Dr. Sarah Ravin - Psychologist | Eating Disorders |Body Image Issues | Depression | Anxiety | Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders | Self-Injury
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Dr. Sarah Ravin

Welcome to my professional blog. I am a Florida Licensed Psychologist and trained scientist-practitioner. In 2008, I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. A major component of my professional identity is staying informed about recent developments in the field so that I may provide my clients with scientifically sound information and evidence-based treatment. There is a plethora of information on the internet about Eating Disorders, Depression, Anxiety, Psychotherapy. Unfortunately, much of this information is unsubstantiated and some of it is patently false. It is my hope that by sharing my thoughts and opinions on psychological issues, with scientific research and clinical experience sprinkled in for good measure, I can help to bridge the gap between research and treatment.

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Tag: Depression

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Fighting the Wrong Battles

I’ve become increasingly annoyed at the conflation of “body dissatisfaction” with “eating disorder.” The former is a culturally-driven socio-political phenomenon, whereas the latter is a severe, biologically-based mental illness. The former afflicts over 85% of American females, whereas the latter strikes only a small fraction of us (less than 1% for anorexia nervosa and 2-3% for bulimia nervosa).

There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding supermodel Kate Moss’s comment that “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels,” and around Ralph Lauren’s ridiculously photo-shopped ads. Eating disorder clinicians and activists have been quite vocal about their opposition to these media bytes, arguing that they encourage eating disorders. I know that these professionals and activists have noble intentions, but I believe they are fighting the wrong battles.

I object to underweight models not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because being underweight is harmful to the models’ physical and mental health, and viewing these images on a regular basis contributes to body dissatisfaction in most people. I refuse to have magazines in my office waiting room not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because I am opposed to the blatant objectification of women. Besides, I think that fashion magazines are sexist, superficial, and boring.

Hanging in my office is a certificate of membership from NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) which thanks me for my “support in the effort to eliminate eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.” I really wish they had eliminated those last three words.

I think the conflation of sadness with depression is analogous. The former, in its extreme and persistent form, is one symptom of the latter. The former is a natural, healthy emotional state that every human being experiences from time to time, while the latter is a serious mental illness caused by a combination of neurobiological, psychological, and environmental factors. I remember an incident that illustrates this principle beautifully. I was conducting an initial evaluation with an adolescent girl and her parents. When I asked the father whether he thought his daughter was depressed, he replied: “I don’t believe in depression.” Interesting response, I thought. As if depression were something like God or heaven or Santa Clause, something to be believed in or not. I asked the father to elaborate on his beliefs. He replied: “I think we all get sad sometimes, and that’s OK.” I smiled and gently responded that I agree with him – yes, all of us do get sad sometimes, and yes, that’s OK. However, some people experience prolonged, intense feelings of sadness accompanied by sleep and appetite disturbances, fatigue, thoughts of suicide, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating. These people are experiencing major depression.”

Imagine if, in exchange for my membership in the National Depression Association, I received a certificate thanking me for my support in the effort to eliminate Major Depressive Disorder and sadness.” Laughable, isn’t it? Well, so is the ED/Body Dissatisfaction comparison. It trivializes the anguish that eating disordered people experience, and it falsely encourages those whose lives have not been touched by eating disorders to think that they “know how it feels.” Well, guess what. They don’t.

Eliminating all sadness in the world would probably not affect the prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder because sadness is but one symptom of depression, whereas depression is not a result of sadness. Likewise, eliminating body dissatisfaction would be fantastic for everyone, but it would not result in the elimination of eating disorders.

Contrary to popular belief (and, sadly enough, the belief of many eating disorders professionals), the media’s glorification of thinness is not responsible for the so-called “epidemic” of anorexia nervosa. Also contrary to popular belief, the incidence of anorexia nervosa has not increased dramatically in recent decades. Cases of what would now be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa have been documented as early as the medieval times, long before thinness was considered fashionable. These fasting saints shunned all sustenance to the point of emaciation not because they wanted to be skinny, but because they believed it brought them closer to God.

