Depression Often Misdiagnosed, and Untreated

The New York Times had an interesting article about how depression is often misdiagnosed in the US, and how most people who actually have depression don’t get treatment.  They reference a research study just published in the JAMA Internal Medicine.Depression

This research study performed by Mark Olfson, Carlos Blanco, and Steven C. Marcus, looked at responses from 46,417 people on the Patient Health Questionnaire-2 (PHQ-2) which is a brief screening tool for depression. A score of over 3 indicates depression on this scale.

What did they find? They found that approximately 8.4% of all adults studied had depression, but only 28.7% had received any depression treatment in the previous year! That means 71.3% of the people who suffer depression got no treatment for this depression.

Of those who were being treated for depression, about 30% actually had depression based on the screening, and another 22% had serious psychological distress. That means that of the people in the study who were being treated for depression roughly 48% neither suffered depression nor did they suffer serious psychological distress, indicating inaccurate diagnoses by the treating professionals.

There were some interesting correlates of depression. About eighteen percent of those in the lowest income group suffered depression, while only 3.7% of those in the highest income group suffered depression. It pays to be rich!

Depression was more common in those who were separated, divorced, widowed, or who had less than a high school education. None of this is terribly surprising.

How did depression sort out by age?

In the 18 to 34-year-old group 6.6% suffered depression. In the 35 to 49-year-old group 8.8% suffered depression. Ten percent of the 50 to 64-year-old group suffered depression. Of those over 65, only 8.3% suffered depression. So at least in this sample the 50 to 64-year-old group was slightly more likely to suffer depression, and contrary to what many people think, the youngest adults were somewhat less likely to suffer depression.

Of those who were married only 6.3% suffered depression. Of those who were separated, divorced, or widowed, 13.3% suffered depression. Divorce is bad for mental health, with almost a doubling of rates of depression.

Most of the patients who were treated for depression were treated by general practitioners (73%), with roughly 24% receiving treatment by psychiatrists and 13% receiving treatment by other mental health specialists. (There was some overlap, that’s why the numbers add up to more than 100%.)  This may explain the rather poor diagnosis and treatment of depression because general practitioners although competent and intelligent, are very busy and typically only have a few minutes to spend with each patient, not enough to do a good job diagnosing and treating depression.

CONCLUSIONS ABOUT DEPRESSION FINDINGS

What can we conclude from this research?

  1. Almost 10% of the adult population suffers from depression. Of those people who have depression less than 30% of them will get any treatment for depression.
  1. You are more likely to suffer depression if you are in the lowest income group, divorced, separated or widowed, or have no high school education. If you are married you have half the probability of being depressed.
  1. Many adults receive depression treatment even though they don’t really meet the criteria for depression. In this study, almost half of the people receiving treatment for depression were neither depressed nor were they even particularly distressed.
  1. Rates of depression by age groups were relatively equal, with the youngest age group having the least depression and the middle-aged group (50 to 64) suffering somewhat more depression. Married people are suffer half as much depression as divorced, separated, or widowed people.
  1. Most people received depression treatment from their general practitioner or internal medicine doctor, with a smaller number receiving treatment from a psychiatrist, and even a smaller number receiving treatment from psychologists. This also meant that most people who receive depression treatment were treated using medication, and very few people received psychotherapy, even though most studies comparing medication to cognitive behavioral therapy for depression have shown that therapy performs at least as well as medication and probably better over the long term, with less relapse.

Reading between the lines of this study, it suggests that many people who feel depressed would benefit from receiving an accurate diagnosis from a clinical psychologist, and might very well also benefit from receiving cognitive behavioral therapy for depression rather than medication. Even if medication is indicated, a psychologist could recommend it to the patient’s general practitioner, and then monitor more closely the results.

The study also suggests that many people receive antidepressant medication who actually are not depressed, which needlessly exposes them to side effects and also fails to provide the correct treatment for what troubles them.

And finally, since only about 30% of those who suffer depression received any treatment for it, if you feel depressed, be sure to pursue treatment for depression. Get an accurate diagnosis and then get treatment, ideally with a psychologist or therapist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy. If you want more information about depression, I’ve written extensively about it with a complete list of depression articles.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Why You Should Never Read Online Illness or Medication Forums, and Why You Should be Skeptical of Google Search Results as Well

The first thing many people seem to do when they get a diagnosis of a physical or a mental illness is to go to the internet and search on that illness. Patients who are prescribed medications do the same. Often the search results lead to internet forums. These forums consist of user-generated content that usually is not moderated or edited by any professional. Anyone can post on these forums. This seems reasonable, right? But in this article I’m going to tell you why, for the most part ,you should avoid reading these forums. And I will also tell you why you should be skeptical of Google search results regarding any illness.

When people read on forums about their illness or medication, they get scared. Many of the forum posts will say that your illness leads to awful and dire outcomes, and that the medications prescribed to you will make you depressed, addicted, or crazy.

For instance, I often treat tinnitus patients. Samplings of the forums that cover tinnitus suggest that most of the people who post on these forums are completely miserable and suffering terribly from their tinnitus.

So what’s the problem here? Isn’t this useful information? Can’t patients learn something interesting and helpful from these forums?

Unfortunately, Internet illness forums often present a distorted, grim, and negative impression of most illnesses and most medications. Why is this? The main reason is because of selection and sampling bias. The groups of people who post on illness forums are not a representative sample of people with a particular illness. Let’s use tinnitus as an example. If you read the tinnitus forums you would assume that everybody with tinnitus is anxious and depressed about it.

But actually, we know from research studies that roughly 20% to 40% of the population experience tinnitus symptoms from time to time. We also know that roughly 2% of people who have tinnitus symptoms suffer psychologically. So the data from research suggests that a small subset (2%) of people who have tinnitus symptoms suffer anxiety and depression as a result of their tinnitus. Most people (98%) with tinnitus symptoms do not suffer significantly or they have adapted over time and gotten over their suffering.

