Severe mental illness (SMI): another muddled idea from psychiatry

  • February 22, 2021

Not all psychiatrists recognize this explicitly, but there is an assumption in psychiatric practice that mental disorders are arranged in a hierarchy with those at the top being more serious than those lower down. The hierarchy has often been represented in a pyramid introduced some 50 years ago by two academics working in Edinburgh. 

At the bottom of the pyramid are states of personal distress (in the original account called dysthymic states) characterised by symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, low mood and non-specific physical symptoms. In the so-called neurotic disorders the symptoms are still recognizable as part of distress, but one or more of them seems to have taken on a life of its own – out of proportion to other symptoms of distress and perhaps distorted or expressed in an unusual way. Higher up the pyramid are delusional (psychotic) states, characterised by the emergence of symptoms that are not part of mainstream experience – like holding delusional beliefs or hearing voices. At the very top are extreme states where mental life is so disrupted that a stable sense of self is difficult to find.

This arrangement represents a hierarchy in another sense, that of progressive deterioration in the organisation of mental function so that those higher up can have symptoms from any of the states lower down in the hierarchy without their diagnosis needing to change, but not vice versa.

The hierarchy is nodded at in the arrangement of the two standard diagnostic manuals – current editions DSM5 and ICD11 – in which schizophrenia and related disorders appear before severe mood disorders and then move on to the neurotic disorders.

Over time, perhaps especially in the UK, it has become common practice to talk about severe mental illness, initialised (always a bad sign) as SMI, and SMI has come to mean “any psychotic disorder”. This was never a good idea. In many branches of medicine the diagnosed disorder can be a pointer to severity but the coupling is not so strong that diagnosis can be taken as a severity statement. Some diabetes is more severe than some cancer and some COPD is more severe than some leukaemia.

So, what do we mean by severity? The answer takes us into matters that are more important to patients than the classificatory ordering of symptom states – for example impact on life expectancy, quality of life, ability to function physically (impairment or handicap) or socially (participation) come into the frame.

Is there a tension between these two ways of looking at severity? The UK government’s vaccination policy in the COVID pandemic certainly suggests some lack of clarity about what severe mental illness is and why it matters. The official order of priority for receiving the vaccine is described in a series of Priority Groups, defined by likelihood that COVID infection will be serious and could lead to death. Thus, age defines the top groups.  Priority Group 6 includes adults aged 16 to 65 years in an at-risk group defined by clinical conditions one of which, in an uncomfortable change of grammar in the list, is “are severely mentally ill”. Further clarification comes in the COVID-19 Green Book Chapter 14a which defines severe mental illness as (again the weird change of grammar)  “Individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or any mental illness that causes severe functional impairment.” A recent commentary in The Lancet described the rationale as follows: “Patients with severe mental illness, which is patients with psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder, or severe depression, are at a significantly increased risk of being hospitalised or dying from COVID.”

So, the Green Book definition takes it both ways – severity as psychosis and severity as illness causing severe (not defined) functional impairment – whereas the research underlying the decision seems to refer only to the diagnosis-based definition of severity. The advantage of the latter approach is that it is logically consistent with the other priority groups, taking likelihood of hospitalisation or death as the indication for vaccination, and there are at least some plausible mechanisms for such poor outcomes. The disadvantage is that equating severe mental illness with psychosis is clearly wrong and leads to a sense of injustice among those whose illness is severe by quite reasonable more person-centred criteria. The disadvantage of the former (Green Book) approach is that while it acknowledges a wider definition of severity of illness – including, as recommended by some experts, people such as those who have eating disorders or have been given a diagnosis of personality disorder – it is no longer clear why severity thus defined puts somebody in a priority group for vaccination.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that there is something inherently wrong with the term Severe Mental Illness (SMI). When equated with psychosis it fails to recognize that severity is not adequately captured by diagnosis. When the initials are dropped and it refers to any mental illness, it lacks specificity as a criterion for decision-making.  It would be better replaced with a more accurate and specific terminology.

Mass incarceration and the death penalty in the USA: a brutal system that does not spare the mentally ill.

  • January 24, 2021

In the last 50 years the prison population in the USA has swollen from about 196,000 to nearly 2.5 million – a twelve-fold increase and 30 times the prison population of the UK for a population about five times the size of ours. A further 4+million are paroled or on probation.

Mass incarceration: the real American dream?

US prison population (1000s) over the past 50 years

This state of affairs is not an accident or an unwished-for unintended consequence of some other aspect of US policy. It has been building for decades and is driven by a complex of inter-related social and political decisions towards action or inaction. Aggressive response to drug-related crime accounts for about 20% of incarcerations. Phenomenal levels of gun ownership increase the likelihood that minor offences like stealing from a shop or getting into a fight turn into armed robbery or (attempted) murder. Privatised incarceration and the associated prison (slave) labour are numerically small but important in lobbying and in their ideological force. Poverty is a barrier to making bail and even more so to getting a competent or interested defence attorney. Important positions in the public legal system are politicised and being tough on crime is an easy electioneering slogan (sound familiar?). Underlying the lot is a poisonous racism that has its roots in slavery and resistance to reconstruction after the Civil War.

Bryan Stevenson is a campaigning lawyer who found the Equality Justice Initiative thirty years ago.

His book Just Mercy describes some of the people he and his organisation have represented as they challenge iniquities like sentencing minors to death or to die in prison (life without parole). Winning these battles is an uphill struggle – the USA is the only country in the world to send children as young as 13 to adult prisons and it was only this month that Ohio abolished life-without-parole sentences for children; one of only 24 states to do so. The book should be read by anybody who believes that America is the Land of the Free and a model democracy.

Mental states and coercive states

The chaotic emptying of mental hospitals in the Reagan era pitched thousands of vulnerable adults onto the streets (see eg Decarceration: community treatment and the deviant, Andrew Scull, Polity Press 1984) and exposed them to risk of imprisonment that has never gone away.  Stevenson touches on, but does not major on, this aspect of mass incarceration but I was nonetheless struck by a passage in his book which outlines one line used to persuade the justice system towards leniency in their treatment of juveniles. In a book where the arguments are otherwise couched in social, ethical and political terms, comes this explanation for the likelihood of young people becoming involved in crime:

“A rapid and dramatic increase in dopaminergic activity within the socioemotional system around the time of puberty…drives the young adolescent toward increased sensation-seeking and risk taking…This increase in reward-seeking preceded the structural maturation of the cognitive control system.”

Is this how abused and neglected people have to be presented to the US courts to elicit a response other than savagery? 

Can Lisa Montgomery have a lasting legacy?