Unbeknownst to many, anorexia nervosa occurs in many non-western cultures. For example, recent studies have shown that the prevalence of anorexia nervosa in China and Ghana is equal to its prevalence in the US. The major difference is that patients in non-western cultures relate their starvation to profound self-control, moral superiority, and spiritual wholeness rather than to a desire to be thinner. Today’s American anorexics, like their medieval predecessors and non-western counterparts, all experience prolonged inability to nourish themselves, dramatic weight loss to the point of emaciation, amenorrhea, and denial of the seriousness of their condition. The self-reported reasons for starvation, it seems, are the only things that change across time and culture. I believe that an anorexic’s so-called reasons for starvation are simply her attempts to derive meaning from her symptoms, which are always filtered through a cultural lens. An anorexic does not starve herself because she wants to be thin, or because she wants to be holy, or because she wants to show supreme self-control. She starves herself because she suffers from a brain disease, of which self-starvation is a symptom.

Recent research suggests that anorexia nervosa is not a culture-bound syndrome, but bulimia nervosa is. Anorexia nervosa seems to be a distinct genotype that has been around for centuries and that manifests itself in various cultures and eras. Bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, appears to occur in individuals with a certain genetic / neurobiological predisposition who are exposed to a culture which combines massive amounts of readily available, highly palatable foods with a cultural mandate for thinness. This research implies that reducing or eliminating the cultural glorification of thinness may indeed reduce the prevalence of bulimia nervosa, but will have no effect on the prevalence of anorexia nervosa. I suppose that, once this awful waif model craze blows over, anorexics will simply find another “reason” to starve.

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Friday, October 30th, 2009

The Power of Expectations

A recent study found that parents’ stereotypes about teen rebelliousness fuel’s teens’ misbehavior. In this longitudinal study, researchers interviewed a large sample of 6th and 7th graders and their parents regarding expectations for the child’s behavior as he or she enters adolescence. At the one-year follow-up, teens whose parents had negative expectations about their child falling into stereotypical teenage behavior (e.g., drugs, premature sexual activity, rule-breaking) were more likely to have engaged in these behaviors. This was true even after controlling for many other predictors of such behaviors.

My guess is that several factors may be at play here:

1.) Parents whose sons and daughters had behavior problems during childhood may be more likely to have negative expectations as their child enters adolescence. Indeed, having a history of childhood conduct problems does increase the likelihood of engaging in substance use, premature sex, and rule-breaking behavior in adolescence.

2.) Parents with a personal history of adolescent misbehavior and parents with older adolescents who misbehave may presume that their child will follow a similar path. Children whose parents and older siblings engage in drug or alcohol use, delinquency, or early sexual activity are, in fact, more likely to engage in these behaviors themselves. Genetics play a powerful role in addictions, risk-taking, and impulsive behaviors. In addition, children whose family members engage in substance use have easier access to drugs and alcohol themselves. Finally, parents and older siblings are powerful role models who teach their children, through example, what is and is not acceptable behavior.

3.) Parents’ negative expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Some parents convey, whether subtly or overtly, that drug use, drinking, and sex are as much an inevitable part of adolescence as menarche and chest hair. These parents may be less likely to set firm limits with their children and may not impose consistent consequences for engaging in misbehavior. Perhaps the children of these parents are more likely to internalize their parents’ negative expectations and engage in misbehavior.

So, in addition to genetics and social learning, stereotypes and negative expectations play a powerful role in shaping children’s behavior. The same phenomenon, I’m afraid, is present between therapist and patient (minus the genetics, of course). Stereotypes and negative expectations play a powerful role in bad psychotherapy. There are many unsubstantiated theories of psychopathology that, when espoused by therapists and used in “treatment,” can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. Here are a few examples:

1.) A therapist presumes that a teenager’s depression is the result of family dysfunction. In order to give the patient a sense of autonomy and protect his confidentiality, the therapist does not involve the family and instead focuses exclusively on the patient. Sessions are spent discussing the problems in the patient’s relationship with his parents. Meanwhile, the parents are growing increasingly worried about their son’s frequent crying, social withdrawal, angry outbursts, and declining school performance. The patient tells his parents that his depression is their fault. Mother blames father for working too much and not spending enough time with the patient. Father blames mother for coddling the patient. The parents’ marriage becomes strained, and the younger brother begins to act out as well.

