Saturday, June 20, 2015

Schizoaffective Disorder and Surfing Music

I will disclose my biases on schizoaffective disorder from the outset.  My decades of acute care experience suggests that it is a lot less common than suggested by medical records.  Reflecting on the unique experience of seeing people hospitalized many times over the course of 20 years, the most frequent pattern I observed was clear cut bipolar disorder turning into a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder or in some cases "bipolar disorder and schizophrenia".  Since I worked at this hospital long enough and had the memories of my enthusiastic young psychiatrist self and my compulsive documentation to count on, I can say that the most frequent pattern was patients presenting with manic episodes turning to the less specific diagnosis.  Most of these people were in their 20s or 30s when they experienced a clear cut manic episode.  There was no doubt about it because of the rapid onset and mood congruent psychotic symptoms.  They responded well to treatment and I discharged them from the hospital.  They would be rehospitalized from time to time, either on my inpatient service or another.  I would eventually see them in more detail after another 5 - 20 hospitalizations, look at the chart and notice that for some time, the diagnosis had become schizoaffective disorder.  Some would ask me about the diagnosis and some recalled the original diagnosis.  If they asked my opinion, I would always tell them what I considered to be the best answer: "As far as I am concerned, your diagnosis is still bipolar disorder.  I am basing that answer on your first hospitalization and your response to treatment.  You don't have any residual symptoms.  Having episodes of bipolar disorder for various reasons does not change the diagnosis."

One of the biases that exists about this diagnosis is that it tends to be more chronic and difficult to treat than bipolar disorder.  The reality is that bipolar disorder can be associated with a significant number of losses in terms of social network, net worth, and in some cases functional capacity.   There are frequently problems with alcohol and use of other intoxicants. Primary psychiatric disorders are always made more complicated by addictions. Like schizophrenia and depression, psychiatric research has not done a good job of defining the cognitive problems associated with bipolar disorder or coming up with successful treatment approaches. Although some rehabilitative approaches are in place for people in Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) programs, successful treatment is usually based on getting the mood symptoms in remission and the prevention of rehospitalization and suicide.  I have treated people on an outpatient basis with chronic mood disturbance and a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder - bipolar type who work and function at an excellent level.  If they ask me what the diagnosis is - I tell them that it is probably bipolar disorder, even if they have episodic hallucinations.  I tell them "probably" because I know how the diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder is made.  And also because they are functioning well and I don't think that there is a lot of good information on the prognosis of that disorder.  At some level I am also probably biased by the idea that bipolar disorder has a better diagnosis.

My experience with the schizoaffective disorder diagnosis is a necessary backdrop for the following comments from the screenwriter Oren Moverman on whether composer Brian Wilson has a mental disorder:  "Yes, and it's public knowledge. It's called schizoaffective disorder, and it's really a combination of some schizophrenia symptoms, like hallucinations, and mood disorder, such as depression." (see transcript for reference 1).  Moverman is the screenwriter for the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy.  For younger people reading this, Brian Wilson is the founder and composer for the rock and roll group The Beach Boys.  When I was in middle school in the 1960s, people of my generation started dancing to this group.  Their early genre was known as surfing music, based on that culture in southern California.  In these interviews Wilson talks about how he got started writing surfing music.   During the broadcast one of the early songs was Catch a Wave and that immediately brought me back to this time:

The Beach Boys were very successful in that type of music and made a significant comeback in the 1970s and 1980s with different types of music.  Behind all of that was Brian Wilson, a widely acknowledged musical genius who also performed live with the group in its early days.  Wilson is also known for his mental illness and substance use problems as well as his involvement with a highly controversial therapist.  The therapy methods included exerting total control over Wilson, by living with him 24/7 and having him under constant supervision by several case managers.  Wikipedia states that the cost of these services was about $20,000/month.  There was an initial 14 month episode of involvement followed by dismissal due to a dispute over fees and then another episode of involvement prior to permanent dismissal and placement of a restraining order.  Although that therapist seems to be credited in many ways with saving Wilson's life and getting him back to composing music, he was also reported to his California psychology licensing board for violations of professional conduct and according to Wikipedia resulted in a loss of license.  That same source points out that Wilson developed tardive dyskinesia and impaired functional capacity from prescriptions from this therapist's "staff".  I did not see any reference to prescribing psychiatrists or physicians.