While I was thinking about this (I have just finished Stevenson’s book) the case of Lisa Montgomery made news in the UK. She was one of the victims of Donald Trump’s killing spree as he left office and attracted particular attention because she was female, killing women being seen as especially abhorrent in part I suspect for sentimental reasons, and partly because they are seen more often as damaged victims and less often in the role of (male) heartless psychopath.

Ms Montgomery was convicted of the most dreadful murder – killing a woman who was in advanced pregnancy and undertaking her own Caesarian section to take the baby as hers.  Unsurprisingly she was recognized from the beginning to be mentally ill and indeed while awaiting execution she was imprisoned in The Federal Medical Center, Carswell which is a United States federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas for female inmates with special medical and mental health needs.

The basis for a final unsuccessful plea for stay of execution was that she was mentally incompetent, a term pretty much equivalent to lacking mental capacity in the UK. That is, she did not understand in a meaningful way that she was to be executed and why. An additional argument was that she was being denied the opportunity to prove that by being denied access to experts who might provide the necessary evidence to the court.

The relevant evidence was presented by her defence team in a petition for writ of habeas corpus.  In addition to outlining a history of gross and persistent physical and sexual abuse throughout her early life, the document provides extensive neurological and psychiatric evidence, including reference to MRI and PET scanning of her brain. The various observations and opinions make a bewildering read, offering a snowstorm of diagnoses include depression, psychotic depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, delusional cycling psychosis, PTSD, complex PTSD and dissociative disorder. All complicated by evidence of “frontal, parietal and temporal or slash limbic lobe dysfunction”, and impaired motor control, cognitive function, attention, language and cerebellar dysfunction and temporal lobe epilepsy.

It is difficult to find a straightforward account of a mental state examination that would convince a sceptical court of her incapacity.  She is described at times as showing “…confused thought processes, disengagement, depersonalization, derealization, identity confusion, memory disturbance, and emotional constriction.” At times she was dishevelled and monosyllabic.  At other times she reported hearing her mother saying derogatory things to her and saying that God communicated with her through dot-to-dot pictures.

Even a straightforward question about mental capacity (competence) produces a response of opinion rather than clearly stated fact:

“Based on your knowledge of Mrs. Montgomery’s history as well as the reports of counsel regarding her current symptomology, is Mrs. Montgomery able to form a rational understanding of the State’s rationale for her execution as required by Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S.399 (1986)?

In my professional opinion, which I hold to a reasonable degree of psychiatric certainty, Lisa Montgomery is unable to rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution as required by Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S.399 (1986). Mrs. Montgomery’s grasp of reality has always been tenuous: medication and the stable, supportive environment of her confinement over the past decade have allowed her to appear psychologically intact, though her baseline perceptions of reality are always distorted due to her brain impairments and trauma history. Mrs. Montgomery’s attorney’s observations—limited though they are—indicate that Mrs. Montgomery is further disconnected from reality, precluding a “rational understanding” of “the State’s rationale for [her] execution.”

Trying to make sense of all this is complicated by the experts’ tendency to drift into quasi-neurological speculation about the origins of her symptoms:

“Traumatized children experience neurochemical, neuroendocrine and neuroanatomical changes in the brain”  (Really? Experience?)

“..her neurobiological response to early stress was such a heavy load of anaesthetising, altering neurochemicals that she now just daily lives in that kind of …operating stance,…”

With regard to cerebellar dysfunction these are the symptoms one sees…distractibility, hyperactivity, impulsivity, disinhibition, not being able to control one’s anxiety, irritability, rumination,…obsessive behaviour and dysphoria”

“… the dysfunction of PTSD is that we understand now that the part of the brain that encodes memory is the hippocampus, the larger system than that but the hippocampus is the main structure. If laying down that memory as the amygdala, the part of the brain we talked about [in] the limbic system, is sending fear. So later the memory of the trauma activates the fear,…” 

Piecing all this together, the most likely I could come up with was that Ms Montgomery had three main problems with her mental health, in each case exact diagnosis unclear but not relevant for the plea under consideration:-

  • A long-standing psychotic disorder characterised by mood swings, hallucinations and delusions;
  • Emotional and interpersonal problems consequent upon severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse in childhood;
  • Some degree of cognitive impairment consequent upon brain injury sustained during attacks in childhood;

All these almost certainly exacerbated by the abusive nature of her treatment during incarceration.

In truth the only conclusion I could come to in the end was a feeling of despair that her liufe depended upon a procedural argument about whether  she understood that the state wanted to kill her.

Lessons for the UK?

Like so much about life in the USA, especially in the Trump era one can be horrified by the inhumanity of it all, but it is difficult to see if there are any messages of relevance to our own policy and practice. I think there are at least four lessons, two relating to public policy and two relating to psychiatric practice especially as it is used to explain and respond to social deviance.

First and foremost, we must step back from the current drift towards demonising the poor and marginalised and especially those from minority ethnic groups. The main cause of mass incarceration is illiberal social policy, not individual badness – let’s not go there.

Second, we should avoid imprisonment if at all possible – including imprisonment of those with significant mental illness, those charged with offences but not convicted, and sans papiers suspected of not having legal status as immigrants or asylum-seekers. Privatised prison services are wrong even at a pragmatic level because profiteers are a distorting influence on public policy.

In relation to psychiatric practice we must be endlessly careful that our formulations do not support such demonising by emphasising individual pathology at the expense of social determinants – the diagnosis of personality disorder being a prime example.

Functional imaging is an interesting development in understanding the brain, but it can’t help us with questions about agency and responsibility. Muddling together neurological and psychological explanations runs the risk of neither being delivered adequately. Brain investigation doesn’t make psychological explanation in such cases more credible, it just muddies the waters.

It is difficult to believe any of this made a difference to poor Ms Montgomery’s fate – a spiteful punitive system was determined to have its way – but perhaps we can make the best of a very bad job by asking how her final sorry end might have been avoided.  

Getting to grips with human trafficking and modern slavery:

  • January 3, 2021

Like most people, I suspect, I have had a hazy idea of human trafficking as something to do with women from Eastern Europe being forced into sex work and men being trapped into low-waged agricultural or other jobs.  Occasionally stories surface about vulnerable individuals trapped in dire conditions by unscrupulous families, and most recently about the fate of 39 trafficked Vietnamese who died in transit. Prompted by the Many Stories Matter book group in my university, I decided to find out more and have been educating myself as a starter with two books on the subject.