2.) A therapist asserts that a patient suffering from anorexia nervosa or substance abuse will recover “when she wants to” or “when she’s ready.” The therapist then waits to see signs of “readiness” before pursuing aggressive intervention. Meanwhile, the patient is in the grips of a powerfully self-rewarding, self-perpetuating cycle of starvation or substance abuse and is thus rendered, by virtue of the illness, unable to “choose” recovery. The patient’s symptoms do not abate. Thus, the therapist continues to espouse the belief that the patient is not ready to choose recovery. The patient does not improve, and she concludes that she was not ready for treatment. Now, in addition to her life-threatening and agonizing symptoms, she is carrying around a massive load of guilt, self-blame, and probably blame from her loved ones as well, who don’t understand why she won’t choose recovery. Her symptoms worsen.

3.) A therapist presumes that a patient’s symptoms are the result of a grave trauma, although the patient does not report a history of trauma and there is no other evidence to suggest trauma. Therapy focuses on uncovering this trauma in order to resolve the patient’s symptoms. The therapist asks leading questions in order to confirm her hypothesis that the patient has been abused. The patient, who trusts the therapist and believes in her methods, develops a false memory of abuse. The patient continues to struggle with her symptoms. The therapist tells the patient that she must unravel the roots of her problems, and that it will take many years for her to recover. It does.

4.) A therapist presumes that a patient’s eating disorder is the result of over-controlling parents or relentless boundary violations. The patient is told that, in order to recover, she must break free from her parents’ tyranny and set boundaries for herself. The patient wants desperately to recover but struggles with restrictive eating and drastic weight loss. The therapist helps the patient explore various events of her childhood which supposedly demonstrate parental over-control (“My dad wouldn’t let me wear short skirts to school!”) or boundary violations (“My mom read my diary when I was 13!”). The patient recalls more and more of these types of incidents and discusses them in therapy while she continues to starve and lose weight. Meanwhile, her parents are doing everything in their power to ensure that she eats more: they force her to attend family meals, they pack her lunch for her, they cook for her. These “controlling” behaviors provide more grist for the therapy mill. Eventually, at the therapist’s encouragement, the patient moves out of her parents’ house, gets her own apartment, and stops coming to therapy. The therapist assumes that, released from her overbearing parents, the patient has addressed the root of her illness and has recovered. She has not.

These theories perpetuate themselves, and some practitioners cling to them like religious dogma. Like religious zealots, they latch onto evidence that confirms their belief, and they disregard any evidence to the contrary. They view every patient through the lens of their theory and structure their treatment accordingly. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Unless you have suffered from a mental illness, it is difficult to imagine how much it crushes your spirit, distorts your thoughts, warps your perception of reality, and alters your behavior. Unless you have sought therapy yourself, you may not realize just how vulnerable you are, especially as an adolescent or young adult, when you are sitting on the therapist’s couch with all of those distorted thoughts and feelings and perceptions. You are absolutely miserable, and you can’t stand feeling this way any more. The therapist is the expert, the savior, the one who will rescue you from your despair. She comes to know you better than anyone else in your life, and you are certain that she has your best interest in mind. You tell her your deepest secrets, you listen, you trust her, and you do whatever she says you need to do.

My point here is not to overly-dramatize the therapeutic relationship, because I think my description is actually quite realistic. My point is to convey just how harmful stereotypes, negative expectations, and unsubstantiated theories of mental illness can be. Bad therapy is not just ineffective – it has the potential to be every bit as harmful as a surgical error.

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Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Lifestyles of the Depressed and Anxious

Despite miraculous advances in science, medicine, and technology, the rates of mental illness in the western world are higher than ever before. For instance, the rate of depression in the United States is ten times higher today than it was just two generations ago. Most mental illnesses are biologically-based and genetically-transmitted, but genes don’t change that fast, and we are biologically quite similar to our ancestors. Prior to the 20th century, human beings faced more risk and hardship on a regular basis than most of us will ever know, all without the advantage of modern science and medicine. But somehow, they were more resilient. How can this be?

