Thursday, May 16, 2024

Is Modern Psychiatry Too Intellectually Restrictive?

The inspiration for this post comes from my reading the history of psychiatry. That was not a particular interest of mine until I began researching threads of knowledge going back into time. Then I started to look at how American psychiatry evolved and the fact that it did not really exist at the same time psychiatry existed in Europe.  This is historically confusing in the US, where certain movements try to connect psychiatry to historical events where there are no connections.  The development of psychiatry in Europe is a complicated and interesting story.  The most striking feature is that those early psychiatrists were trained in neuroanatomy, neuropathology, neurology, and psychiatry.  Freud was a Privadozent in neuropathology.  Adolph Meyer emigrated to the US as a neuropathologist and eventually became the chairman of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins eventually influencing a significant number of American psychiatrists. 

In reading about these early psychiatrists, some authors will refer to them as neurologists even though the person in question identified as a psychiatrist (examples include Otto Binswanger ((1852–1929) and Wilhelm Griesinger (1817-1868)).  Others like von Economo (1) were designated psychiatrists and neurologists.  After graduating from medical school in 1901 von Economo spent a year working in an internal medicine clinic and over the next four years worked at various clinics in Europe with Marie, Kraepelin, Alzheimer, and Oppenheim learning psychiatry, neurology, and hypnosis. He returned to the University of Vienna in 1906 and was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry in 1921. This was an observation from his book Encephalitis Lethargica (2):

"Towards the end of 1916 the wards of the Vienna Psychiatric Clinic contained quite a number of patients with a strange variety of symptoms - cases which had apparently only one feature in common - a difficulty to fit into any known diagnostic scheme.  They had been admitted under the most varied descriptions, such as meningitis, acute disseminated sclerosis, amentia, delirium &c.  The patients all showed a slight influenza-like prodromal condition with trifling pharyngeal symptoms, a slight rise in temperature, soon followed by a variety of nervous symptoms, though generally one sign or another pointed to the midbrain as a source...."

From there von Economo goes on to describe encephalitis lethargica in great detail.  He was subsequently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine four times for this work.  He also worked on neuroanatomy - where he made additional discoveries. His education and career contrasts well with current psychiatric education in the US where it seems that too little content is being spread over too many years - even more if you want to be certified in both neurology and psychiatry. He apparently got what he needed in 4 years while living in 4 different European cities.  Places like the Vienna Psychiatric Clinic also do not exist today - where the only solid criteria for admission is dangerousness and all admissions need to be medically cleared  by somebody (physician or extender) that may be oblivious to neurological and psychiatric presentations of acute illness. 

More to the point – they were probably neuropsychiatrists and that has relevance for the system of board certification in the US.  Prior to board certification most psychiatrists in the US were neuropsychiatrists and practiced neurology and psychiatry. That all changed in 1934 when the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) – made the rule that all psychiatrists practicing both specialties must pass both board certification exams.

Reading the paper (3) about Bleuler was interesting because it is an easy read that emphasizes several concepts in psychiatry that just repeat if you don’t understand them.  First is the age-old debate about categorical versus dimensional diagnoses.  The author’s conclude that Bleuler supported dimensional diagnoses but it seems they are describing his process as one of detailed formulation rather than dimensions. This was rooted in his method of clinical psychiatry. I suppose a four dimension scale could be envisioned based on Bleuler’s “4 As” (see below) – but my interpretation is that he was looking for detailed medical, family, social, and developmental history.  He is described as a clinician who had close contact with patients rather than an experimentalist – that is the data he was interested in.

Second, the richness of the psychiatric landscape during Bleuler’s time cannot be denied. The psychiatrists were writing and researching across the spectrum of neurology, neuroscience, psychology, and theoretical psychiatry. There was no shortage of ideas about describing clinical phenomena or possible treatments.  Bleuler had contact with many prominent psychiatrists of his time and his opinions about some of their theories was known.

Third,  Bleuler’s approach could be considered pluralistic to use today’s jargon.  He was  clearly engaged in doing the subjective realm and individualized evaluations.  He thought that schizophrenia could be an exaggerated neurosis from psychological conflicts.  He believed that the disease process had a biological basis but he was focused on a psychological treatment.  He also did not see schizophrenia as having a uniformly deteriorating course. His thoughts about the biology of the disorder were undoubtedly affected by the facts that he was not an experimentalist, there were no useful biological treatments and despite many autopsy studies there were no good gross anatomical or histological correlates of schizophrenia.

The patterns and themes noted in this paper run throughout the history of psychiatry.  Since psychiatry became the default profession for treating severe mental illnesses, there have been hypotheses about the nature of the illnesses, how to medically evaluate them, and how to treat them. As illustrated on this blog, there are often critics outside of the field who seem to ask these questions as if no psychiatrist has ever thought about them in the past.

In many ways the intellectual landscape of turn of the century psychiatry was richer than it is today. We currently have a refined product in terms of classification, but many of the questions relevant of psychopathology and neuroscience remain open. The basic problem of biological complexity is not easily answered and it is only recently being approached.  Biological and psychotherapy options appear to have been maxed out by heterogeneity problem.  From a historical perspective, what is most alarming to me is that there has not been a synthesis of these questions and approaches to bring current psychiatrists and trainees up to speed.  Much of the time seems to be spent on the same research techniques and critiquing endless clinical trials.

