentioned, I had a totally skewed image of what happiness actually looked like. Many people make that same mistake, of course, and it’s only now, when I’m healthy and happy but not that outwardly cheerful, that I realize that happiness just doesn’t always look like that. Sometimes it looks like hours spent alone reading. Sometimes it looks like passionate anger at injustice, and doing something about that injustice. Sometimes it looks like writing over 1,000 words in a sudden rush of ideas and creativity. Sometimes it looks like playing footsie with a partner while we do our homework in silence. Sometimes it looks like sitting at the coffee shop with my best friend, just talking about stuff. Sometimes it looks like savoring a meal I cooked myself. Sometimes it looks like waking up early on my first day back in the city, putting money on my metrocard, taking the subway, and walking up the stairs out onto the street, awestruck every time. Sometimes it looks like the moment I received my graduate school acceptance letter. And sometimes it does look like exactly what you’d think–dancing with friends and strangers at a party, knocking back shots and laughing at our own stupidity.

A second reason I believed depression was more “genuine” was that there was definitely a bit of sour grapes going on. No matter what I did, I hadn’t been able to feel happy with myself and my life since early childhood. That’s a lot of failure for a young person. So by late adolescence I was spending a lot of time being like “FUCK YOU HAPPINESS I DIDN’T WANT YOU ANYWAY YOU’RE ALL FAKE AND BORING AND SHIT.” It seems childish, but it was probably one of the only defenses I had. If I’d really known what I was missing, really felt its absence, I’m not sure how I could’ve made it through.

Third, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, even as Western culture promotes optimism and cheerfulness and happiness as mandatory, especially for women, it simultaneously elevates misery and depression to an exalted status. There’s a stereotype of depressed people as writers or artists, people who See Humanity As It Really Is and bring those insights to us through beautiful works of art or literature, and who die alone, unappreciated, perhaps drunk in a gutter or by suicide.

For a pitifully long time, in fact, I wondered if I could ever be a Real Writer if I became happy.

In his book Against Depression, Peter D. Kramer writes:

To oppose depression too directly or completely is to be coarse and reductionistic–to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. And here it is not only the minor variants–the psychiatric equivalents of tennis elbow–that bear protecting. Asked about eliminating depression, an audience member may answer with reference to a novel that ends in suicide. Or it may be an artist who is held forth, a self-destructive poet. To be depressed–even quite gravely–is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to adopt the posture of rebel and social critic. Depression is to our culture what tuberculosis was eighty or a hundred years ago: an illness that signifies refinement. Major depression can be characterized as more than illness, or less–a disease with spiritual overtones, or a necessary phase of a quest whose medical aspects are incidental.

(How can this image of the depressive exist in the same culture that stigmatizes depressives as pathetic, lazy, selfish, whiny losers? Why, you have to be depressed in the right way, of course.)

The final reason, I believe, was a property of the illness itself. The thoughts and emotions conjured by depression are so strong, so urgent, so potent that they felt more real than anything I’d ever felt before. The insights it gave me–they felt so brilliant at the time–could never come to me any other way. There was no other way to just know all these things about Life and Humanity. (This is also why I think that some of the aforementioned artists and writers might not be quite so brilliant as we may think.) When I was depressed I felt like a character in one of the Russian novels I love (where depression, incidentally, often plays a starring role). What could possibly be more genuine than this?

And during those times I’d forget how good it felt not to be depressed. I simply lost access to those memories. I wanted desperately to not be depressed anymore and I was also desperately afraid of who I would become if I were to stop being depressed. Depression skews and poisons everything. All of your memories, all of your identities, every sense you have of who you “really” are.

The result of all of this is that I felt that my depression was authentic. It was The Real Me. Recovering, especially through taking medication, would not be The Real Me.

I can’t know for sure now how that affected my eventual recovery. There are those who say that it must’ve significantly delayed it because I had to Really Want To Get Better and all that, but that’s straight-up victim-blaming bullshit. I DID want to get Better. I was just lost and confused and didn’t know what Better would even look like. And even when I didn’t want to get Better, that was a symptom of the illness itself. Depression is a feedback loop.

