As another year comes to a close, it’s time to review what made the biggest news in 2008 in mental health and psychology. Of course, the biggest news of the year — the historic election of Barack Obama — is not directly related to mental health but worthy of note. His policies and appointments over the next four years are likely to make a substantial impact in funding and policies in American healthcare (and mental health care).
Highlights from Research
This was a bad year for antidepressant research. Antidepressants are a class of psychiatric medications most commonly prescribed to relieve depression, but increasingly being prescribed for practically any ailment. In January, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that showed there was a publication bias when it comes to antidepressant medications — one where even negative outcomes were repositioned as a positive outcome. This confirmed the long-standing belief that research showing a drug’s ineffectiveness (compared with a sugar pill) rarely see the light of day. And in the rare circumstances when they do, the researchers work to skew the findings to suggest something different than what the data show. CL Psych had the commentary.
In February, another study published in PLoS Medicine further demonstrated antidepressants ineffectiveness when researchers examined the raw data first submitted to the FDA for these drugs’ approval decades ago. The lack of efficacy data, however, didn’t stop the FDA from approving the medications, and since that time, dozens of additional studies have been done that show such drugs are more effective than placebo (but not as effective as drug manufacturers initially claimed). April was no kinder, as further information became available about infamous Paxil study 329 due to legal action, a study that claimed to show Paxil’s effectiveness in the treatment of adolescents in 2001, but was actually shown to be no more effective than placebo. Furious Seasons has a good summary and links to more in-depth analysis.
Also in February, we noted why you often find yourself unable to just say “No” in the heat of the moment. And that, simply through hard work and memorization, you can change the actual structure of your brain (no chemicals needed).
In March, Wyeth’s new antidepressant Pristiq was approved for use in people with depression by the FDA. This entry on our blog quickly turned into one the most-commented upon entries of the year, as people noted the difficulties they had in coming off of Effexor XR, a drug notorious for its difficulty in discontinuing (called, naturally enough, “discontinuation syndrome”).
Genetic testing started making the headlines in 2008, despite the lack of evidence that such testing — especially for mental disorders — provides a person with any actionable information (e.g., information that you can do something with as opposed to esoteric, “Oh, isn’t that nice?” information). For instance, the genetic test for bipolar disorder marketed in March could find a gene shared by only 3% of people who have bipolar disorder. Helpful? Hardly. These kinds of tests are sources of more misinformation than anything else and you should save your money until the science catches up with people looking to make a quick buck off of people’s anxieties about their health.
In July, we wrote about Another Brain Fad for Depression?, which described how research into the science of the brain is already leading some people to draw conclusions about the causes of depression with insufficient evidence.
At the end of July, Nature published research from an international group of researchers that found people suffering from schizophrenia are far more likely to carry rare chromosomal structural changes of all types, particularly those that may alter gene function. They also discovered two new gene areas that, when altered, put people at significantly greater risk for developing schizophrenia.
September saw the complete refutation of the belief that video games cause teenagers to be more violent and antisocial, when the Pew Internet & American Life Project, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, released a new report showing that video games are a positive social activity for most teens. A book published earlier in the year, Grand Theft Childhood, also refutes the supposed link with findings from prior research.
Conflicts of Interest and Disclosure
2008 will likely go down as the year that many high-profile researchers will rue. In June, Harvard researchers Joseph Biederman, Timothy Wilens, and Thomas J. Spencer were dinged by the ongoing investigations of U.S. Senator Charles E. Grassley for failing to report millions of dollars to their university, as required by Harvard’s rules regarding conflicts of interest. Two researchers — Wilens and Biederman — both failed to report $1.6 million in earnings from pharma over a seven year period, or about $225,000 a year. Biederman was also listed as a co-author of a study that found St. John’s Wort (an inexpensive herbal remedy) was ineffective in the treatment of ADHD. Wouldn’t you know it? One of Biederman’s funders is a maker of ADHD medications.
Charles Nemeroff resigned in October from his position as chair of the psychiatry department at Emory University, after Sen. Grassley’s continuing investigation into pharmaceutical funding payments, improper reporting, and ethics questioned why the researcher failed to report $1.2 million in pharmaceutical payments since 2000.
Biederman again made unwanted headlines in November for his role in pushing pediatric bipolar disorder with Johnson & Johnson’s help (via its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceutical).
Dr. Fred Goodwin, host of a popular public radio show called The Infinite Mind, apparently failed to fully disclose all of his pharmaceutical activities to his listeners and his producer. The investigation into his undisclosed $1.3 million in payments over the past seven years began earlier in the year, when the objectivity of a program about antidepressants and suicidality was called into question by Furious Seasons and later, Slate. Our last update on Dr. Goodwin’s debacle appeared earlier this month.