Modern Slavery: A beginner’s guide. Kevin Bales; Zoe Trodd; Alex Kent Williamson. Oneworld Publications 2011

Bales, Trodd and Williamson are academics with long-standing interests in slavery and commitment to its abolition.  All three are now based at the University of Nottingham in England. Not surprisingly, their book is a model in presenting the global facts about trafficking and slavery (a distinction helpfully clarified early on) and their diversity in the modern world. The book has something of a US bias because of the origins of the authors, but really doesn’t suffer for that.

Some of the book’s messages are predictable ones: risky environments are made by poverty and the social disruption caused by globalised destruction of rural life and the drift to slum dwelling. Displacement through environmental degradation and war are major contributors.  At an individual level exploitation of groups is defined by ethnicity, caste (in India), religion and especially gender. The highest prevalence of slavery in the world turns out to be in India, in the form of coercive/indentured labour and domestic servitude linked to the caste system.

A less familiar finding is the importance of corruption at national government level in tolerating or even actively supporting slavery and trafficking. Sometimes this amounts to active pursuit of policies that enslave – in Burma and China for example. And although poverty makes a ready source of people to prey on, it is affluence that creates a market for trafficked people. It is rich, illiberal and corrupt countries like Japan and Israel that top the lists as recipients of those trafficked for labour or sexual exploitation.

Unlike many books on problems in the modern world, the book ends with an outline of the practical steps that can be taken to tackle slavery – starting with proper data collection and sharing, international and national anti-slavery plans should include education programmes, active law enforcement and funded rehabilitation schemes for survivors. Industry must be held to account – and especially in an interconnected global world industry must look to its own supply chains and ensure they are not supported by slavery (recent revelations about the rag trade in Leicester came to mind while reading this).  A corollary of the global scope of the book is that pointers for individual action are a bit less incisive – being alert to spotting victims, raising awareness, pressing businesses on their practices.

This is where my second book comes in – I was looking for something to help me understand more what was going on in my own country, and to think about what I might do about it.

Stolen Lives: Human Trafficking and Slavery in Britain Today. Louise Hulland Sandstone Press 2020

The blurb on her publisher’s page says Louise Hulland has been investigating the plight of victims of modern slavery and human trafficking since 2010, whereas in the book itself Hulland says she started researching for the book when Theresa May was PM, in other words in 2016, and in her final summing-up chapter she says she has spent “six months immersed in the world of ant-trafficking and slavery, speaking to those on the front line…” . In truth that’s how the book reads – as a breathless whistle-stop tour of key informants with little or no deep reading or analytic work behind it.  There is to take one example no discussion of the implications of so many faith-based organisations being involved in anti-slavery and anti-trafficking activities.

The tone of the book owes as much to lifestyle writing as it does to research rigour. The presentation consists essentially in a series of interviews apparently transcribed verbatim and introduced by odd personal vignettes.  Kathy Betteridge, the Salvation Army’s Director of Anti-Trafficking and Modern Slavery, is petite with short blonde-grey hair and is hugely passionate. Norree Webb, the Army’s First Response co-ordinator, is by contrast warm, calm and seemingly unflappable. Rachel Harper, manager of Helpline is warm and engaging. Andrew Wallis, CEO of Helpline, is tall friendly but intimidatingly intelligent. Caroline Haughey, a barrister with a special interest, is tiny and wears a bright pink jumper; she is warm and incredibly modest.  Colin Ward, a DC with Greater Manchester Police’s Modern Slavery Coordination Unit, is tall without being intimidating, calm with a warm northern accent. Apparently he’d clearly seen more than any human would wish to.

Once you get past this stuff there is a reasonable amount (although not 270 pages’ worth) of information about how slavery and trafficking are approached in the UK. Most of it is available without the padding from the Global Slave Index 2018 report on the UK. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 tidied up a messy legal framework and makes prosecution cases easier to pursue, and a National Referral Mechanism provides a framework for identifying victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive support, but there are formidable barriers to tackling the problem at scale – not least underfunding. Not many people know, I suspect, that the main recipient of Government funding to support victims is the Salvation Army, which in turn contracts work to several partners including other faith-based organisations. The picture that emerges is of groups of dedicated individuals working for statutory bodies and in the third sector, struggling to do the best they can in the face of official indifference and hostility. The hostility comes mainly from racism and from the fact that so many victims are either immigrants without the right papers, or UK nationals who need extensive help from our (much diminished) welfare state.

What can an individual do?

As a former health professional, I thought the best place to start would be in the area of health of victims of trafficking and slavery which is, not surprisingly, terrible. Poor nutrition, physical abuse, sexual abuse, unhygienic living arrangements and inadequate access to primary healthcare contribute to poor physical health. Poor mental health comes from the burden of abuse and neglect that constitutes the defining condition of the people involved, and may be compounded by pre-existing problems that increased initial vulnerability to exploitation.

To get a flavour, I started by sampling the websites of four hospital Trusts (two acute, two mental health) and two large CCGs. None had a link to a modern slavery statement on its home page and for 5/6 a search on their website using <slavery> or <human trafficking> produced no hits. One acute Trust had a statement about its compliance with the Modern Slavery Act’s requirement for transparency in supply chains. One of the CCGs mentioned that its safeguarding teams were helping local NHS staff to recognize and respond to people who were at risk or had been trafficked or enslaved. One Trust’s maternity service had a nice page about maternity care for refugees and asylum seekers, but none of the sites indicated specific services, or even specific individuals to contact, in relation to slavery or human trafficking. I couldn’t find anything relevant in a search of the RCPsych website.

Part of the problem here is one of scale.  The Global Slavery Index (an excellent site well worth a visit) estimates that there are 136,000 people in modern slavery in the UK, about 2/1000 of the population. If we assume that half are in or around London, my back-of-an-envelope calculation puts anything from 500 to1000 in Leeds where I live, or about 1/10 of 1% of the population. Every one of those people needs help but put against the scale of problems being dealt with routinely by our under-resourced health and social services it is easy to see why slavery doesn’t get top billing.  At the same time, it is unclear what exactly is the need of services and whether it is specific or can be subsumed within other services designed to support the traumatised and exploited. There are barriers to presentation, personal and imposed by circumstances, which add to difficulties in planning a ground-up response.

Regardless, what makes work in slavery and trafficking different is the involvement of organised crime and the concomitant need for liaison with other agencies, good record-keeping and reporting. There is nothing about the current UK government that inspires confidence in the likelihood of effective action. Perhaps a small step in the right direction would be for all Trusts to identify a liaison clinician with responsibility for advising about and overseeing services and liaison with relevant statutory and 3rd sector organisations, as has been recommended to improve healthcare for people with a learning disability.

