Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Unhinged'

Cover Detail: Unhinged

Chapter 1

The Trouble with Psychiatry

For the last fifteen years, I've practiced psychiatry in a small town north of Boston. It is a solo private practice. I see mostly middle-class patients who come to me with depression, anxiety, sub­stance abuse, and occasionally more severe problems, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Like most other psychiatrists of my generation, I have specialized in prescribing medications and have referred patients in need of talk treatment to a psychotherapist. During my training at Massachusetts General Hospital, I was taught that we are on the threshold of understanding the biochemistry of mental illness. After I graduated from residency, I worked hard to keep up with the explosion of neuroscience knowledge, and I absorbed the intricacies of how to use the new psychopharmaceuticals as they poured forth from the drug companies at a dizzying clip. By harnessing these powerful medications, I thought I was providing my patients the best psychiatric treatment possible.

But a couple of years ago, I saw a patient who made me question both my profession and my career.

Carol, in her midthirties, had short brown hair and strikingly green eyes that were filled with despair. Once we were seated in my office, I asked her, "How can I be of help?"

"My father was killed in a car accident," she said, choking back tears.

"How awful -- when did this happen?"

"Last month."

Carol told me that she had been in the car with her father, who was driving. They came over a rise in the road, and another car was just pulling out of a driveway in front of them. Her father tried to swerve, but it was too late. They collided with the other car, and her father, who was not wearing a seat belt, was killed instantly. Miraculously, Carol was not seriously injured.

Since then, she said, she had recurrent dreams about the accident, and couldn't prevent herself from replaying the scene during the day. The events would unreel themselves like a movie in front of her, and often she would start sobbing uncontrollably. I recognized these experiences -- nightmares and flashbacks -- as typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. I asked her a series of questions about other symptoms, such as poor concentra­tion, insomnia, being easily startled, and the need to avoid situations reminding her of the crash, all of which are commonly associated with PTSD.

She said she was experiencing all of them. Her life was constricting inward. She drove rarely, avoiding especially the road where the accident had occurred.

"Are you avoiding anything else?" I asked.

"I won't watch TV. I can't read the newspaper. I never realized how many stories there are about car accidents in the news."

I asked her about symptoms of depression. She reported insomnia and poor motivation, but no suicidal ideation.

"The worst thing," she said, "is how guilty I feel."

"Why guilty?" I asked.

"It was my fault that we crashed. I got him upset."

Her eyes began to well up. "I was telling him that he shouldn't be drinking."

"He was drinking and driving?"

She nodded. "I told him I could smell it on his breath and that he shouldn't be driving. He got mad, started yelling at me. And then he floored the gas pedal, said something like 'Am I driving good enough now?' That's when it happened."

I could see that this was more than a simple case of PTSD. She would have complicated feelings about her father to wrestle with -- grief, regret, and eventually a good deal of anger.

As the end of the hour approached, I told her a bit about PTSD, about the prognosis for recovery, and about the usual treatments.

"So what do you think I should do?" she asked me.

"I'd like to give you some medication to help you through this," I said. I wrote out prescriptions for the antidepressant Zoloft and for the tranquilizer Klonopin. Then I reached into my file cabinet, and handed her a business card. "And this is a good therapist who I often work with. I recommend that you give her a call and set up an appointment. The medication works better when you are also seeing a counselor."

She looked confused. "Aren't you my therapist?"

I shook my head. "Unfortunately, I don't have time in my practice to do therapy. I usually refer patients to psychotherapists whom I trust."

"So . . . am I going to see you again?"

"Yes, we'll schedule another appointment in about a month, to see how the medications are working. But in the meantime, I hope you'll have had a couple of sessions with this other doctor."

Carol still didn't look at all happy with this.

"But aren't there any psychiatrists that do therapy?"

"There are a few," I said, "but not many. They're hard to find these days."

After Carol left my office, I finished writing her intake note. I closed her chart, put my pen down, and looked out my office window at the white-steepled Unitarian church across the street. There was nothing unusual about my encounter with Carol. I did what most psychiatrists do when they encounter a new patient. I sat comfort­ably in my red leather chair, wearing my suit and tie, and I asked her a series of diagnostic questions. Her answers fit neatly into a recipe book of psychiatric diagnoses called the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition), and I pieced together a diagnosis that made sense to me. I then reached over to my desk, wrote out a prescription, and handed it to her.