This brings me to the inspiration for this post.  Once again it is Fresh Air's longtime interviewer for this program - Terry Gross.  In this series of interviews, Gross starts out with a story about the release of a new film about the life of Brian Wilson titled Love and Mercy.  She has two interviews that she conducted with Wilson from the past and a current interview with the screenwriter of the current film. One of the full length interviews is available on the Fresh Air web site from 2002, but I could not find the one from the 1990s.  There are also excerpts of earlier interviews played in the current interview.  The author starts out describing the focus on three discrete periods in Wilson's life and how that proved to be too much and how the focus had to be narrowed to two periods in the 1960s and 1980s.  Because of those time frames, Wilson is played by two different actors Paul Dano in the 1960s and John Cusack in the 1980s.  Moverman comments on the technical aspects of the film, like the reason for focusing on the musicians.  He also comments on the therapy controversy and states that Wilson was misdiagnosed and overmedicated.  At that point Terry Gross comments that the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance was investigating the therapist because medications were being prescribed and he was not licensed to prescribe them.

One of the most interesting aspects of Gross's work is the historical context.  She has commentary from Brian Wilson in an earlier interview commenting on the therapist controversy:

WILSON: "He's been performing a health operation on my head. He's done something that's impossible that nobody could do."

GROSS: "What do you think he's done that's really worked for you?"

WILSON: "Well, what he's done that worked for me was he's taken my body and transformed not only my physical shape, but he's transformed the chemistry within my blood, you know, from dirty to clean. And when you go through those transformation periods, you go through a little hell, you know what I mean? It's a little bit of hell to have to come through all that, all right?......."

Moverman thought that Wilson was referring to getting him off of intoxicants when he refers to blood chemistry.  Listen or read the complete transcript but in this section Wilson emphasizes the need for moving ahead rather than focusing on revenge for something that happened in the past.  I encourage anyone interested in this particular story or recovery from mental illness to listen to Brian Wilson's spoken words in these interviews with Terry Gross. 

Any acute care psychiatrist will probably be interested in this story.  For me it highlighted a number of issues.  Whenever I see a story like this, the usual way it is handled in the media is to get an expert and try to make diagnosis.  This is exactly the wrong thing to do at many levels.  One of the main concerns is the interplay between substance use and psychosis and mood symptoms.  In my experience, 95% of people seen in acute care and addiction settings are misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and even attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when they have a clear substance use problem that is responsible for those symptoms.  That does not mean that medical treatment is not necessary, but it probably means that it will be temporary.  I am not prepared to say that was an issue in this case, only that when you have seen that problem as often as I have that is one way to approach the issue.  The other dimension here is how difficult it is to effect changes and help people get back on path when they are clearly engaged in high risk and what is described in these transcripts as destructive behavior.  There are really very few options left for people with problems as severe as the ones that Brian Wilson was going through.  In most cases, it is a number of emergency department visits and brief admissions to psychiatric units.  I can say without a doubt that problems this severe are not reversible by those interventions or outpatient visits for twenty minutes to see a psychiatrist every one to three months or seeing a therapist every week for an hour.  Most people stop seeing the therapist after a visit or two.  They may have the thought that they are seeing the therapist because it is somebody else's idea.  

I certainly do not condone the therapy methods used Wilson's case, but fully acknowledge that our current systems of care are not likely to produce a positive result for persons with severe disabilities.  Above everything else this is a story of recovery.  Brian Wilson endured acute symptoms and significant disability and came out the other side.  He continues to write and produce music and that music inspires millions of people.  

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  'Love & Mercy' Brings The Life Of Brian Wilson To The Big Screen'.  June 18, 2015.

2:  Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  Producer And Arranger Brian Wilson, A Genius Of Rock.  August 27, 2002.


I have not seen Love and Mercy yet but will probably add a few comments here when I have.


By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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