Mental health in the COVID pandemic: searching for historical comparisons

  • December 31, 2020

I was struck by this week’s variously-reported claim from Adrian James, the current president of RCPsych, that the pandemic is “the biggest hit to mental health since World War 2” (Mail Online) or “poses the greatest threat to mental health since second world war” (Guardian). My initial response was heartsink – yet more melodrama with yet another wartime analogy, especially something I could do without as plucky Britain goes it alone again as we leave the EU. But then I got thinking – where would you look for comparator epochs if you wanted to take this claim at face value? Two candidates come to mind; each covers 5 years.

The threat

First up, the post-war years 1947-1951. Winter 1946/47 was one of the worst winters on record, exacerbated by a fuel shortage for which the Labour Govt (personified in Manny Shinwell) was blamed, at least by the press. Industrial output is estimated to have fallen by 10% in the following year. The Labour Party held on at the 1950 general election but lost the snap election called the next year. In that year, 1951, there was a major influenza epidemic which is estimated to have increased all-cause mortality in those over 65 years by about 50% and causing the greatest number of excess winter deaths in any year in the second half of the twentieth century. Peak death rates in Liverpool were higher than during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

My runner up is the years 1980-84. Thatcherism had a grip and there was social unrest with riots in 1981 in Brixton and Toxteth. On the economic front unemployment ran at 2.5-3 million (more than 10% of the working age population) and the hugely disruptive and divisive miners’ strike dominated 1984.

Set against these threats we have to ask about resilience in the population. The post-war years saw continued rationing and poor housing and poor physical health at levels we go nowhere near approaching. The NHS was founded but will have had little impact on mental health provision. It is difficult to know what to make of any sense of national unity and social solidarity at this time; much is made of growing disillusion with Attlee’s government but in 1951 they still gained more of the popular vote than did Churchill. They lost to our electoral system. Society in the 1980s was more affluent and physically healthier and the NHS had grown hugely, but it was undoubtedly troubled. Thatcher was a divisive leader of a divisive government, notwithstanding populist moves like selling off our social housing and privatising services in support of the idea of a laughably-named share-owning democracy.

The hit

So, there are elements of our current predicament in these previous epochs. How could we judge each in terms of their mental health impact? I find this pretty much impossible to say and we don’t get a clue from the press coverage. As with all NHS bed numbers, psychiatric bed numbers have fallen dramatically from about 155,000 (1953/54) to 67,000 (1987/88) and 18,000 (2019/20) so numbers of admissions won’t help. The Mental Health Acts of 1959 and 1983 will have dramatically changed practice and patterns of service delivery. The only robust measure of population mental health – the suicide rate – has fallen pretty steadily over the decades, with the most consistent evidence for deterioration coming at times of economic recession and mass unemployment.

It would be interesting to see a thoughtful analysis of these questions about the nature of major social upheavals and their consequences for mental health, but if it’s going on it’s not making it into the public domain. A note from March 2020 states that SPI-B received input from academic specialists in history; that committee’s terms of reference for October 2020 do not mention historians as one of the academics from whom advice is being sought.  What a pity.

Dualism is dead! Well, maybe…

  • December 22, 2020

I have been struck by how often academics and clinicians writing about functional disorders feel the need to announce the death of dualism – aka mind-body dualism or even Cartesian dualism, depending on the author. It isn’t easy to understand what is meant exactly by this claim and I have been doing a bit of reading between the lines to clarify, at least for myself.

Dualism in philosophy

First, it is worth saying that Descartes understood the mind and body not as radically separate but as in some way highly integrated.  Here he is in the VI Meditation on First Philosophy:

‘Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, and thirst, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were not so, I, who am nothing other than a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was hurt, but would perceive the damage only by intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken.’

Or again:

I now understand the mind to be coextensive with the body – the whole mind in the whole body and the whole mind in any of its parts.

Descartes was writing nearly 400 years ago, so it’s not surprising that the terms used in the debate have changed somewhat. Modern philosophy of mind concerns itself, in this context, with the nature of consciousness or intentionality and how subjective experiences are to be explained, and (typically) with the question of how such experiences are related to something physical in the structures and functions of the brain. I think it’s fair to say that philosophers (well, the ones I’ve read) regard the idea that studying the brain can sort this out as bordering on the absurd. Tim Crane for example suggests that in exploring the mind-body relationship we should stop “considering those options which frustrate our understanding of our minds – for example…that we should look for consciousness by inspecting the sticky fatty matter of the brain”. Putting it slightly differently, Galen Strawson comments that even accepting that “…the known phenomena of experience are wholly a matter of the physical nature of ordinary matter under mild conditions (the mild of special conditions that obtain in the brain), … the physics and neurophysiology of the brain don’t enable us to understand how this is so”.

Dualism in clinical thinking

Actually, I don’t think that “dualism” is being used, in the context of clinical writings about functional disorders, in the philosophical sense at all. Rather it refers to the idea that a comprehensive account should include both mind and body mechanisms as expressed here: “A dualistic mind-body understanding of functional neurological disorders (FNDs), also known as conversion disorders, has led to the view that the cause of the symptom should be either psychological (psychogenic) or physical (neurogenic-“organic”).” … “The authors argue that the conversion concept is consistent with recent neuroscientific research findings, and the model allows psychological and neurobiological concepts to be reconciled within a single account of FND that begins to resolve the dualistic mind-body dichotomy.”

In one sense this is not at all a new idea – we have known for a long time that brain states accompany mental states and no doubt this is what Tony David meant when he said that dualism between mind and body “went in the nineteenth century”.

Looking further at this idea…here is an anecdote from the memoir of Geoffrey Keynes, a surgeon who served in the Great War:-

“On one occasion, when I happened to be in my dressing station …. a message came that a gunner had been wounded and was lying beside his gun at the edge of the lake.  Would I, please, come at once?  I then experienced a feeling which it is hard to describe. It was my duty to walk immediately with stretcher-bearers from a position of comparative safety to a gun pit, which was being accurately shelled every few minutes.  I ordered my legs to take me there, but at first they refused to move.  My mind was equal to the ordeal, but another part of my brain declined to pass on the necessary instructions….”

Geoffrey Keynes  The Gates of Memory  1983

Can we describe a mechanism whereby the brain declines to pass on the mind’s instructions? The dualism abolitionists would say – perhaps not perfectly but we’re getting there. I think that’s wrong, and here’s a different vignette to explain why.  Suppose I am crying at a funeral and three friends are discussing my plight. A psychiatric friend says – he has been bereaved (a social state), and he is crying because he is grieving (a mental state).  The neurologist standing next to her says – ah, but he is crying because of activation of a multi-component pathway in the brain that includes the anterior cingulate gyrus.  Wretched dualists! says the third, can you not see that the mental state of grief causes activation of the neural pathway and you need both elements to answer your question? Apart from noting what odd friends I have, you might wonder if my anti-dualism friend is really contributing anything apart from putting the two accounts (psychological and neurological) into the same sentence.