At a global level, the intellectual landscape of the field seems constricted.  The board certification process has certainly been part of that as well as the general goals of standardization.  There has been an enormous effort on standardizing nomenclature at the cost of de-emphasizing psychopathology. Clinical practice has been standardized largely based on settings and administrative codes. Documentation has been standardized by the same codes and electronic health records.  Much of the documentation is essentially worthless in describing patient progress or the unique features of the individual and is essentially there to satisfy business administrators.  The training of new psychiatrists is standardized in some areas - but there are very few specifics in terms of what trainees need to see in order to be good psychiatrists.  For example, there is an apparent assumption that if you spend a month or two in a neurology clinic - you will have adequate exposure to accurately assess neurological problems presenting as psychiatric problems and make the correct triage or treatment decisions.   

 I don’t think expanding the intellectual landscape for residency programs would take much.  It will take a bit of integration.  The sanctioning bodies of medical education have made the task harder than it should be by not specifying all of the important educational topics and letting the programs each sort it out on their own.  That means residents will see certain concepts inconsistently if at all, presentations and seminars will depend on the availability, interest, and quality of the teaching staff, and even then, topics are likely to be followed too rigidly.

The first question is what exactly should that landscape be?  Residency requirements by the ACGME are surprisingly vague.  They are focused primarily on clinical experiences based on clinical populations and settings, availability of supervision, and overriding goals of excellence, motivation, and interest on the part of the teaching faculty. There are some broad technical markers of specific experiences by psychiatric subspeciality or skill (eg. psychotherapy, managing drug interactions, etc).  I know that the residency directors meet frequently and it would not surprise me to find out that there are more detailed approaches shared among them – but if that occurs, I do not know where to access it.

My suggested approach at integration would be teaching the historical controversies and concepts that are still relevant all at once.  There are several integrative papers in the literature already.  There are also still some big concepts that need formulation and discussion like the biological diversity and heterogeneity issues that run throughout all of medicine. A potential academic model for this approach already exists and I suggest it is in the Voet, Voet, and Pratt - Fundamentals of Biochemistry - 6th edition.  One of the issues that frequently arises during discussions of this nature is how much philosophy needs to be included. My reading of the literature suggests that if anything there has been an excess of philosophy being applied to psychiatry.  At times psychiatry is made to seem like psychiatrists themselves have never considered the obvious questions. Teaching residents about psychiatry and the way that psychiatrists have attempted to formulate and solve problems seems like as good a place to start as any to me.

It can start with the names in this paper.    

Pattern matching also needs to be reemphasized. The reason a psychiatrist can diagnose bipolar disorder is that they have seen many cases and many variations - not because they have read the DSM.  The same is true for all of the mimics of bipolar disorder including neurological conditions. I am concerned about the level of exposure that residents have to acute neurological problems, especially now that many inpatient neurology services have been replaced by hospitalists with neurology consultants. There is a long list of acute neurological presentations that every psychiatrist must see and diagnose in training and distance from our neurology colleagues makes that more difficult. 


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Kaya Y, Uysal H, Akkoyunlu G, Sarikcioglu L. Constantin von Economo (1876-1931) and his legacy to neuroscience. Childs Nerv Syst. 2016 Feb;32(2):217-20. doi: 10.1007/s00381-015-2647-0. Epub 2015 Feb 24. PMID: 25707481.

2:  von Economo C.  Encephalitis Lethargica.  Oxford University Press, London. 1929. page B.

3:  Heckers S. Bleuler and the neurobiology of schizophrenia. Schizophr Bull. 2011 Nov;37(6):1131-5. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbr108. Epub 2011 Aug 26. PMID: 21873614; PMCID: PMC3196934.

Open Access <-you can read this paper


I just accessed and read the following paper this morning several days after the above post.  It is an open access paper that can be read and downloaded.  It basically makes the same argument that my post makes - an integrated approach to psychiatry and neurology (and neuroscience) is preferable.  It is written from the neurology perspective and that may be why the suggested remedies fall short.  Integration between the specialties is really not possible as long as one (psychiatry) is disproportionally rationed and is under an administrative burden that divorces it from clinical reality. 

Perez DL, Keshavan MS, Scharf JM, Boes AD, Price BH. Bridging the Great Divide: What Can Neurology Learn From Psychiatry? J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2018 Fall;30(4):271-278. doi: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.17100200. Epub 2018 Jun 25. PMID: 29939105; PMCID: PMC6309772.


  1. This is an excellent, thought-provoking post. It reminded me of an essay in a 2010 issue of Psychiatric Times about a debate between Ron Pies, MD and a neurologist, Robert Daly, MD: "Should Psychiatry and Neurology Merge as a Single Discipline?" I assigned residents and medical student to make a presentation to our psychiatric consult service in 2017. Their title was "Neurology and Psychiatry: Divided or United?" One of the presenters was a neurology resident rotating through the psychiatry consult service. I thought it was pretty good. They used Dr. Pies' article.

    1. What was the consensus? You can probably tell that I would rather have worked in the Vienna Psychiatric Clinic with von Economo.

    2. Neither one thought Neurology and Psychiatry could merge.

  2. You may find this paper on "brain medicine" of interest from the University of Toronto in Canada:

    In the American context, this paper that may be of interest, and details a proposed brain medicine residency, in the American context:

    1. Thanks for that link. The Brain Medicine Program seems like a less intense version of a program proposed by Insel 15 years ago. His program would have residents in psychiatry, neurology, and neurosurgery rotate through 2 years of clinical neuroscience before completing their respective residencies. When I followed up with him, he gave up on the idea because there was a general lack of enthusiasm. If neurosurgery is anything like it was when I did my rotations I can understand why. In those days senior residents were on call 24/7 for a number of years. Of course they had two interns and two med students but they had to see and triage all of the acute problems. Their best time for neuroscience was their research year in residency. Hard to argue for adding 2 more years with a lot of information that is not relevant to them. There are several neuropsychiatry programs, but I would argue they probably all should be and eliminate the need for 2 separate board exams.