Other Stories of Note
In January, we reported on how through a single phone call, a child was given forced electrical shock treatment by an ex-patient at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. We followed up in March with a post describing how shock treatment for children is advocated by the guy who also holds a patent for the device. The last mention of the Center in local papers was in May, when records from the center were reportedly seized as a part of an ongoing investigation.
January also saw an in-depth piece about the worth (or lack thereof) of brain training programs by NewScientist. Their conclusion? Evidence remains decidedly mixed about the usefulness of these programs, and most software programs that purport to “brain train” have little or no scientific research to back up their use. However, they concluded that conducting such brain training probably can’t hurt you, as the only thing you lose out on is your time and a few bucks if the brain exercises don’t generalize to other areas in your life. For specific mental disorders — such as schizophrenia, OCD, and depression — such programs do seem to help people improve people’s memory. And a small, 34 person study published in March suggests that a specific type of training exercise may help in improving one’s “fluid” intelligence (the ability to reason and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge).
In February, tragedy struck the Northern Illinois University campus in Dekalb, Illinois when Stephen Phillip Kazmierczak killed five students and himself and injured 20 more at the school. Campus police responded to the shooting within minutes, but could only call for ambulances; Kazmierczak was already dead upon their arrival. The media was quick to jump on the fact that Kazmierczak had previously been treated for a mental disorder, despite there being no connection between violence and mental illness.
In May, a brewing controversy about the legitimacy of the pediatric bipolar disorder diagnosis bubbled over as Newsweek published an interview about the “biology of bipolar disorder,” focused on discussing the brain and bipolar disorder. CL Psych has this commentary about the article. Pediatric bipolar disorder is not an officially recognized diagnosis at this time. But that didn’t stop the The New York Times Magazine from following up with a lengthy piece on childhood bipolar disorder in September (which barely mentions the controversy surrounding the diagnosis given to children as young as 2 years old). Furious Seasons has the commentary.
In July, we noted how Kings County (NY) Hospital let a women with mental illness die in their waiting room, while staffers looked on and did nothing to help. A few weeks later, another person with mental illness also died while in a North Carolina hospital (Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, NC), due to staff neglect.
October saw the historic and significant passage of mental health parity act (specifically the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008) when the U.S. House passed a $700 billion bailout bill for the U.S. financial sector. The bill, for the first time in the nation’s history, ensures that health insurance will now be required to offer benefits and coverage of mental health concerns at a level equal to that of physical concerns. Insurance companies are no longer legally allowed to limit outpatient visits for psychotherapy (unless they do so already for other doctor’s visits).
October was also the month when the folks who oversee the Golden Gate Bridge finally approved a suicide barrier for the infamous bridge (in the form of a non-intrusive wire net). The bridge is the most popular landmark in the country from which to take one’s own life and advocates have been calling for some type of barrier for decades. Funding is still needed for the new net, and while we wait, another 2 people each month will end their lives on the bridge.
In February, we noted the 90 Day Jane blog, a hoax website that purported to be the countdown blog for a woman who was going to kill herself after 90 days. She made it seven days, and then the publicity stunt was up, the blog removed, and everyone went on with their everyday lives. That didn’t stop a man from ending his life in November while transmitting live via a webcam. The first such suicide online apparently was conducted in 2003.
In July 2008, we launched our first new blog here at Psych Central, Bipolar Beat with Bipolar Disorder for Dummies authors Dr. Candida Fink and Joe Kraynak. Bipolar Beat has been a great success and enjoys its own following by people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or knows someone who has). In December, we followed that up with the launch of Celebrity Psychings, written by Alicia Sparks.
Lori Drew was found guilty in November for her role in the death of Megan Meier. Megan’s mom and her friends helped start a foundation in her name to try and educate and reduce online bullying (which is far more prevalent and harder to stop than real-life bullying).
Our Top 5s for 2008
Top 5 Most Commented Upon Blog Posts for 2008
- Pristiq versus Effexor XR (115)
- How to Spot a Narcissist (113)
- Why Would You Lie to Your Therapist? (82)
- Asthma + Singulair = Suicide? (64)
- I Think I’m in Love with My Therapist (50/tie)
- Why Do Therapists Stigmatize People with Borderline? (50/tie)
Top 5 Most Read Blog Posts for 2008
- Friends with Benefits
- While You Sleep, Your Brain Keeps Working
- Facebook Friends = Poor Social Adjustment
- How to Spot a Narcissist
- Money Can Change Your Behavior Toward Others
Top 5 Most Read News Stories for 2008
- Loneliness Harms Health
- Culture Affects The Way We Use Our Brain
- Biochemical Effects of Betrayal
- Suicide Rates on the Rise Among Baby Boomers
- These Uncertain Times Stress Health
For the top ten brain articles of 2008, please visit our friends over at NewScientist magazine.