But the forums are full of posts from the people who suffer the most. People who don’t suffer don’t spend their time posting. And people who have overcome their suffering also don’t post. So reading the forums gives a tinnitus patient a distorted and scary view of the experience of tinnitus.

The other problem in reading internet information about illnesses is the way that Google Search ranks and orders search results. When you search on tinnitus, what you might not realize is that Google presents pages in order of popularity, not in order based on how accurate or scientific they are. Sites that are clicked on more frequently will rise up in the Google search results and sites that are clicked on less frequently will fall down. When you do a Google search people typically click on the most shocking and scary links. “Tinnitus caused by alien abduction” will get a lot of clicks even though it may represent a site run by a single person who claims to have been abducted by aliens. Thus the alien abduction tinnitus site will move up in the Google rankings.

Boring scientific sites fall down in the search rankings. That’s because they have scientific names that don’t encourage people to click on the links.

So how can patients get accurate information about their illness or about medication treatments?

One way is to search within scientific and medical sites. For instance, Medscape is an excellent website that offers medical articles about almost every illness. WebMD is another site more designed for lay people, which also offers good information. If you want to search scientific articles you can use the PubMed search engine which searches published research articles.

Let’s do a Google search on tinnitus. Overall, the 1st page of Google results is pretty representative of medical and scientific sites. But the 3rd listing titled “In the news”, is an article “Martin McGuinness tells of misery living with tinnitus,” from the Belfast Telegraph. Pretty grim, you think, misery!

But if you actually clicked through to the article you would get a very different impression because Martin McGuinness actually says that “it had a limited impact on day-to-day life and work and that family, friends and work colleagues were very supportive.… It does not limit me in a professional or personal capacity.” This is a much more positive view than suggested by the title and the Google link.

This is a great example of why the Internet is dangerous. The headline is what’s called click bait, a link that falsely represents the actual page, which is designed to attract people’s clicks.

Forums about medication are also problematic. Many psychiatric medications can have side effects. For most people these side effects are minimal or tolerable and are overbalanced by the benefits of the medications. For a minority of patients, the side effects are not minimal and these are the patients who are over-represented in most Internet medication forums. Also, on an Internet forum you never really know all of the medications the person is taking, the accurate dosages, as well as their underlying illness.

There is one more problem with reading about illnesses on the Internet. It’s one that particularly disturbs me. Many websites, even websites that purport to be objective, actually are selling something. They may be selling a supplement or vitamin, or an e-book or some other kind of program to treat an illness. Obviously, to increase sales, these commercial websites will paint a distorted negative picture of any illness or condition. They may also disparage other more traditional and scientifically validated treatments or drugs. In general, you should be skeptical of any information that comes from a website that sells products or services.

To review:

  1. Take Google search results with many grains of salt. Remember that Google orders search results by popularity not by accuracy.
  2. Beware of Internet illness and medication forums. By and large, they are populated with an unrepresentative sample of illness sufferers, the ones who suffer the most and cope the least well. Reading them will depress you and make you anxious.
  3. If you want to get information about your illness or potential treatments, utilize established and reputable medical and psychological information sites. An exhaustive list of best medical sites can be found at: the Consumer and Patient Health Information Site. Some of the good medical sites include MedscapeWebMD, and MayoClinic. Some of the best sites for mental health information include PsychCentral, NIMH , American Psychiatry Association, American Psychology Association .
  1. Finally, remember that a very large percentage of websites are actually selling something, and be skeptical of information from these sites.

In conclusion, suffering any illness or condition is unpleasant and sometimes scary. Don’t make it worse by consuming information on the Internet in a random way. Be skeptical and selective and remember that Google is not always your friend. Often a good physician or good psychologist can give you clear and balanced information.

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Money and Drugs

We hear a lot these days about the drug wars in Mexico and the US. There’s another drug war being waged, the war over drugs and money. That’s the war where drug companies pay influential psychiatrists to recommend the prescriptions of potent and dangerous drugs in children, adolescents and adults. Today the little guy won a small skirmish in that war.

National Public Radio (NPR) reported today that Harvard has punished three well-known psychiatrists over failing to reveal payments from drug companies. These three doctors are accused of accepting more than $4.2 million from drug companies between 2000 and 2007 without reporting the income to Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, or the federal government. $4.2 million!  That is $1.4 million per Doctor!

What did they do for this money?  Supposedly they did research, but if that were true then they probably would’ve revealed these payments. One can only guess, but it’s useful to look at their positions on prescribing. Dr. Joseph Biederman is well-known for being a proponent of the off-label use of antipsychotic drugs to treat supposed  “bipolar illness” in young children. Much of his work is seen as encouraging the growth in these kinds of prescriptions, and his funding came from drug companies that make these drugs. Biederman and the other two psychiatrists accused also have published extensively on the use of drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also a huge growth industry in the Psycho-Pharma business.

All three doctors have been banned from taking any industry money for one year, and will be under probation for two more years after that. Good for Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital! But it would be better if Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital were more open themselves about disclosing what these doctors did, who they took money from, and whether they accepted federal grant money while not disclosing industry support which would be a violation of federal guidelines.

(I should add that most psychiatrists that I know and refer to don’t get any money from drug companies. In fact, when I ran some of the data regarding drug company’s payments to psychiatrists by a friend and colleague, he jokingly said, “Wow, I wish I had known, I could be driving a much nicer car!”  It appears that the biggest offenders are psychiatrists in academic settings or large hospital settings. Maybe we should all be asking our doctors to reveal their non-clinical funding so we know their biases.)

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.