As many readers will know by now, I think we need to be challenging and debating the logic that accepts “mental illness” as a valid concept. I am concerned that our mainstream acceptance of the idea of “mental illness”, within our health and social care services, our mental health laws and our society, leads us to act in ways that, although well intentioned, cause bad consequences. Ultimately this may result in more harm than good for people affected by the idea that experiences and actions can be diagnosed as "symptoms" of “mental illness”.
Last Thursday, in our “Shaping Services Together” Conference, I think that we succeeded in furthering this debate in Powys. With the help of Jacqui Dillon and Jo Mussen the morning started with us being asked to consider the following question:
“Should mental health services be shaped by the question what happened to you rather than what’s wrong with you?”
In this vein, I want to continue the theme from my last blog about organic reasons for psychosis by exploring organic reasons for depressive symptoms, again to try and make sure that:
In our drive to suggest that people are asked "what has happened to you" rather than “what is wrong with you”, let's not miss the question “is there anything physically/organically wrong with you?”
Map of Medicine, which is the NHS system that claims to provide access to comprehensive, evidence-based guidance and clinical decision support, lists the following as typical symptoms of depression:
- an unusually sad mood that does not go away
- loss of enjoyment and interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
- tiredness and lack of energy
- crying spells, withdrawal from others, neglect of responsibilities, loss of interest in personal appearance, loss of motivation
- chronic fatigue, lack of energy, sleeping too much or too little, overeating or loss of appetite, constipation, weight loss or gain, irregular menstrual cycle, loss of sexual desire, unexplained aches and pains
What are the known organic causes of these typical depressive symptoms?
Firstly let me try and clarify that by organic causes of depression I mean where the depressive symptoms are the direct result of an organic cause. I do not include conditions where it is the actual coping with the organic condition, such as cancer, dementia, heart disease, that results in us experiencing emotional stress and natural feelings of hopelessness, despair, loss of enjoyment and tiredness, feelings that could be diagnosed as “depression”. Instead I am trying to find out about organic/biological conditions that cause a change in our physiological functioning that lead to the symptoms of depression that I listed above.
The Clinical Knowledge Summary from the National Institute for Health and Social Care Excellence (NICE) lists the following as organic reasons for depressive symptoms:
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism – state in which the thyroid gland production of thyroid hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine, is abnormal
- Rare side effects of prescription medication, such as:
- antihypertensives used to treat high blood pressure
- lipid-soluble beta used to treat a number of conditions including heart disease and high blood pressure
- central nervous system depressants used to slow down brain activity prescribed for conditions including insomnia, muscle tension, pain, epliespy, anxiety and mood “disorders”
- Opioid analgesics, generally uised for pain management
- Isotretinoin primarily used for acne
- Cushing's syndrome, caused by very high levels of a hormone called cortisol
- Hypercalcemia caused by abnormal levels of serum calcium concentration. Also a complication of Pagets Disease
- Hyponatremia where sodium ion concentration in the plasma is lower than normal
- Diabetes when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to maintain a normal blood glucose level, or your body is unable to use the insulin that is produced
- Neurologic disordera such as Epilespy, Stroke, subdural hematoma, multiple sclerosis, brain tumors (especially frontal), Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, epilepsy, syphilis, dementias
- Nutritional disorder such as Vitamin B12 deficiency, pellagra caused by a chronic lack of niacin (vitamin B3)
- Other disorders such as viral infection and carcinoma
In many different ways it seems. Some of the physical conditions listed above result in an imbalance of the hormones that we need to keep our bodily process working efficiently (e.g. thyroid hormones, insulin, cortisol). When our hormone production or our ability to effectively use these hormones goes wrong, then a direct result can be symptoms of low mood, lack of enjoyment, tiredness, mood swings and lethargy.
Some of the conditions listed above cause damage to our brains in the areas that are know affect our mood so again the effect of this damage results directly in depressive symptoms.
When someone experiencing depressive symptoms presents to a health care professional, what investigations will occur to determine whether there is an organic cause?
So back to the NHS Map of Medicine then. It states that people presenting to health professionals with suspected depression may, “depending on the judgment of the clinical professional of the nature of their presentations”, expect to have medical investigations done to rule out an organic cause for their depressive symptoms. The investigations are listed on this site but they include biochemistry tests, such as blood glucose, liver function tests, thyroid function tests and hematology tests such as full blood count.
Can depressive symptoms be misdiagnosed as a "mental illness" in this case “depression” when they are actually caused by organic/physical conditions?
Unfortunately it seems that the answer to this is yes, again as it was with psychotic symptoms. It is not difficult to find examples of organic problems being misdiagnosed as “depression” from across the academic world, the press and from people’s stories. So examples where someone is diagnosed with "depression" and treated for this first, rather than the organic reason being found and appropriate treatment for the biological condition being given (e.g. removal of brain tumor, treatment for Hyperthyroidism).
How often can the psychological symptoms we experience actually be explained by organic/physical/medical reasons?
There is of course a lot of information about this on the internet but I really am not sure we know the definite answer to this. It seems that a conservative estimate that about 10% of all psychological symptoms may be due to medical reasons, as this study suggests. However the results of one study suggest that about 50% of individuals with a “mental illness” diagnosis actually have general medical conditions that are largely undiagnosed that may cause or exacerbate psychiatric symptoms.
So over to you again. Can you help me answer these questions? Are they questions worth asking? Tell me what you think ...
- Should mental health services be shaped by the question what happened to you rather than what’s wrong with you?
- In our drive to ensure that people are asked "what has happened to you" rather than “what is wrong with you”, lets not miss the question “is there anything physically/organically wrong with you”.
- What are the known organic causes of typical depressive symptoms and how do these organic causes make us feel “depressed”?
- When someone experiencing depressive symptoms presents to a health care professional, what investigations will occur to determine whether there is an organic cause?
- Can depressive symptoms be misdiagnosed as a "mental illness" in this case “depression” when they are actually caused by organic/physical conditions?
- How often can the psychological symptoms we experience actually be explained by organic/physical/medical reasons?