Commentary

Contradictions abound in ‘The End of Mental Illness’


 

Daniel G. Amen, MD, is an American psychiatrist well-known for his eponymous clinics, television appearances, and series of books on mental health. One of his latest books, “The End of Mental Illness,” summarizes many of his views on the causes of and treatments for mental illnesses.

The book jacket for Dr. Amen's "The End of Mental Illness" is shown. Courtesy Tyndale House Publishers

Dr. Amen’s approaches – such as his advocacy for the widespread use of single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging – are somewhat controversial and at times fall outside the mainstream of current psychiatric thought. So does “The End of Mental Illness” contain anything of value to the average practicing psychiatrist? (It should be noted that I listened to this as an audiobook and took notes as I listened. This does limit my ability to directly quote portions of the text, but I believe my notes are reliable.)

Dr. Samuel R. Weber, psychiatry department chair at Logan (Utah) Regional Hospital with Intermountain Healthcare

Dr. Samuel R. Weber

He begins the book by pointing out that the term “mental illness” might be better replaced with the term “brain illness.” With this shift in terminology, Dr. Amen introduces a theme that recurs throughout the book: That mental illnesses ultimately stem from various ways in which the brain can be harmed. While the suggested change in terminology might help reduce the stigma associated with psychiatric illnesses, Dr. Amen is surprisingly timid about implementing this term in his own book. He repeatedly refers to “brain health/mental health” issues instead of discarding the “mental” term altogether. Even his BRIGHT MINDS acronym for risk factors for mental illnesses includes the term “mind” instead of “brain.”

Continuing the theme of challenging terminology, Dr. Amen goes on to decry the weaknesses of the DSM system of nosology. This is a valid point, because under the current system, the same patient may receive differing diagnoses depending on which provider is seen and how certain symptoms are interpreted. Yet, here again, Dr. Amen does not seem to adhere to his own advice: He uses DSM terminology throughout the book, speaking of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. An oddity (which, admittedly, could have been the audiobook reader’s mistake rather than an error in the original text) is that the DSM is referred to as the “Diagnostic and Structural Manual” rather than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. He criticizes the DSM for its imprecision, pointing out the variety of symptom combinations that can produce the same diagnoses and how similar symptoms may overlap between differing diagnoses. Yet, his descriptions of common SPECT patterns (his preferred tool to assist in diagnosis) make it clear that here, too, there is a lot of overlap. As an example, ADHD was associated with at least three of the imaging patterns he described. It is also somewhat ironic how Dr. Amen obliquely criticizes the American Psychiatric Association for profiting from the use of the DSM, when SPECT imaging is expensive and profits his own organization.

Dr. Amen repeatedly asserts that psychiatry is unique among medical specialties for making diagnoses based on symptom clusters rather than direct visualization of the affected organ. Yet, psychiatry is not, in fact, unique in making diagnoses in this way. Some examples of diagnoses based on symptom clusters from other medical specialties are systemic lupus erythematosus, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Although he asserts that SPECT imaging better demonstrates the root cause of mental illnesses, it is unclear from his book whether this is actually the case.

The descriptions for the ways in which Dr. Amen uses SPECT (which, admittedly, are vague and presumably simplified for a general audience) suggest that he has made observations correlating specific imaging patterns with certain emotional/behavioral outcomes. However, the imaging patterns he describes in the book can be interpreted to represent multiple different mental conditions, making it clear that SPECT is not a laserlike diagnostic tool that produces a single, indisputable diagnosis. Accuracy with SPECT seems especially questionable in light of two case examples he shares where brain imaging was interpreted as representing illness, but the patients were not demonstrating any signs of mental dysfunction. In one case, Dr. Amen opined that the patient’s vibrant spiritual life “overrode” the sick brain, but if this is true, doesn’t the discrepancy between imaging and emotional output call into question the value of SPECT?

Patient testimonials are provided, asserting that SPECT imaging helped them know “exactly” what treatment would help them. One cannot help but wonder whether part of the benefit of SPECT imaging is a placebo effect, boosting the confidence of patients that the treatment they are receiving is personalized and scientifically sound. A similar trend is currently seen more broadly in psychiatry with the widespread promotion of pharmacogenetic testing. Such testing may bolster patient confidence in their medication, but its value in improving patient outcomes has not been established.1

Dr. Amen outlines a brief history of mental health care, including differing approaches and therapies from the time of Sigmund Freud up to the present. His outline is somewhat critical of the perceived shortcomings of his psychiatric forebears, yet this seems entirely unnecessary. All scientific disciplines must start somewhere and build from limited knowledge to greater. Is it necessary to belittle Freud for not being able to do SPECT imaging in the 1800s?

Interestingly, Dr. Amen leaves cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a landmark, evidence-based form of psychotherapy, out of his overview of the history of psychiatry. He does go on to mention CBT as part of the treatment offerings of the Amen Clinics, which could leave the lay reader with the incorrect impression that CBT is a treatment unique to Amen Clinics. Similarly, at one point Dr. Amen writes about “what I call automatic negative thoughts.” This phrasing could confuse readers who might not know that automatic thoughts are a concept endemic to CBT.

Dr. Amen writes repeatedly about the Amen Clinics 4 Circles, four key areas of life that can contribute to mental health. These areas are biological, psychological, social, and spiritual. While Amen Clinics may have come up with the term “4 Circles,” the biopsychosocial model of understanding illness was developed by George Engel, MD, in 1977, and current discussions of this model frequently incorporate a spiritual dimension as well.2

Dr. Amen’s writing at times mischaracterizes psychotropic medications in unhelpful ways. He speaks of psychotropic medications generally as being addictive. While this is certainly true for stimulants and benzodiazepines, most would agree that this does not apply to many other commonly used medications in psychiatry, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers. He also paints with a broad brush when he states that anxiety medications can cause dementia. A concerning link has been demonstrated between benzodiazepine use and dementia,3 but SSRIs (which are considered first-line medications for anxiety) are not known to cause dementia and may actually delay progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s dementia.4 His mention of medication use affecting a patient’s insurability could have the unfortunate effect of scaring away suffering individuals from seeking help. The one category of psychiatric medication he does not seem concerned about is psychostimulants, which is odd – given the addictive, cardiovascular, and other risks associated with that medication class.