Research suggests that many features of the modern lifestyle are toxic to our mental health. Most Americans have at least one, if not many, of the following issues:

• Too little sleep (less than 8 hours per night)
• Not enough exercise
• Insufficient exposure to sunlight
• Insufficient time outdoors
• Hectic, overscheduled lifestyles
• Too little “down time” to relax and unwind
• Poor eating habits (dieting, skipping breakfast, overeating, having too few fruits and vegetables, skimping on protein and dairy and carbohydrates and fats, eating too many processed foods, insufficient intake to meet one’s energy demands)
• High levels of stress
• High levels of caffeine consumption (more than 2 caffeinated beverages per day)
• Excess alcohol consumption
• Use of illegal drugs
• Over-reliance on prescription and over-the-counter medications
• Social isolation
• Underutilization of family and community supports
• Intense pressure (self-imposed and socially prescribed) to achieve and perform

Sound familiar?

Any one of these issues has the potential to trigger a mental illness in someone who is biologically vulnerable. The unfortunate reality, however, is that most Americans are dealing with several of these concerns simultaneously. No wonder we are so depressed and anxious!

Hundreds of years ago, our lifestyles were much simpler and much healthier. Our better habits were reflected in our mental health. Consider the Amish, who pride themselves on resisting societal change and maintaining their 18th century lifestyle. The Amish have very low rates of mental illness. I believe this is largely attributable to their lifestyles: they are physically active every day, they get plenty of sleep, they simplify their lives, they have low levels of stress, they eat naturally and nutritiously without dieting, they are deeply spiritual, they have a strong sense of community, and they rely upon their families, neighbors, and churches for social support.

Consider the Kaluli, an aboriginal hunter-gatherer tribe native to the highlands of New Guinea. Relatively untouched by modern society, their lifestyles closely resemble those of our ancestors. They live and work outdoors, they are physically active for most of the day, they eat naturally and bountifully from the land, they get plenty of sleep, and they rely heavily on their families and communities for support. A western anthropologist who studied the Kaluli people for nearly a decade found that clinical depression was virtually nonexistent in their tribe.

I would bet that many Amish and Kaluli people have biological predispositions for mental illnesses, but these genes are less likely to be expressed in an environment that protects and nurtures the body, mind, and spirit. We are less likely to develop body image problems if we grow up in a society without dieting and without a narrowly-defined, media-promoted, unhealthy standard of beauty. We are less likely to develop eating disorders if we live in a society in which everyone eats, effortlessly and without guilt, the types and quantities of foods that their bodies need. We are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression if we are well-rested, well-nourished, and well-supported by our families and communities. Our children are less likely to show signs of inattention and hyperactivity if they get plenty of fresh air and outdoor exercise and have minimal exposure to television, computers, video games, and cell phones. We may discover that, if we are truly caring for ourselves, we don’t need a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning, we don’t want to go out drinking on the weekends, and most of our aches and pains will diminish without the use of Advil. We may find that we actually enjoy going to bed at 9:00 and rising with the sun, spending more time outdoors, being more physically active, and letting go of excess stress that weighs us down.

Perhaps our minds are not suited for the modern world. The evolution of our brains has not kept up with advances in science, technology, and other aspects of modern life. I am not suggesting that, in a Survivor-like twist of events, we turn back time and return to our ancestral hunter-gatherer environment. Science and technology and modern society are remarkable in many ways, and I feel fortunate to live in the twenty-first century. I am suggesting, however, that we take a critical look at the way we live our lives and examine the effects that our behaviors and lifestyles have on our mental health. We can learn a few lessons from the Kaluli and the Amish. We can place more emphasis on our own self-care and encourage our friends and family to do the same.

When I was working at a university counseling center, a colleague of mine had a client – a college freshman – who met full criteria for major depression and an anxiety disorder. This young man’s case was puzzling initially because his symptoms appeared rather suddenly after starting college and he had no family history of depression or anxiety. After a thorough evaluation, my colleague recommended a few simple behavioral changes such as improving his sleep hygiene, increasing the number of hours he slept each night, decreasing his consumption of alcohol and caffeine, and increasing his physical activity. Within two weeks of changing his habits, his symptoms had disappeared entirely and he was back to his full-functioning, high-energy self.

The moral of this story is that poor self-care not only triggers or exacerbates mental illness in those who are biologically vulnerable, but it can actually create a syndrome that appears identical to a mental illness in those without a predisposition.