I do know that it made the decision to take medication (which brought me back from the brink) a lot more difficult than it needed to be. All that anxiety about potentially losing my ability to write was a waste of time and energy. Those fears that people would only like me if I was Deep and Insightful and Mysterious? They were crap.

And, anyway, here I am, nearly a year post-recovery and still writing, still being moody and weird, still doing my best not to have an overly rosy view of the world. Still ruining your fun.

But it’s deeply unjust to trick people suffering from depression into believing that they won’t be their Real Selves if they recover (especially if they recover using medication). People love to be all like “Yeah well what if anti-depressants had been around in Van Gogh’s time?” Well, maybe we’d still have his amazing art. Maybe it would look a little different. Or maybe Van Gogh would’ve done something totally different with his life and we’d never know the difference.

All I know is, no painting in the world can be so beautiful as to justify that sort of suffering.

Criticizing Psychiatry Without Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

So, I read this article in The Atlantic called “The Real Problems with Psychiatry” and…I’m torn. The article is an interview with this guy Gary Greenberg, a therapist who has previously written a book called Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease and has now followed that up with The Book of Woe: The Making of the DSM-5 and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t read either of these books. I might, just to see the full depth of his arguments. But I decided to read the interview anyway and assume that he accurately represented his own claims in it.

Parts of the interview, I think, are really on point. Greenberg discusses the history of the DSM (the manual used to diagnose mental disorders) as a way for psychiatry as a discipline to establish credibility alongside other types of medicine. He criticizes the DSM on the grounds that the mental diagnoses that we currently have may not necessary be the best way to conceptualize mental illness, and he thinks that once we gain a better understanding of the brain we will find that they have little to do with the physical reality of mental illness:

Research on the brain is still in its infancy. Do you think we will ever know enough about the brain to prove that certain psychiatric diagnoses have a direct biological cause?

I’d be willing to bet everything that whenever it happens, whatever we find out about the brain and mental suffering is not going to map, at all, onto the DSM categories. Let’s say we can elucidate the entire structure of a given kind of mental suffering. We’re not going to be able to say, “here’s Major Depressive Disorder, and here’s what it looks like in the brain.” If there’s any success, it will involve a whole remapping of the terrain of mental disorders. And psychiatry may very likely take very small findings and trump them up into something they aren’t. But the most honest outcome would be to go back to the old days and just look at symptoms. They might get good at elucidating the circuitry of fear or anxiety or these kinds of things.

I don’t know if he’s right. But I suspect that he might be.

He also makes a great point about the fact that we often assume that anyone who acts against social norms, for instance by committing a terrible crime, must necessarily be mentally ill:

It’s our characteristic way of chalking up what we think is “evil” to what we think of as mental disease. Our gut reaction is always “that was really sick. Those guys in Boston — they were really sick.” But how do we know? Unless you decide in advance that anybody who does anything heinous is sick. This society is very wary of using the term “evil.” But I firmly believe there is such a thing as evil. It’s circular — thinking that anybody who commits suicide is depressed; anybody who goes into a school with a loaded gun and shoots people must have a mental illness.

Greenberg also discusses how mental diagnoses have historically been used to perpetuate injustice, such as the infamous “disorder” of “drapetomania,” which was thought to cause slaves to try to escape their masters, and the fact that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness (and other types of sexual/gender variance still are).

He also talks a lot about how the DSM and its categories are tied in with all sorts of things: scientific research and mental healthcare coverage, for instance:

To get an indication from the FDA, a drug company has to tie its drug to a DSM disorder. You can’t just develop a drug for anxiety. You have to develop the drug for Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Major Depressive Disorder. You can’t just ask for special services for a student who is awkward. You have to get special services for a student with autism. In court, mental illnesses come from the DSM. If you want insurance to pay for your therapy, you have to be diagnosed with a mental illness.