Dualism in clinical discussions

This points to what I take it the end-to-dualism claim actually means in practice: not that we have resolved the mind-body problem nor that we can produce a genuinely unitary account of functional disorders – how could we without solving the mind-body problem?  Instead it means that when we speak about functional disorders we know longer use highly-articulated psychological explanations for what is going on.  We pull this off in one of two ways.

One approach is to drop the psychological altogether or to trivialise or marginalise it. We should understand instead that for functional neurological disorders the problem “lies within the brain and its complex networks” and we should communicate this to patients in ways that enable them to say to themselves “I have a real dysfunction of networks in my brain”. If we use analogies they should be mechanical ones like the computer hardware-software distinction, or other neurological problems like phantom limb.

The other approach is to use a sort of language mash-up, as in a recent review  that summarised studies from neuroimaging, cognitive psychology, biological markers, and epigenetic studies to generate a model that “…allows psychological and neurobiological concepts to be reconciled within a single account of FND that begins to resolve the dualistic mind-body dichotomy”.  This is a (well-meaning) fudge: What happens is that a faux-integrated accounts allows for a misleading impression that the psychological side has been properly worked out because the neural mechanisms associated with it are now better understood.  It would better to say that there are likely psychological mechanisms at play and likely neurological mechanisms, and we don’t understand how the one acts on the other.

Dualism lives – in philosophy, in clinical practice and (hidden in plain sight) in the accounts we offer of functional disorders. Nothing to be embarrassed about, even if some people are made uncomfortable by thinking about psychological causes for illnesses.

What we talk about when we talk about self-harm

  • December 12, 2020

More than a symptom of mental distress

In professional (clinical) discourse, the definition of self-harm is pretty well established now. Rather clunkily the World Health Organisation defines it as: “an act with non-fatal outcome, in which an individual deliberately initiates a non-habitual behaviour that, without intervention from others, will cause self-harm, or deliberately ingests a substance in excess of the prescribed or generally recognised therapeutic dosage, and which is aimed at realising changes which the subject desired via the actual or expected physical consequences”.

More succinct is the definition adopted by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence “self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of the apparent purpose of the act’”.

Really the only debate among clinicians is whether it’s a good idea to include motivation in the definition. Those who do think it is a good idea will typically go with the staggeringly popular term non-suicidal self-injury. Those who (like me) think it isn’t a good idea take note, for example, of the ambivalence and uncertainty about motivation that so many people express and the apparent paradox that a non-suicidal act is a risk for a suicidal one.  There’s a strong tendency for those who write about non-suicidal self-injury to conflate episodes and people. People with alcohol dependence may prefer drinking wine or beer or spirits, and there may be differences between those who major in one or the other (gender, wealth, social class or whatever) but basing an analysis of problem drinking upon preferred tipples doesn’t seem a very interesting way to think about the underlying problem.

Looking outside the rather limiting arena of diagnostic labelling, I have been struck by the diversity of places in which the idea of self-harm crops up, and I have wondered what that tells us about what self-harm means in the day-to-day world.  Here are some examples.

Eating disorders and alcohol or drug misuse. One of the commonest questions I have been asked by people who learn that I have an interest in self-harm is whether that interest includes eating disorders. Certainly there is overlap between these states – self-harm commoner in those with eating or substance misuse problems, and both those problems commoner in people with self-harm.  Conventionally however a distinction is drawn: harm to the body is not the intended aim even of life-threatening anorexia nervosa or addictive alcohol or drug consumption.

Punishing routines. Here I include extreme sports like ultra-marathon of high altitude marathon running, transient phenomena such as the ice bucket challenge, and sadomasochistic (BDSM) activity – explicitly sexual or otherwise.  Here again, infliction of damage is not (or is rarely) the intended aim but rather the infliction of pain or the enacting of role play involving dominance or passivity.

Body modification can take many forms – typically tattooing, piercing or (less commonly) scarification. Although Favazza draws strong parallels in his classic text on the topic, they are generally considered separate behaviours on the basis that although the resultant bodily changes are intended that are seen as aesthetically desirable and therefore neither harm nor damage, and they are, except in extreme cases, seen as socially sanctioned rather than signs of individual pathology.

Mortification of the flesh – something of a cross between punishing routines and body modification, practices like flagellation and prolonged fasting are perhaps less common than they were. Their aim is to damage the body but with reasons that are socially sanctioned by at least a sub-group of the population – usually undertaken for religious or political purposes.

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Organisational self-harm is the term I apply, for now, to instances that crop up in the media of self-harm used to describe an action undertaken by a corporate body or group of people and regarded as self-defeating by its critics. Examples might include a football team getting rid of a favourite player or manager mid-season, or the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Here the idea seems to be that damage may not have been intended but the guilty party’s actions were so reckless as to consequences – “What on earth were they thinking?” – that the harm might as well have been intentional.

Some of this is widely recognized in the self-harm literature, some of it less so. With the exception of the link to eating disorder it is largely ignored in the mainstream media but quite well represented in social media – for now, unless it is to be clumsily suppressed in the name of “regulation”. What it speaks to is self-harm as a phenomenon with social and cultural meanings that needs to be responded to in ways that go beyond melodrama and appeals for more investment in mental health services. A public debate along these lines has hardly got off the starting blocks.

Time for a re-set in how academics and clinicians discuss COVID science

  • November 28, 2020

One dismaying feature of our public debate about responses to the pandemic is the way that some high-profile academics and clinicians have chosen to make their contributions.  That is, there’s a big problem not with what they have to say, but how they are saying it. I recognize at least three undesirable communication styles:

Adversarial grandstanding

Lancet editor Richard Horton has made no bones about his opinions – he describes the UK’s response as “‘the greatest science policy failure of a generation’.  But whatever his views, did he need to describe the SAGE committee as “The public relations wing of a government that has failed its people”?  Many of the academics on that committee and its working groups are doing the best they can in a fast-moving and unfamiliar world, where they are dealing with a near-impossible set of politicians and their advisers. Under the circumstances the remark by Robin McKie, the reporter sent to cover the puff of Horton’s book about COVID that “Horton can sound strident, even arrogant” seems a little understated.

