Focus On The Chief Psychological Complaint And Miss The Boat

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an example of this – only a fifth of those with PTSD present with it as their principal problem, according to a just published paper by Kiefer et al (2020)  in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders. Most commonly PTSD sufferers present with depression, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder as the principal diagnoses. These are so likely to absorb a clinicians attention that the PTSD does not get a look in. But it is likely to be one of the elephants in the room that sabotages therapeutic efforts. If working in IAPT the hapless clinician, post the lockdown, is likely to be hauled over the coals for not reaching recovery and/or feels incompetent.  The seeds of the problem is that IAPT clinicians are not trained to make reliable diagnoses. But unreliable diagnosis is not confined to IAPT, it is the norm, bolstered by the dominance of an unthinking anti-psychiatry stance amongst psychological therapists. The banner of ‘Formulation Rules’ is unfurled and brandished but without any evidence that it makes a real world difference to client’s lives. 

Whilst the starting point for all psychological therapies is the client’s chief complaint, in it’s distilling there is no limit to the range of information considered pertinent (no control for information variance), nor of the operational criteria for deciding whether a particular problem is simply a normal reaction to an abnormal situation or something more (no control for criterion variance). Appeal can be made to a clinician’s formulation, but there are likely as many formulations as clinicians. By default the formulation of the local powerholder, whether it be the supervisor, manager or clinician will likely hold sway. The client will rarely have the wherewithal to articulate their definition of the situation and certainly not to make it stick.

Consider a person referred with ?chronic fatigue syndrome, the psychological therapist will certainly find evidence to support this because a) they will rarely be aware of differing criteria for CFS and b) they will find a symptom to support the diagnosis such as fatigue. Here we have the operation of a confirmation bias seeking only information that supports the original hypothesis. Without considering what body of evidence would be needed to refute hypothesis e.g diagnostic entities such as depression that have some symptom overlap with disorders such as CFS and/or an as yet undiscovered entity that might explain the fatigue e.g the development of multiple sclerosis.

Communications to sources of referral are written in the form ‘it was agreed that course x would be best’ but as the client does not understand how course x, differs from courses y and z, much less why one course would be better than another in their circumstances, it is doublespeak for the Agency doing what it wants.

Having elicited what appears to be the chief complaint, almost anything can be deemed appropriate. Today I read a book [ The Well Gardened  Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith a psychiatrist] review on horticultural therapy, in which the reviewer asked  why such a therapy is not a standard treatment for anxiety and depression? Such an approach was regarded as an enlightened response to the plight of  ‘shell shocked’ soldiers returning from the First World War. The short answer to the question is that there is no evidence it returns people to their former selves i.e that it makes for recovery, as opposed to makes them feel better for a time.

How did we reach the point were de facto we have therapy without any boundaries? In my view it is a product of jettisoning the very notion of diagnosis and treatment. There is almost universal support amongst psychological therapists for an anti-psychiatrist stance see ‘Drop The Diagnosis! ‘ by Jo Watson (2019) and Dalgleish’s call http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000482 for a hard trans diagnostic approach  and it is used to justify popular offerings such as Solution Focussed Therapy. But we are short of any independent evidence that the talking therapies without reliable diagnosis make a real world difference.

Dr Mike Scott

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