One day several years ago, I was reaching the end of my first visit with a patient, J.J., who had come to see me for anxiety and insomnia. He was a salesman for a struggling telecommunications company, and he was having trouble managing the strain on his finances and his family. He was sleeping poorly, and as soon as he opened his eyes in the early morning, the worries began. "I wake up with a list of things to worry about," he said. "I just go through the list, and it seems to get longer every day."
A psychiatric interview has a certain rhythm to it. You start by listening to what your patient says for a few minutes, without interrupting, all the while sorting through possible diagnoses. This vast landscape of distress has been mapped into a series of categories in psychiatry's diagnostic manual, DSM-IV. The book breaks down mental suffering into 16 groups of disorders, like mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders and several others. As I listened to J.J. (a nickname that he agreed I could use to protect his privacy), it was clear to me that he had one of the anxiety disorders, but which one? In order to systematically rule in or rule out the disorders, I asked J.J. dozens of questions. "Do you have panic attacks?" "Do you get fearful in crowded situations?" "Have you ever experienced a traumatic event that later caused flashbacks or nightmares?"
Each of J.J.'s answers provided me with a clue, closing off one possibility while opening up others. At its best, when you are working with an intelligent, insightful patient, the process is fun, involving a series of logical calculations, much like working a Sudoku puzzle. Finally, toward the end of the hour, I felt confident that I had arrived at J.J.'s diagnosis. "I think you have what we call 'generalized anxiety disorder,' " I told him. It may start with a defined series of causes, as was true for J.J., but then it spirals outward, blanketing the world with potential threat. J.J. worried about what the future would bring and experienced a predictable series of physical symptoms: insomnia, muscle tension, irritability and poor concentration.
"I'm going to write you a prescription for a medication called Zoloft," I said, picking up my prescription pad. He asked what was causing his anxiety, and I began one of the stock neurochemical explanations that psychiatrists typically offer patients about low serotonin levels in the brain. The treatment involved "filling up the tank" by prescribing a medication like Zoloft, Celexa or Paxil.
"So Dr. Freud, the causes are all in the brain? Isn't there some explanation in my childhood?" It was a good-natured tease.
"I specialize in prescribing medications," I said with a smile. I was a psychopharmacologist and specialized in medication rather than psychotherapy. "I can refer you to a good therapist in the area if you'd like."
After J.J. left my office, I realized, uncomfortably, that somehow, over the course of the decade following my residency, my way of thinking about patients had veered away from psychological curiosity. Instead, I had come to focus on symptoms, as if they were objective medical findings, much the way internists view blood-pressure readings or potassium levels. Psychiatry, for me and many of my colleagues, had become a process of corralling patients' symptoms into labels and finding a drug to match.
Leon Eisenberg, an early pioneer in psychopharmacology at Harvard, once made the notable historical observation that "in the first half of the 20th century, American psychiatry was virtually 'brainless.' . . . In the second half of the 20th century, psychiatry became virtually 'mindless.' " The brainless period was a reference to psychiatry's early infatuation with psychoanalysis; the mindless period, to our current love affair with pills. J.J., I saw, had inadvertently highlighted a glaring deficiency in much of modern psychiatry. Ultimately, his question would change the way I thought about my field, and how I practiced.
I originally became interested in psychiatry primarily because of my father: he is a psychiatrist practicing in San Francisco. But there was a darker side to my career choice. My mother suffered severe mental illness, with debilitating depressions and paranoid thoughts. One autumn day during my junior year in college, she committed suicide. Psychiatry then became personal, a way for me to come to terms with her illness.
I majored in psychology at U.C. Berkeley, and at U.C. San Francisco I labored through medical school's rites of passage in order to qualify for a psychiatric residency. Eventually, on a steamy July day in 1992, I stood on a Boston street, far from home, gazing at Massachusetts General Hospital (known as M.G.H.), where I was about to start my training.
This was a momentous time at M.G.H. Prozac was introduced four years earlier and became the best-selling psychiatric medication of all time. Zoloft and Paxil, two similar medications, were in the pipeline, and many of the key clinical trials for these antidepressants were conducted by psychiatrists at M.G.H. who were to become my mentors. M.G.H. and other top programs were enthralled with neurobiology, the new medications and the millions of dollars in industry grants that accompanied them. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the drug approach to treatment. Psychopharmacology was infinitely easier to master than therapy, because it involved a teachable, systematic method. First, we memorized the DSM criteria for the major disorders, then we learned how to ask the patient the right questions, then we pieced together a diagnosis and finally we matched a medication with the symptoms.
But learning the formal techniques of therapy was like navigating without a compass. While I learned how to form an alliance with my patients and begin a good dialogue, becoming a skillful therapist requires much more practice than busy psychiatry residencies allow.
When my father did his residency at U.C.S.F. in the 1950s, he learned therapy well, because, with few medications available, it was the main treatment psychiatrists could offer their patients. Psychiatric residencies focused on therapy, and many residents extended their training further by enrolling in postgraduate psychoanalytic institutes. When modern medications came on the scene, my father adapted by incorporating them into his therapy practice, as did many of his colleagues. I call this the "golden" generation of psychiatrists, those currently approaching retirement age, who were skilled at offering the full package of effective psychiatric treatments to patients.
The newer generation of psychiatrists, who graduated in the 1980s and afterward, trained in programs that were increasingly skeptical of therapy and that emphasized a focus on medications. M.G.H. was by far the most influential of these modern programs. Graduates of the M.G.H. program and its sister program at nearby McLean Hospital have fanned out throughout the country, becoming chairmen of departments and leaders of the National Institute of Mental Health.
A result is that psychiatry has been transformed from a profession in which we talk to people and help them understand their problems into one in which we diagnose disorders and medicate them. This trend was most recently documented by Ramin Mojtabai and Mark Olfson, two psychiatric epidemiologists who found that the percentage of visits to psychiatrists that included psychotherapy dropped to 29 percent in 2004-5 from 44 percent in 1996-97. And the percentage of psychiatrists who provided psychotherapy at every patient visit decreased to 11 percent from 19 percent.
While it is tempting to blame only the biologically oriented psychiatrists for this shift, that would be simplistic. Other forces are at work as well. Insurance companies typically encourage short medication visits by paying nearly as much for a 20-minute medication visit as for 50 minutes of therapy. And patients themselves vote with their feet by frequently choosing to see psychopharmacologists rather than therapists. Weekly therapy takes time and is arduous work. If a daily pill can cure depression and anxiety just as reliably, why not choose this option?