Horton’s abrasiveness is as nothing compared with Carl Heneghan’s, Professor of Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford, who has said that the government’s scientific advisers “specialise in causing panic and little else”.  Insulting people who disagree with you is no way to conduct a debate about research and its interpretation.

Independent SAGE is a minor variant of this adversarialism –it’s not their message I’m bothered about, it’s the mode of its delivery, where the mechanism is not simply to propose different ideas but to establish a forum defined as oppositional.

Melodrama and shroud waving

The current President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and his predecessor have both used the word tsunami to describe apparent increases in mental health problems during the pandemic. Metaphors are tricky ambiguous things – what is this one supposed to mean? That what’s happening is a highly visible, immediately destructive result of a force of nature? That people with mental health problems represent a threat we should run away from as fast as possible?  Actually, it doesn’t seem to mean much more than – there’s a lot of it about and we ought to be planning a response. 

I’d much rather hear exactly what the problem is, how we know, and exactly what the proposed solution is. By which I don’t mean statements like Professor Neil Ferguson’s flamboyant claim that 20,000 people died because we started the first lockdown a week late. Exact perhaps, with an implicit message about a proposed solution – do what I tell you next time – but rather short on the robustness of the “how we know” element (see later in this piece).

Writing in the journal Lancet Psychiatry in November this year. Psychologist Professor Ellen Townsend says: “…UK residents have all been punished by new limits to the number of people socialising together, and have been warned that further restrictions could be imposed unless their supposedly reckless social behaviour improves.”  Social media have more of this sort of thing – mandated mask-wearing as an abuse of human rights for example. The rhetoric conflates two ideas – it is perfectly possible for something to be punishing (such as a physical training regime or schedule of book signing events) without it being administered as a punishment.

Being economical with the truth.

Since its use by cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong during the Spycatcher hearings “economical with the truth” has been taken to mean “lying” whereas its wider meaning is (as the words suggest) something like – “being strategic about the degree to which truths are revealed.”

REACT-1 is a major study in the UK’s epidemiology of the COVID, and especially during the early months the media pounced on its interim results, presented by Neil Ferguson (again). A fine example was the splash a couple of months ago that across the UK R=1.7, with important implications for numbers of cases that might be expected. The withheld truth here is that REACT-1 is one study of one sample, results modelled by one group, and results should be treated with caution until a better estimate can be obtained by pooling or at least comparing results from all available studies. A non-trivial suggestion, given that – certainly at this time – the estimates from REACT-1 modelling were considerably in excess of those from other groups, as revealed during the press conference which presaged the rationale for our second national lockdown.

Writing in the Spectator Carl Heneghan (again) and a colleague presented the results of a Danish trial evaluating the effect of wearing face masks on the likelihood of the wearer contracting a C-19 infection. The original title “Landmark Danish study shows face masks have no significant effect” proved too much for the journal to defend so it became “Landmark Danish study finds no significant effect for face mask wearers.” The article noted that since the study was an RCT it represented “highest quality scientific evidence” but failed (oddly) to mention that the medical journal in which it was published carried an accompanying editorial explaining why they had accepted a paper describing a study with so many flaws. The study’s estimate of effect was so uncertain that the authors noted that they couldn’t rule out a significant effect on mask wearers infection rates – also not mentioned in the Spectator article. And of course the Danish researchers didn’t look at rates of transmission from mask wearers to others. It’s only by leaving out all these facts that the Spectator article can conclude: “And now that we have properly rigorous scientific research we can rely on, the evidence shows that wearing masks in the community does not significantly reduce the rates of infection.”

Does any of this matter?

Some of this has been noted before. For example, writing in The Conversation on 6 October Danny Dorling deprecated the polarised approach to the specific question of lockdown policy. But does it really matter? Is the style of communication noted here just what’s necessary to get debate about science into a media that is largely scientifically-illiterate?

Public communication about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been good. The government has led the way with inconsistent messages, untrusted presentation of results aimed at boosting their image rather than telling the truth, and a prime minister whose incoherence and vagueness has ceased (if it ever was) to be amusing. In that context this academic behaviour could be seen as doing no more than adding a little to our woes – making it that much harder to guide the public response to risk.

Unfortunately it goes further than that, as misrepresented science is picked up by those lobbying for a particular viewpoint. It suits the libertarian perspective to present modellers as hopeless, biased academics who present misleading findings to politicians and use them to press for draconian interventions – a pitch that is easier to make when bolstered by hints that perhaps over-confident prediction and error-proneness go together.  

In the longer-term the damage comes from a dogmatic and attention-seeking style that  misrepresents science – when natural uncertainty and healthy debate are portrayed as incompetence and division, there will inevitably be a loss of public confidence in the role of science in policy making.

Much has been made of the re-set in Government that is likely to follow the departure of the poisonous Dominic Cummings. Surely now is the time to re-set the tone of the scientific debate – there are enough thoughtful, articulate academics out there. We need to be pressing for a change in tone by challenging unhelpful communication – not for what is being said but for how. And a research idea: behavioural science hasn’t contributed much to thinking about how we should respond in the pandemic – perhaps research is needed into the impact on behaviour of declining interest in listening to over-confident and over-definite experts, what we might call rhetoric fatigue.

Functional neurological disorders

  • November 11, 2020

Research and treatment should involve understanding why and not just how they develop

The group of clinical conditions that are now described as Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) used to be known by more uncomfortable names – hysteria, conversion disorder, or the hybrid hysterical-conversion. The change of terminology is welcome, although perhaps not its usage in the singular; after all the category brings together some quite disparate conditions.

With this change in terminology comes a change in the academic and clinical discourse. For the last century or so, the majority view has been that these functional disorders have psychological causes:  how they develop comes about through a process of loosening and disconnection between usually connected functions that need to be co-ordinated for effective motor or sensory function – dissociation; why they develop is explained as a response to some sort of psychological conflict that cannot be satisfactorily resolved – the emergence of disorder representing either symptomatic breakdown or a defensive manoeuvre to contain the conflict.

A shift in emphasis

The current FND discourse is relatively uninvolved with ideas about why FND occurs. Its focus is on antecedents that seem relatively trivial psychologically and upon mechanisms of symptom production – the how. Modern approaches in neuroscience allow studies of the physiology of symptom production that give new meaning to older ideas like dissociation and somatosensory amplification and more recent ideas about interoception, helping to explain some of the specifics of presentation – how some symptom states are generated – or to suggest why some individuals are especially susceptible.  Such research may yield interesting insights into the nature of these conditions and perhaps offers the future possibility of new therapeutic approaches.