The point about needing a DSM diagnosis in order to receive insurance coverage is really important and cannot be overstated (in fact, I wish he’d given it more than a sentence, but again, he did write books). As someone who plans to eventually practice therapy without necessarily having to formerly diagnose all of my clients, this matters to me a lot, because it may mean that I might have to choose between diagnosing and working only with clients who can afford therapy without insurance coverage (which, at at least $100 per weekly session, would really not be many).

But sometimes Greenberg makes a good point while also making a terrible point:

One of the overlooked ways is that diagnoses can change people’s lives for the better. Asperger’s Syndrome is probably the most successful psychiatric disorder ever in this respect. It created a community. It gave people whose primary symptom was isolation a way to belong and provided resources to those who were diagnosed. It can also have bad effects. A depression diagnosis gives people an identity formed around having a disease that we know doesn’t exist, and how that can divert resources from where they might be needed.

First of all, we don’t “know” that depression “doesn’t exist.” We know–or, more accurately, some of us suspect–that the diagnosis we call “major depression” might not map on very accurately to what’s actually going on in the brains of people who are diagnosed with it. What we call “major depression” is a large cluster of possible symptoms, and since you only have to have some of them in order to be diagnosed, two people with the exact same diagnosis could have almost completely different symptomology. Further, because depression can vary like a spectrum in its severity, the cut-off point for what’s clinical depression and what’s not can be rather arbitrary. It’s not like with other types of illnesses, where either you have a tumor or you don’t, either you have a pathogen in your bloodstream or you don’t.

Second, Greenberg doesn’t seem to extend his analysis of the effects of the Asperger’s diagnosis onto other disorders. There is absolutely a community of people who have (had) depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and so on. Those communities are absolutely valuable. My life would be demonstrably worse without these communities. They haven’t “diverted resources” from anything other than me wallowing in self-pity because I feel like I’m the only person going through these things–which is how I used to feel.

Right after that:

What are the dangers of over-diagnosing a population? Are false positives worse than false negatives?

I believe that false positives, people who are diagnosed because there’s a diagnosis for them and they show up in a doctor’s office, is a much bigger problem. It changes people’s identities, it encourages the use of drugs whose side effects and long-term effects are unknown, and main effects are poorly understood.

Greenberg is correct that false positives are a problem and that diagnosing someone with a mental illness that they do not have can be very harmful. However, his dismissiveness of the problem of false negatives–people who do have mental illnesses but never get diagnosis or treatment–is stunning coming from someone who is a practicing therapist. Untreated mental illnesses are nothing to mess around with. They can lead to death, by suicide or (in the case of eating disorders) otherwise. Even if things never get to that point, they can ruin friendships, relationships, marriages, careers, lives. While I get that Greenberg has an agenda to push here, some acknowledgment of that fact would’ve been very much warranted.

In short, Greenberg seems to make the logical leap that many critics of psychiatry and the DSM do; that is, because there is much to criticize about them and because it’s unclear how valid the DSM diagnoses are, therefore depression is “a disease that we know doesn’t exist” and antidepressants are harmful (that’s a whole other topic, though).

Antidepressants may very well be harmful. Diagnostic labels may also very well be harmful, for some people. But I think the stronger evidence is that untreated mental suffering is harmful, and sometimes therapy just isn’t enough and cannot work quickly enough–for instance, for someone who is severely depressed to the point that they can’t possibly use any of the insights they may gain in therapy, or to the point that they are about to commit suicide.