In contrast to his skepticism regarding many psychotropic medications, Dr. Amen expresses significant enthusiasm regarding nutraceutical use. While there has been research in this area supporting a role for some nutraceutical interventions, there is still a need for more rigorous studies.5 To support his endorsement of natural remedies, Dr. Amen mentions that Hippocrates recommended herbs and spices for many health conditions. But Hippocrates lived more than 2,000 years ago, and the state of medicine has advanced significantly since then.

Dr. Amen also mentions that 80% of the developing world relies upon natural or herbal remedies as the primary source of medicine. While he frames this statement as supporting his endorsement of such remedies, it could conversely be said that this is evidence of the need to make pharmacological interventions more widely available in the developing world.

Much of “The End of Mental Illness” is dedicated to reviewing specific risk factors that could cause harm to a person’s mental well-being. One example is head trauma. Dr. Amen documents at least one instance in which he was convinced that his patient had experienced head trauma, and questioned the patient again and again about possible brain injuries. One must wonder whether the positive results of such focused, repetitive questioning might be evidence of confirmation bias, as a search to confirm the preexisting belief of head trauma could lead to overlooking alternative explanations for a patient’s symptoms.

Another risk factor dwelt upon is exposure to toxins. One toxin Dr. Amen rightly recommends avoiding is tobacco smoke. Yet, his approach to advocate for a tobacco-free lifestyle is somewhat problematic. He lists chemicals contained in tobacco smoke, and then names unpleasant items that share those ingredients, such as paint. This smacks of the same sloppy logic manifested in social media memes decrying the use of vaccines by listing their ingredients alongside scary-sounding products that contain identical ingredients (for example, vaccines contain formaldehyde, which is used to embalm dead bodies!). This is analogous to saying that water is bad for you because it contains hydrogen, which is also an ingredient in atomic bombs.

Dr. Amen makes the blanket recommendation to avoid products containing “chemicals.” This is a difficult recommendation to interpret, since literally all matter is made of chemicals. It seems that Dr. Amen is leaning into the vague idea of a “chemical” as something artificially created in a lab, which must, therefore, be dangerous.

Along these lines, Dr. Amen suggests that if a person doesn’t know what is in a specific food item, it should not be eaten. Although this sounds reasonable on the surface, if people were told the names of the proteins and chemical compounds that make up many naturally occurring plants or meats, they would likely not recognize many of them. Dr. Amen dedicates space to list seemingly benign exposures – such as eating nonorganic produce, using two or more beauty products each day, or touching grocery store receipts – as possible “toxins.” By contrast, there is a certain irony in the absence of any mention of the risks associated with radiation from the SPECT imaging he staunchly advocates for. One potential risk of the book listing so many “toxins” to avoid is that patients could waste valuable time and energy eliminating exposures that pose little or no risk, rather than focusing efforts on well-established treatments.

In light of the observations and critiques offered above, one might come away with the impression that I would not recommend “The End of Mental Illness.” However, although one can nitpick details in the book, some of its bigger ideas make it worth commending to readers. Dr. Amen rightfully emphasizes the need for psychiatrists and patients to think more broadly about mental health issues beyond the use of pills. He justifiably criticizes the “15-minute med check” model of practice and the idea that medications are the end-all, be-all of treatment. He demonstrates an appropriate appreciation for the serious risks of reliance on benzodiazepines.6 Dr. Amen points out important contributions from Viktor Frankl, MD, to the field of psychiatry, which may go overlooked today. He also helpfully points out that bipolar disorder may often be misdiagnosed (although he attributes the misdiagnosis to traumatic brain injury, whereas other psychiatrists might say the misdiagnosis is due to borderline personality disorder).

Much of what Dr. Amen writes is sensible, and psychiatrists would do well to adopt the following steps he advocates for: Taking a comprehensive biopsychosocial-spiritual approach to the assessment and treatment of patients; thinking broadly in their differential diagnoses and not forgetting their medical training; understanding that medication alone is often not sufficient to make lasting, positive change in a person’s life; paying attention to healthy habits such as diet, exercise, sleep, and social activity; and knowing that CBT is a valuable tool that can change lives.

There is much to appreciate in “The End of Mental Illness,” especially the overarching idea that psychiatry isn’t just a symptom checklist and a prescription pad. Rather, achieving mental well-being often requires broader thinking and sustained lifestyle changes.

Although I did not agree with everything in the book, it did cause me to think and reflect on my own practice. I read “The End of Mental Illness” with colleagues in my department, and it stimulated a lively discussion. Isn’t that ultimately what a psychiatrist would want from a book like this – the opportunity to reflect, discuss, and potentially improve one’s own practice?

Dr. Weber is physician lead in the department of psychiatry at Intermountain Healthcare Budge Clinic, Logan (Utah) Psychiatry. He disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

References

1. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(12). doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.27909.

2. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2014;27:358-63.

3. BMJ 2014. doi: 10.1136/bmj.g5205.

4. Am J Psychiatry. 2018 Mar 1;175:232-41.

5. Am J Psychiatry. 2016 Jun 1;173:575-87.

6. Current Psychiatry. 2018 Feb;17(2):22-7.

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