A corollary has been a tendency to downplay the role of interpersonal factors in aetiology or maintenance: early or later life experience is hardly discussed as having a potentially meaningful relationship to onset or persistence of FND. Enthusiasts for a quasi-neurological cause for FND are keen to quote a systematic literature review1 which found that many people do not report severe life events as antecedents to onset. Three of the most widely used patient-facing resources2 lead on “problems with functioning of the nervous system” in their definitions of FND, while not offering the possibility that an important cause might be psychological. Psychological intervention, if any is offered, is focussed on overcoming barriers to social and physical rehabilitation and formal psychological therapy may not even mentioned as an option3-4.

There are apparent clinical benefits to this approach, which no doubt account for its current popularity. Most significantly it can facilitate engagement during consultations and thereby rehabilitation efforts, especially in those cases where a less medical-sounding diagnosis is “not well accepted by patients who feel that (it) implies that their symptoms are inauthentic…”5

Where does psychotherapy fit in now?

Against this background a recent systematic literature review6 has summarised evidence for the effectiveness of psychological therapies in FND – 12 studies of CBT and seven of psychodynamic therapy. Therapy trials ought to be a test of some of the ideas about causes of FND and its associated disability, because CBT sits mainly as an adjunct to rehabilitation whereas psychodynamic therapy is aimed at the interpersonal distress that, putatively, has a causal as well as maintaining role.

The results are, frustratingly but not surprisingly, inconclusive. Most of the studies are small and had methodological weaknesses that prevent us getting a definitive answer. The lumping together of participants with quite different clinical presentations makes it impossible to answer the question “what might work for whom?”. We don’t know what proportion of eligible patients will accept either therapy when it is offered in an encouraging and supportive way.

Even so, two results stand out from this useful and well-conducted review. The first is that psychotherapy, including psychodynamically-informed therapy, can be acceptable to people with a range of functional disorders. The second is that the CODES trial7 – by far the largest and best conducted in the field – produced a number of non-specific benefits in mood, wellbeing, quality of life and so on, but had no effect on the frequency or severity of the primary presenting problem which was non-epileptic (functional) seizures.

Where next?

The discourse on FND needs to be rebalanced. A full formulation should include an understanding of psychological and social factors in the generation and maintenance of functional states – not just as coincidental co-morbidities or as natural consequences of disability but as meaningfully related to the disorder. Current evidence on life adversity is not robust enough to dismiss this possibility:  severe threatening events are not what one would typically expect to find as the explanatory exposure in this context8, and life events interviewing is a blunt tool for exploring more nuanced interpersonal conflicts.

The framing of FND as primarily a problem of nervous system function may get in the way of this broader formulation, making it harder for people to discuss and understand the psychosocial aspects of their illness.

Caricaturing of psychological perspectives doesn’t help.  If clinicians really say to their patients  “It’s all in your head”9  or describe them (presumably to colleagues) as work-shy hysterics10 then what’s needed is some re-education of those clinicians rather than reformulating functional disorders so that patients learn to say “I have a real dysfunction of networks in my brain”9.  We must be careful not to collude with the stigmatising of mental health problems by a reluctance to acknowledge that they too are respectable states with which to be diagnosed.  When I first started in medicine, patients were frequently not told they had cancer – as a way of avoiding distressing and uncomfortable consultations. Nobody accepts that now, but it feels as if that’s where we are with FND.

It is a mistake to believe that everybody wants a disease-like diagnostic label and not everybody is offended by sensitively handled discussion of psychological causes of physical illness. For example Markus Reuber and colleagues in Sheffield have shown, as does the latest literature review, that if care is taken with early introduction of the ideas then psychological therapy, even when informed by psychodynamic principles, can be delivered in brief and acceptable formats to people with functional symptoms. Of course not everybody will accept a psychological approach, but an early over-emphasis on mechanistic explanations and short-term goals in therapy just makes it more difficult to address important psychological and social issues at a later stage, if all is not going well.

Writing a little while ago, Anthony David11 talked about a happy “we’re-all-friends-together-let’s get-rid of Cartesian-dualism” camaraderie that pervades this field. He was talking about something a bit different, but it’s still true that “an end to dualism” won’t do to explain where we are now. Apart from the misunderstanding of dualism that the slogan implies, it’s wrong because what we need is more openness about discussing with patients the possible primarily psychological causes and treatments that are relevant in FND even if that may bring uncomfortable consultations – a part of the continuing confrontation of stigmatisation in psychological illness. These ideas need to be tested in careful clinical trials that allow for testing of the value of psychological formulation and intervention as a substantial rather than adjunctive part of treatment, and involve evaluation of mediators and moderators of outcomes that can help unpack the complex nature of this group of disorders. We should do no less – we are still a long way from understanding functional disorders and treating them effectively, and the prognosis for FND is certainly not good as things stand12.

  1. Ludwig L, Pasman JA, Nicholson T, Aybek S, David AS, Tuck S, Kanaan RA, Roelofs K, Carson A, Stone J. Stressful life events and maltreatment in conversion (functional neurological) disorder: systematic review and meta-analysis of case-control studies. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2018 Apr 1;5(4):307-20.
  2. FND Action https://www.fndaction.org.uk/what-is-fnd-2/; FND Hope;  https://www.fndhope.org/   Neurosymptoms https://www.neurosymptoms.org/
  3. Johns R. I feel I am missing a piece of the puzzle. BMJ. 2020 Apr 8;369.
  4. Wong M. Telling me you don’t know is ok. BMJ. 2020 Jan 8;368.
  5. Dimsdale J, Creed F, Escobar J, Sharpe M, Wulsin L, Barsky A, Lees S, Irwin M, Levensen J (2013). Somatic symptom disorder: an important change in DSM. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 75, 223-228.
  6. Gutkin M, McLean L, Brown R, Kanaan RA. Systematic review of psychotherapy for adults with functional neurological disorder. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 2020 Nov 5.
  7. Goldstein LH, Robinson EJ, Mellers JD, Stone J, Carson A, Reuber M, Medford N, McCrone P, Murray J, Richardson MP, Pilecka I. Cognitive behavioural therapy for adults with dissociative seizures (CODES): a pragmatic, multicentre, randomised controlled trial. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2020 Jun 1;7(6):491-505.
  8. Kanaan RA, Craig TK. Conversion disorder and the trouble with trauma. Psychological Medicine. 2019 Jul;49(10):1585-8.
  9. Burke MJ. “It’s All in Your Head”—Medicine’s Silent Epidemic. JAMA Neurology. 2019 Sep 16.
  10. Popkirov S, Baguley DM, Carson AJ, Brown RJ, Stone J. The neurology of the Cuban” sonic attacks”. The Lancet Neurology. 2019 Sep;18(9):817.
  11. David AS. Functional disorders, Cartesian dualism and stigma: where does the dualism really lie? Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2012;83:869.
  12. Edwards MJ. Functional neurological disorder: an ethical turning point for neuroscience. Brain 2019 Jun 26;142(7):1855-7.