I hope that one day we’ll have all the answers we need to minimize both false negatives and false positives. But for now, we don’t, and I worry that attitudes like Greenberg’s may prevent people from getting the help they urgently need, as much as they may simultaneously promote vital criticism and analysis of psychiatry and the DSM.

~~~

Note: I didn’t fact-check everything Greenberg said in the interview because I’m hoping that The Atlantic employs fact-checkers. But if you have counter-evidence for anything in that article, even parts I didn’t quote here, please let me know.

Goodbye Lexapro

[TMI Warning]

Today marks the end of an era of my life.

Today I took my last dose of antidepressants, and tomorrow, for the first time in a year and a half, I will get up in the morning and (purposefully) not take that pill again.

I went on Lexapro as a last resort in July 2010. I won’t go into all those details here since I’ve written about it before, but I’ll say that, at the time, I had no other choice. When a body has been critically injured, it enters a coma. I was in the mental version of that.

Lexapro did a lot of things to me, some expected, some not so much. I stopped crying every day and wanting to kill myself, at least for a while. I also became, according to my friends, more lively, more social, and visibly happier.

But then, there was the other stuff. Lexapro broke up the one meaningful romantic relationship I’ve had in my life. (Was it destined to break up anyway? Now I’ll never know.) It altered my values and beliefs for some time and turned me into the sort of person I would’ve hated a few months before. Now I’m back to my normal self, thankfully.

It was also a cruel helper at times. If I missed just a day of it, I’d be a wreck by nightfall. If I missed two days, the withdrawal symptoms kicked in, and they were horrible. I’d be dizzy, nauseous, barely able to walk, completely unable to explain to people why I was suddenly sick when I’d been fine just that morning. (“Sorry, I’m going through drug withdrawal” isn’t really an effective explanation for most people.) The worst symptom of antidepressant withdrawal has no official name, but depressives refer to it as “brain zaps.” They’re momentary sensations of being shocked or stunned in the head and they happen every few minutes or so, or even more often.

Theoretically, of course, there’s no need to ever miss a day of a prescribed medication, but when you factor in insurance issues, CVS’s constant fuckups, weird sleeping schedules, and other crap, it happens pretty often. I remember one awful time when I forgot to bring my medication back to school from break with me and I had to get my parents to ship it. Those were an unpleasant few days. Another time, my psychiatrist refused to renew my prescription unless I came in to see her, but I’d already be back at school by the time she had her first available appointment slot, and there was no way I could skip classes to drive six hours home to Ohio. She wouldn’t budge.

I’m not going to go into a whole condemnation of psychiatry or the pharmaceutical industry because they gave me back my life. However, I will say this: there is so, so much work to be done.

My psychiatrist prescribed me Lexapro after a nurse practitioner talked to me for ten minutes, and she for about five. She said that “academic stress” was causing my depression and that antidepressants would help me deal with it. She must’ve missed the part where I said that my depression started when I was 12 years old. She also apparently missed the glaring cognitive distortions and emotional issues I was having, and had been having for years and years. She oversimplified my problems and thus prescribed a simple remedy.

It took a while to even begin to sort out what the problem really was, and I’m still not there yet.

Some other things my psychiatrist didn’t tell me: the personality changes. The withdrawal symptoms. The fact that I was more likely than not to have a relapse (which I did). And, of course, the fact that you don’t really recover from depression. You only learn how to avoid it for bursts of time.

That was stuff I shouldn’t have had to learn through experience.

Now I look at that almost-empty bottle and I just can’t look at it with a sense of gratitude. I will never be an enthusiastic advocate of psychiatry, though I will continue fighting for the rights of patients to obtain complete information about medication and to make their own decisions.

I look forward to the end of that daily reminder of what I’ve lost. For the past year and a half, I have started every day by taking Lexapro and remembering that I’m not okay. Now I won’t have that anymore. Now I’ll be able to go half the day, maybe even an entire day, without thinking about that part of myself.

I’m not nearly naive enough to think that this is the end. For all I know, I’ll be back on the medication in a month. I’m almost certain that I’ll be back on it within the next few years.

But for now, at least, I’m done with it.

For now, the only things I’ll be taking in the morning are a multivitamin and a shower.

Normal, just like everybody else.

Antidepressants and Strength of Character

You're not a bad person if you take any of these roads. I promise.