Pondering this typical appointment, what struck me most was what I did not do. I am an MD, having gone through four years of medical school, one year of grueling medical internship in a general hospital, and three years of psychiatric residency at Massa­chusetts General Hospital. But, like most psychiatrists, I did little to take advantage of those years of training. I did not do a physical exam, nor did I take Carol's pulse or blood pressure. Indeed, the only times I stirred from my chair were to meet her in the waiting room at the beginning and to show her into my secretary's office to make a follow-up appointment at the end.

Just as striking to me as the lack of typical doctorly activities in psychiatry is the dearth of psychotherapy. Most people are under the misconception that an appointment with a psychiatrist will involve counseling, probing questions, and digging into the psychological meanings of one's distress. But the psychiatrist as psychotherapist is an endangered species. In fact, according to the latest data from a group of researchers at Columbia University, only one out of every ten psychiatrists offers therapy to all their patients. Doing psycho­therapy doesn't pay well enough. I can see three or four patients per hour if I focus on medications (such psychiatrists are called "psychopharmacologists"), but only one patient in that time period if I do therapy. The income differential is a powerful incentive to drop therapy from our repertoire of skills, and psychiatrists have generally followed the money.

So, like most of my patients, Carol saw me for medications, and saw a social worker colleague for therapy. Her symptoms gradually improved, but whether this was due to the medications or the therapy, or simply the passage of time, I cannot say.

Carol's treatment was not particularly dramatic, but her story illustrates both the triumphs and the failures of modern psychiatry. Over the last thirty years, we have constructed a reliable system for diagnosing mental disorders, and we have created medications that work well to treat a range of psychological symptoms. But these very successes have had unpredictable consequences. As psychiatrists have become enthralled with diagnosis and medication, we have given up the essence of our profession -- understanding the mind. We have become obsessed with psychopharmacology and its endless process of tinkering with medications, adjusting dosages, and piling on more medications to treat the side effects of the drugs we started with. We have convinced ourselves that we have developed cures for mental illnesses like Carol's, when in fact we know so little about the underlying neurobiology of their causes that our treatments are often a series of trials and errors.

Theories of the neurobiology of PTSD, depression, and the range of other mental illnesses have come and gone over the years, but we are still far away from a true understanding of the biological causes of these diseases. Clearly, thoughts and emotions arise from the activity of neurons, and it makes sense that when emotions are distorted severely, the neurons must in some way be "broken."

Theories about depression over the years have included different versions of the "chemical imbalance" idea. The 2009 version of the American Psychiatric Association's Textbook of Psychopharmacology reviews these candidate chemicals in depth.2 Researchers have found evidence of abnormalities in serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, cortisol, thyroid, growth hormone, glutamate, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor -- yet no specific defect has been identified. Straying outside the world of chemistry, other researchers have tried to find the causes of depression through neuroimaging scans. But this research has been just as inconclusive. Some of the major findings include decreased activity in the left frontal lobe, a shrunken hippocampus, an oversized amygdala, disrupted circuits around the basal ganglia, and miscellaneous abnormalities in the thalamus and the pituitary gland.

The APA textbook authors, utterly unable to tie together these disparate findings, concluded that the "central question of what variables drive the pathophysiology of mood disorders remains unanswered." You can say that again. The problem is not in the enthusiasm or intelligence of the researchers -- but rather in the inherent com­plexity of the brain itself. A typical brain contains one hundred billion neurons, each of which makes electrical connections, or syn­apses, with up to ten thousand other neurons. That means a quadrillion synapses are active at any given time -- the number of people on 150,000 Earths. It is therefore no surprise that we know almost nothing definitive about the pathophysiology of mental illness -- the surprise is that we know anything at all.

Excerpted from Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry -- a Doctor's Revelations about a Profession Crisis by Daniel J. Carlat. Copyright 2010 Daniel Carlat. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Dan Carlat