The emperor wants a new set of clothes

  • August 10, 2020

Is covid-19 really a justification for more funding for behavioural science?

Behavioural science (essentially health psychology) came to applied health research with a big promise – that the application of psychological theory would lead to effective interventions for changing important health-related behaviours. In its strongest form the claim was that it was only such theory-based interventions that could be effective.

This promise was taken up enthusiastically by the UK’s main research funders, the MRC and NIHR, so that in recent years it has become a default expectation that all interventions aimed at changing any aspect of the behaviour of patients or populations should be informed by behavioural science. Their committees started to include behavioural scientists along with statisticians and economists – experts whose knowledge was required to make a decision regardless of the specific topic being considered for funding.

There have always been straws in the wind that this idea might have been a tad oversold.  Initially it was individual evaluations of theory-based interventions that failed to deliver as expected. A discussion paper in 2013 found no evidence that the approach had generated  cost-effective interventions for common behaviour-related health problems like obesity and smoking.  And then a major review of the evidence for the so-called theory-effectiveness hypothesis, published in 2019 in the British Journal of Health Psychology, concluded “Theory-based interventions as currently operationalized in systematic reviews were not found to be more effective than non-theory-based-interventions.”

Still, the idea has taken root. As everybody knows, even that great thinker the former Prime Minister David Cameron was convinced. So when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived it was no surprise that one of the SAGE subcommittees, SPI-B, was charged with applying behavioural science to the problems posed by a need for widespread adoption of changes in lifestyle and day-to-day activities. What has come as a surprise is how little we hear about that committee compared with, for example, SPI-M the committee which is concerned with measuring and modelling the progress of the pandemic. A March statement about the role of behavioural science in the coronavirus outbreak consisted mainly of platitudes and an appeal for urgent research, and since then we have heard hardly anything.

In the past week that relative silence has been broken twice. First has been a vehement denial that the idea of behavioural fatigue comes in any way from the behavioural science stable – an intriguing entry into public debate coming just as it’s clear that whole sections of the public are no longer taking any notice of pleas to maintain social distancing or wear face masks.

Second, an article has appeared in this week’s British Medical Journal with the rather belated acknowledgement that “there is almost no relevant evidence on how to promote adherence to behaviours such as distancing from other people and households, hand cleansing, effective use of face coverings, and avoiding touching one’s eyes nose or mouth with contaminated hands.” They might have added “or willingness to collaborate with contact tracing agencies”.

Why has behavioural science ended up in this position? Michie and West suggest that it’s because they haven’t had enough research funding. More to the point are two features inherent to the whole enterprise. Modern health psychology has taken a robustly individualistic approach – privileging psychological characteristics (such as self-efficacy) and psychological processes (such as the forming of action intentions) to the neglect of interpersonal, social and cultural influences on behaviour. And in its incarnation in health, behavioural science has privileged theory as the foundation of its claims to truth, neglecting the sorts of research approaches that would test those theories in real world settings.

Where next?  “…we urgently need a major coordinated programme of research to develop and evaluate behavioural, environmental, social and systems interventions that will be effective and viable in tackling the covid-19 and future pandemics.” Well maybe, but it isn’t at all clear, given the history, that “behavioural” should be at the front of that list – except that it makes the acronym snappier. There are other ways to think about the rationale for population-level interventions and we should be conducting a wider search for answers – for example through the social and political sciences and humanities.  And adding “political” to the list of interventions would help: any applied health researcher will vouch for the ineffectiveness of the cleverest interventions if they aren’t implemented competently, consistently and comprehensively.

There’s plenty of time to consider the options here. The UK’s pandemic response is in the hands of a government that is influenced by many factors, and high on its list of priorities is not attention to the complexities of science as it applies to population health behaviours. I’m sure they won’t be pressing for answers before Christmas, although they might be looking for people to blame when it’s clear they don’t have those answers…

Mental health care in a Warr zone

  • July 14, 2020

Another NHS review is trailed in our newspapers – this one apparently aimed at clipping the wings of NHS England and Public Health England. Anyone who knows the first thing about British politics will know that neither Boris Johnson nor Matt Hancock has the ability or the interest to lead a strategic overhaul of our health service, so no doubt the output will be determined to a large extent by the prime minister’s Svengali, Dominic Cummings. What does that tell us about the likely consequences for mental health care in this country?

Cummings likes to pose as an outsider but his scruffy T shirt and stubble is as much an affectation as his employer’s tousled hair and faux-Churchillian gestures. He is a mainstream Tory – privately educated, Oxbridge humanities degree, socially and politically connected. His interest in IT and modelling is a quirk; his real drivers are authoritarianism and disdain for Little People – justified to himself by his self-appraisal as the cleverest man he knows. Cumming’s foot soldiers are the SPADS he employs to run the prime minister’s (and Number 11’s) office. What he seems to be creating sounds a long way from the team of talented weirdos and misfits he famously advertised for and more like just another insiders’ clique.

Cumming’s place man as Number 10’s adviser on Health & Social Care, Life Sciences and Technology is one William Warr, who fits the bill nicely. A standard issue arrogant white man, he has no claim to expertise in health and social care apart from entry-level training in public health and failing to complete his PhD, but he has connections and holds the right political opinions. And those opinions, outlined in (of course) The Daily Telegraph, don’t bode well for our health services – antipathy to an NHS that wastes all its resources treating ill people, overvaluation of the role of tech, tired ideas about smartphone apps and nudge interventions, unthought-through ideas about personalised medicine based upon genetic testing. And Warr seems to have skipped the modules in his MPhil on social determinants of health and on secondary and tertiary prevention.

I’m wondering what all this has to offer people struggling with long-term mental illness, or with the unglamorous admixture of physical and mental disability, poverty and educational under-achievement described so well in Frances Ryan’s book Crippled. The answer is, I’m afraid, nothing. The ability to exercise informed choice about lifestyle is not to be dismissed, but it is overprivileged by those who don’t like the idea of a welfare state.  A Zoom chat with a mental health support worker and an offer of gene sequencing is no substitute for good housing, education, a safe environment, proper treatment from a multidisciplinary team of specialists, and a society that values support and participation over competition and acquisition.