Spoiler alert: They have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

There are different levels of stigma surrounding mental illness. There’s the stigma of having a disorder in itself, the stigma of being in treatment for a disorder, and, perhaps most of all, the stigma of that treatment being pharmacological.

People love to hate psychopharmacology, especially antidepressants, the efficacy of which is constantly being questioned (often for good reason). However, I’ve noticed that drugs like antidepressants receive a special type of scorn, one that cannot be based solely on the efficacy mystery.

I’ve found that where mental treatment is concerned, therapy holds some sort of moral superiority over drugs in many people’s eyes. I think many people still feel that mental disorders are spiritual illnesses, not medical ones, and that treating them with a pill is some sort of cop-out. (Imagine the public furor if researchers came up with a pill to, say, erase the feeling of guilt.)

This would explain why, though therapy is still stigmatized–after all, the Ideal Person works out these issues on his or her own–it is considerably less looked down upon than psychotropic medication. Our culture values struggle and hard work so much that even recovering from an illness should be mentally effortful.

What people don’t realize is that there are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons why someone might choose medication over therapy, at least in the short term. Consider, for instance, the situation I found myself in a month before I began my sophomore year of college. Having spent my entire freshman year growing progressively more depressed, I’d thought that coming home for the summer would magically fix everything. It didn’t. With a month to go, I realized that I felt like I’d rather die than go back to school.

That was when I was first diagnosed with depression, and I think my psychiatrist realized, as did I, that I just didn’t have time to muck around with my feelings–I had to get better quickly, or else going back to school would be more upsetting and stressful than I could handle. So I started taking antidepressants and quickly improved enough to feel like I could deal with being in school. The mucking around with my feelings came later.

Aside from that, I can think of many other reasons medication can at times make more sense than therapy. For example:

  • Financial concerns. Antidepressants cost me $30 a month, while therapy costs $80 for four weekly sessions. That’s a pretty big difference for many people.
  • Time. Some people are at a point in their lives where they literally can’t spare an hour or more a week for therapy. That might sound ludicrous to you, but if you’re a college student, a new parent, or a low-income worker, it probably doesn’t.
  • Availability. Unfortunately, not everyone lives in an area where good therapists are available and accessible (and bad therapists will do more harm than good). This is especially true for members of marginalized communities, who may have a hard time finding therapists who are sensitive to their issues. Not all therapists are as open and accepting as they should be.
  • Insurance. I’m lucky to have a fantastic insurance policy that covers basically everything I’ve ever needed. However, many policies are very picky with regards to therapy (as opposed to medication, which does require a prescription from a person with an MD). For instance, some policies refuse to cover therapy unless there’s an official diagnosis, and you don’t necessarily need to have a diagnosable mental disorder in order to need help. Besides, you can’t be diagnosed without going to a specialist to begin with.
  • Nature of the disorder. Although most mental illnesses obviously involve a psychological component, some do not. For example, many people in temperate climates get Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months, which is characterized by a low-grade depression as well as various physical symptoms. It’s usually treated with antidepressants or light therapy, which actually has people sit in front of full-spectrum light.
  • Language. Therapy requires people to talk pretty extensively about themselves and their lives, something that would be very difficult for, say, a new immigrant who’s just learning English. Unless such people are able to find a therapist who speaks their native language, it would be pretty hard for them to get anything out of therapy.
  • Comfort. As a future therapist, I obviously wish that everyone were comfortable with the idea of therapy. But not everyone is. That could be because of cultural factors, family attitudes, personality, or negative experiences with therapy in the past. I think that using medication to improve your quality of life while working up the courage to see a therapist is perfectly okay.

I hope that this list shows that making decisions about mental health isn’t that different from making decisions about physical health–it has more to do with personal preferences and practical concerns than with the strength (or lack thereof) of one’s character.

Of course, I do believe that therapy is really important and generally awesome, which is why one of my upcoming posts will be about why I think that everyone (or almost everyone) should see a therapist. Stay tuned.