I caught the link to this fact sheet from President Obama a couple of days ago on the APA's Facebook feed. In the post immediately before it, the current President of the APA is seen rubbing elbows with Bradley Cooper. My first thought is that these initiatives are always a mile wide and an inch deep. They provide a lot of cover for politicians who have enacted some of the worst possible mental health policy, but also for professional organizations who have really not done much to change mental health policy in this country. These are basically non-events as in we applaud the President and he applauds us. In the meantime, patients and psychiatrists are never given enough resources for the job and the necessary social resources keep drying up.
Since the 1970s, the political climate in the US has focused on being as pro-business as possible. Congress practically invented the credit reporting industry and in turn that industry made it easy for businesses to change your fees based on a credit report number. What you have to pay for home and auto insurance can be based solely on your credit rating and independent of whether or not you have ever missed a payment. It turns out that competitiveness is little more than political hyperbole. But the politicians in Washington did not stop there. The financial services industry is currently a multi-trillion dollar enterprise with little regulation or oversight that has essentially placed all Americans at financial risk. There is no better proof than the fact that there are currently no safe investments and that some advisors are suggesting that prospective retirees need as least $1 million dollars in savings and $240,000 for medical expenses in addition to whatever is available in Medicare and Social Security. Congress's retirement invention the 401K has surprisingly few accounts with that kind of money.
How can a government that puts all of its citizens at financial risk all of the time manage the health care of those same citizens? It is a loaded question and the answer is it cannot. The idea that an administration has an initiative to "increase understanding and awareness of mental illness" at this point in time is mind numbing in many ways. We have had over two decades of National Depression Screening Day, we have Mental Illness Awareness Week, and we have had the Decade of the Brain. There seem to be endless awareness initiatives. I don't think the problem with mental health care is the lack of awareness or screening initiatives. From what you can see posted on this blog so far, it might be interesting and productive to have some media awareness events that look at the issue of media bias against psychiatry and the provision of psychiatric services. I don't think it is possible to destigmatize mental illness, when the providers of mental health care are constantly stigmatized.
What about the issue of screening at either a national level or at the level of a health plan? A fairly recent analysis commented that there have been no clinical trials to show that patients who have been screened have better outcomes than those who are not. Further, that weak treatment effects, false positive screenings, current rates of treatment and poor quality of treatment may contribute to the lack of a positive effect of the screening. The authors also refer to a study that suggests that more consistent treatment to reduce symptoms and reduce relapse would lead to a greater treatment effect than screening. A subsequent guideline by the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care agreed and recommended no depression screening for adults at average or increased risk in primary care setting, based on the lack of evidence that screening is effective. Why in the President's fact sheet are the AMA and APA recommending screening? Why are there people advocating for "measurement based care" and the widespread use of rating scales and screening instruments? Why does the State of Minnesota demand that anyone treating depression in the state send them PHQ-9 scores of all of the patient they treat?
The answer to that is the same reason we have political events that add no resources to the problem and make it seem like something is happening. Screening everywhere makes it seem like somebody is concerned about assessing and treating your depression. It makes it seem like we are destigmatizing mental illness and making diagnosis and treatment widely available. The Canadian papers noted above suggest otherwise. Nothing is happening, except people are being put on antidepressants at a faster rate than at any time in history. In a primary care clinic, medications are the first line treatment and psychotherapies - even psychotherapies that are potentially much more cost effective than medications are rarely offered.
My professional organization here - the APA has chosen to advocate for an "integrated care" model that is managed care friendly. A model like this can use checklist screening and essentially have consulting psychiatrists suggesting medication changes on patients who do not respond to the first medication. I obviously do not agree with that position. Only a grassroots change here will make a difference.
If you are concerned that you might have significant depression, you can't depend on your health plan or the government when they are both advocating for a screening procedure that has no demonstrated positive effect. If somebody hands you a screening form for depression or anxiety or sleep or any other mental health symptom, tell them that you want to be interviewed and diagnosed by an expert. Tell them that you want the same approach used if you come to a clinic with a heart problem. Nobody is going to hand you a screening form that you can complete in 2 minutes. You are going to see a doctor. Tell them that you want that expert to discuss the differential diagnoses, the likely diagnoses and the medical and non-medical approaches to treatment including counseling or psychotherapy.
Do not accept a cosmetic or public relations approach to your mental health and spread that word.
George Dawson, MD. DFAPA