Very few people fully appreciate the value of self-care. Children are taught to excel in school and sports and music and arts and various other extracurricular activities. They are taught to follow the Ten Commandments and keep their rooms clean and mind their manners and look pretty. As they grow older, they are taught to stay away from drugs and have safe sex and watch their waistlines. But who will teach them good mental hygiene? Self-care is either glossed over or ignored completely in school. Many well-intentioned parents don’t model good self-care – they are overworked, overscheduled, overtired, overmedicated, over-caffeinated, and undernourished. These parents may encourage good grades and good behavior, but they are unlikely to instill good self-care habits in their children. Most physicians overlook the role of lifestyle factors in triggering or exacerbating mental illnesses, and they use medication as the first line of treatment, even if the patient’s problem could be addressed more effectively with behavioral interventions. Many therapists do not teach their clients the importance of self-care in preventing and reducing the impact of mental illness, instead choosing to target cognitive distortions or family relations or interpersonal skills. Don’t get me wrong – these issues are important as well – but without the baseline of good nutrition, plenty of sleep and exercise, stress management, and other healthy habits, the client is likely to continue to struggle with some level of depression or anxiety.

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Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Jagged Little Pills

More Americans than ever before are taking psychotropic medication. The number of people on antidepressants doubled between 1996 – 2006, yet the number of people seeing mental health professionals declined during that time period. Over 80% of prescriptions for psychotropic drugs are written by primary care physicians. I find these trends a little hard to swallow.

The overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underutilization of behavioral and psychosocial treatments are disturbing on several levels. First, these trends are clearly driven by greed and profit. It serves the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies to minimize patient contact with healthcare professionals, even at the expense of quality of care. Pharmaceutical companies, with their numerous advertisements on television, on the internet, and in magazines, have the potential to reach a very large number of consumers.

Second, clients are not fully informed about all of their treatment options. More information is usually better than less information. The problem, however, is that most Americans don’t have the education and training to understand this information, nor should they. It is up to the professionals to use their knowledge and expertise, as well as their clinical judgment, to decide whether, when, and what medication to prescribe for a particular patient. That’s the way it should be. Remember the good old days when your doctor told YOU which medications you should take? Now, the commercials use cartoon neurotransmitters and wind-up dolls and present overly-simplified portraits of recovery from depression, while urging you to “Ask your doctor” how the drug du jour can help you. Another ad reads: “Taking an antidepressant? Still having symptoms of depression? Adding Abilify to your antidepressant may help.” The benefits are exaggerated and the serious side effects are downplayed. The ad does not tell you that psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, increased social support, improved nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep are also likely to help. But hey, who has time for all of that? And when is the last time you saw a TV commercial touting the benefits of Dialectical Behavior Therapy? The result of this advertising is that patients go to a psychiatrist who quickly prescribes a medication after a brief evaluation and, in most cases, does no psychotherapy whatsoever. Even worse, the majority of patients will go to their primary care physician who, after a five or ten minute conversation, prescribes the psychotropic medication that the uninformed client saw on TV last night or the one of which she has samples left over from yesterday’s drug representative’s visit. There is usually minimal, if any, follow-up care, and many of these patients are maintained on a dosage of medication that is so low that it results in no therapeutic benefit whatsoever. Except maybe a placebo effect.

Third – and this point is closely related to my first and second points – clients are not getting adequate, quality mental health care. For many mental illnesses, such as panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, mild depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD, certain forms of psychotherapy are more effective than medication. For other mental illnesses, such as recurrent major depression, the combination of psychotherapy and medication generally produces the best outcome. In many cases, adding psychotherapy to medication treatment allows clients to take fewer medications and lower doses of medication. Clients who receive a combination of psychotherapy and medication are less likely to relapse when the medication is discontinued, compared to clients who are treated with medication alone. The benefits of good psychotherapy are long-lasting and, in some cases, curative. In contrast, medication is merely palliative, and its benefits usually fade once it is discontinued. For certain conditions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and recurrent major depression, medication is clearly indicated as a necessary component of treatment and should be started immediately after diagnosis. Even in these cases, medication alone is often insufficient. Clients’ symptoms can be reduced even further, and their quality of life improved even more, when psychotherapy is combined with medication.

Finally, the fact that psychotropic medication is grossly over-prescribed and over-marketed seems to trivialize the experience of people who genuinely need psychiatric medication. Many times, I have raised the issue of psychiatric medication with clients whom I think can benefit from it. Many times, they have responded: “Oh, no. I don’t want to take a happy pill.” Or “No, I don’t want to use medication as a crutch.” Or “I don’t want to become dependent on something.” Or “That’s the easy way out.” I believe that our society’s nonchalance regarding psychotropic medication is directly responsible for some clients’ aversion to it. However, the fact that psychotropic medication is prescribed at the drop of a hat does not negate the reality that some people genuinely need it and some people truly benefit from it.

My own experience as a therapist has reinforced what I have learned by studying the research. My views on psychotropic medication can be summarized as follows: medication can be a very helpful adjunct to psychotherapy for clients who clearly need it. In other words, while I am by no means anti-medication, I am somewhat conservative in my approach to it. Case in point: although virtually all of my clients have a diagnosed mental illness, only half of them are taking psychotropic medication. For most clients, the first form of treatment should be psychotherapy focused on improving self-care, making lifestyle changes, acquiring coping skills, improving symptoms, and dealing with interpersonal issues. Medication may be introduced as an adjunct to therapy if the client does not make substantial improvement with therapy alone. I have seen many clients make marked improvements or recover completely without ever taking psychotropic medication. With clients for whom medication is clearly indicated (e.g., those with bipolar disorder), I will refer them to a psychiatrist immediately while also emphasizing that therapy, behavioral interventions, and self-care are important aspects of treatment as well. I don’t like my clients to take psychotropic medication prescribed by their family doctor for all of the reasons mentioned above. If a client comes to me on a psychotropic medication prescribed by their family doctor, I explain the importance of seeing a psychiatrist (e.g., they have specialized training in psychiatric illnesses and are more knowledgeable about psychotropic medication, they provide more thorough evaluations and better follow-up care than general practitioners) and I provide them with psychiatric referrals.

In order to rectify this situation, I believe that the following things must happen:

1.) Primary care physicians should not prescribe psychotropic medications. Instead, they should identify those patients who may have a mental illness and refer them to a psychologist or a psychiatrist for treatment.
2.) Psychiatrists should fully inform patients about the risks and benefits of taking medication, the risks and benefits of not taking medication, and scientifically-sound information on the effectiveness of medication. In addition, psychiatrists should inform patients about the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy, either in lieu of medication or in addition to medication. Psychiatrists should only prescribe medication to patients who are also in therapy.
3.) Psychologists and other therapists should be conservative in referring patients for psychiatric treatment and in recommending psychiatric medication.
4.) The pharmaceutical companies should stop advertising to consumers. They can still market themselves to physicians and mental health practitioners, since these professionals have the training and knowledge to use this information appropriately.
5.) Insurance companies should provide coverage for psychotherapy that is equal to the coverage they provide for psychotropic medication. Likewise, insurance companies should reimburse psychologists and other therapists at the same rate as psychiatrists.
6.) Every American should have access to local, affordable, quality, evidence-based psychotherapy.

Optimistic? Yes. Idealistic? Yes. Impossible? Absolutely not. It may not happen anytime soon, but for now, I can practice what I preach and apply my philosophy to my own clinical work.

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Saturday, August 1st, 2009

Informed Consent

The American Psychological Association’s ethical guidelines require that psychologists obtain informed consent for treatment from all patients and parents of minor patients. But what does it mean for consent to be truly informed?

In standard practice, informed consent generally amounts to a frazzled patient or harried parent signing a consent form after a perfunctory glance. Patients and parents are often in crisis when they first present for treatment, and signing the form is just one more hoop to jump through before getting into therapy. Most therapists’ consent forms cover business procedures and confidentiality issues. This is important information, but does it amount to truly informed consent?

I don’t think so.

I believe that the APA’s ethical guidelines should be revised to require full disclosure in informed consent for psychological treatment. Specifically, therapists should be required to disclose 1.) The patient’s diagnoses and explanations of these diagnoses, 2.) What factors caused or contributed to the patient’s illness, as evidenced by the most recent empirical research and the clinician’s informed judgment, 3.) What treatment methods are available for treating the patient’s condition, 4.) Which of these methods are evidence-based, 5.) Which method(s) the therapist will use, 6.) Why the therapist has selected these methods, 7.) The anticipated course of treatment and prognosis, based upon recent empirical research, and 8.) Scientifically informed, practical resources (e.g., books, articles, websites) on the patient’s condition and the type of therapy that will be used. For patients under 18, all of the above should be explained to the parents and to the child, using language appropriate to the child’s age and developmental level. Finally, parents should be provided with guidance as to how they can help their child recover. I’m talking about specific recommendations, not just blanket statements like “be supportive.”

In my consent for therapy forms, which patients (and parents of minor patients) read and sign before meeting with me, I specify the types of treatment I use, all of which are evidence-based. After the evaluation, I provide patients(and parents of adolescent patients) with empirical research on their particular disorder, as well as information on the efficacy of various types of treatment and who recommends these treatments (e.g., APA, Society for Adolescent Medicine, etc.). I explain the type of treatment I recommend for them, why I have selected this type of treatment, how it works, and what to expect on the road to recovery. If there is a type of treatment that is likely to be effective for the patient but that I do not offer (e.g., psychiatric medication, residential treatment), I provide them with referrals to these types of treatments and explain why I think they would be beneficial. At this point, the patient has all of the information she needs to make an informed choice about treatment.

Most patients seeking therapy, and most parents seeking therapy for their children, are not aware that there are different types of psychological treatments with varying degrees of efficacy. I think most people outside of the field assume that therapy is therapy and that therapists are pretty much interchangeable, like dentists or surgeons. Many people assume that as long as you like your therapist and feel comfortable with her, that’s all that matters. While the therapeutic relationship is undoubtedly a critical aspect of treatment, there are other factors to consider in selecting a therapist. Often times, people want to see a psychologist with decades of experience. This is an understandable, albeit unreliable, method of seeking good treatment. The older, more experienced therapists were trained decades ago in theories that have since been discarded, in therapeutic methods with no scientific backing. Sometimes they become set in their ways of practicing, clinging to old theories like religious dogma in spite of evidence to the contrary. Granted, many experienced therapists have kept up with recent developments in the field and have educated themselves. Sadly, many have not.

Informed consent in therapy is complicated by the fact that different professionals have vastly different, and often contradictory, views on the causes of various mental disorders and how best to treat them. To make matters worse, the public has access to a tremendous amount of information on mental health issues through the internet, much of which is either unsubstantiated or patently false. Consequently, many patients arrive in our offices with deeply entrenched false beliefs about their illnesses. As professionals, it is our job to set the record straight.

I have had a number of patients come to me seeking therapy for the first time after being unsuccessfully treated for anxiety or depression by their primary care physician. I use the term “treated” very loosely here – their doctor spoke with them for a few minutes and wrote them a prescription for a low dose of antidepressants or sleeping pills, only to follow up with them a year later. They were not informed about evidence-based psychological treatments. They were not informed about behavioral methods of treating insomnia. And of course, they were not informed that their dose of Prozac is far too low to have any therapeutic benefit. Similarly, I have had patients come to me after years of therapy for depression or self-injury who have done endless amounts of exploration into the supposed causes of their supposed issues, without ever learning the skills they need to recover.

Parents of eating disordered children have come to me for Maudsley family-based therapy after months or years of unsuccessful therapy, after multiple hospitalizations and stints in residential treatment. These families were never informed about the Maudsley Method by any of their child’s previous treatment providers. These parents, desperate to help their children, did their own research on the internet late at night, sifting through the mounds of information to try to find the one thing that would save their child’s bright future. I’ve seen patients, who have been through years of eating disorder treatment with other professionals, who have never once been told that they have a biologically-based, genetically-transmitted mental illness which is neither their fault nor their choice.

Parents of eating disordered children have a right to be informed about the Maudsley Method at the time of diagnosis. The research is clear that Maudsley is the most effective treatment for adolescents with a short duration of illness who are still living at home with their families. For various reasons, Maudsley is not the best choice for every patient or family. Nonetheless, families have the right to know it exists and to decide for themselves whether they wish to pursue it. Patients with depression, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders have the right to be informed about evidence-based treatments such as CBT, DBT, and ACT. Many lives, many years of chronic illness, and many dollars spent on ineffective treatments could be saved if patients and parents were fully informed about evidence-based treatment options from the outset. If a patient has cancer, it is her physician’s duty to inform her of the various life-saving treatment options, some of which may be available in that physician’s office or the local hospital, and some of which are only available in the nearest major city. Why should psychology be any different?

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