John M. Talmadge, M.D.

A Blog Covering Many Topics

Mindfulness and PTSD

Among veterans with PTSD, mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy, compared with present-centered group therapy, resulted in a greater decrease in PTSD symptom severity. The results of the study were modest, but those of us familiar with mindfulness practice are encouraged that we are on the right track. The August 4, 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association includes an article describing the research. A summary of the article is available here. I discovered the article through a link through Dr. Ian Ellis-Jones and his excellent website devoted to mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment, which can be trained by meditational practices. Although linked to Buddhism and eastern philosophies, many Christians practice mindfulness. It is not a religious practice, nor is it tied to a specific set of religious beliefs. An excellent article on Christianity and mindfulness by Dr. Scott Symington can be found in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity if you click here.

Many psychiatrists and psychologists have moved away from the labels of psychiatry—bearing in mind that diagnosis and traditional treatment are often very helpful—to incorporate mindfulness based practices in our work. Dr. Melissa Polusny from the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, and colleagues randomly assigned 116 veterans with PTSD to nine sessions of either mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) therapy or present-centered group therapy, which focused on current life problems.

Dr. Ellis-Jones comments on his blog: "The researchers found that during treatment and in the two months following, MBSR therapy improved PTSD symptoms more than did present-centered group therapy. In fact, those who had MBSR experienced a 49 per cent reduction in PTSD symptoms, compared with a 28 per cent reduction in symptoms among those who had present-centered group therapy."

Mindfulness Therapy: Alternative to Antidepressants

Many psychiatrists like me recommend mindfulness and cognitive therapy to our patients. These two approaches work well together because psychotherapy ("talk therapy" is best when individualized rather than using a "cookbook" approach. One size does not fit all. The legendary British medical journal The Lancet (April 2015 includes a recent scientific paper showing that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) could provide an alternative non-drug treatment for people who do not wish to continue long-term antidepressant treatment. This is one example of brain science at its best.


Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy aims to change the way people think and feel about their experiences. How we think affects how we feel. And the use of mindfulness practice is relatively easy for most people. Just 10-15 minutes two or three times daily makes a difference. The current study compares MBCT with maintenance antidepressant medication for reducing the risk of relapse in depression. The results are encouraging.

The study aimed to establish whether MBCT is superior to maintenance antidepressant treatment in terms of preventing relapse of depression. Although the findings show that MBCT isn't always more effective than maintenance antidepressant treatment in preventing relapse of depression, the results, combined with those of previous trials, suggest that MCBT may offer similar protection against relapse or recurrence for people who have experienced multiple episodes of depression, with no significant difference in cost.

"Mindfulness gives me a set of skills which I use to keep well in the long term. Rather than relying on the continuing use of antidepressants mindfulness puts me in charge, allowing me to take control of my own future, to spot when I am at risk and to make the changes I need to stay well." — Study Participant

MBCT builds on the insight that when people with a history of depression experience even a brief period of feeling low they tend to be especially vulnerable to negative thinking. That negative thinking is often accompanied by what’s known as “processing biases”: worrying about past problems, for example, or returning to unpleasant memories. Thinking like this raises the risk of a full-blown depressive episode.

MBCT focuses on helping people to become more aware of these thoughts and feelings, and thus better able to gain distance from them. As its founders put it: “We discover that difficult and unwanted thoughts and feelings can be held in awareness, and seen from an altogether different perspective – a perspective that brings with it a sense of warmth and compassion to the suffering we are experiencing.”

Talk Therapy? Medication?

"We are more than a brain in a jar," Dr. Richard Friedman wrote recently in the New York Times. In his timely article about psychiatry, he goes on to say, "Despite a vast investment in basic neuroscience research and its rich intellectual promise, we have little to show for it on the treatment front." He points out that billions are spent on pharmaceutical research — the quest for the magic pills that will change the way we think and feel — but comparatively little money goes to psychotherapy research.

image of poster about pills

I am an old-timer, and when my generation trained in psychiatry virtually all of us planned on being psychotherapists who were well educated in the use of medication as an adjunct to talk therapy. All psychiatrists I knew back then had been in psychotherapy themselves; personal therapy was considered part of becoming a competent clinician: "Physician, know thyself."

If a psychiatrist has a limited vocabulary, and can't conjugate nouns and verbs, how can they possibly communicate with patients?

Research shows that when psychotherapy and medication are both available, the combination is synergistic. It's like saying 1 + 1 = 3. Today, however, fewer than 10% of psychiatrists are trained and skilled in psychotherapy. My opinion is that this is why a good psychiatrist is very hard to find. I have been teaching young psychiatrists for over thirty years, and I have been a training director in one of our finest medical schools, and I can say with authority that many psychiatrists coming out today get failing grades when it comes to important skills like writing, speaking, and communicating clearly. I'm talking about basic errors in English grammar, syntax, and sentence structure — the stuff most people should learn by the time they enter high school! If a psychiatrist has a limited vocabulary, and can't conjugate nouns and verbs, how can they possibly communicate with patients? This is one reason that psychiatrists today are, in general, poor psychotherapists with little interest in what talk therapy has to offer.

Writing in a medical chart is similar to text messaging. It's easy, and grammar doesn't count. In fact, the modern electronic medical record discourages thoughtful writing, just like text messaging does. A good psychiatrist should not only speak well and write well. A good psychiatrist should be a superior thinker and communicator. Every doctor should have a big sign on the wall behind the chair where the patient is sitting: "DOCTOR, YOUR PATIENT IS TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING!"


Here's Dr. Friedman again: "With few exceptions, every major class of current psychotropic drugs — antidepressants, antipsychotics, anti-anxiety medications — basically targets the same receptors and neurotransmitters in the brain as did their precursors, which were developed in the 1950s and 1960s."

"Sure, the newer drugs are generally safer and more tolerable than the older ones, but they are no more effective."

Prescribing a pill is easier and cheaper than offering the patient psychotherapy. Psychiatrists are paid more to prescribe pills than to counsel with patients. It is understandable, then, that the incentive is to see five patients in a single clinic hour. This saves insurance companies a lot of money. Many insurance companies will not even pay for psychotherapy with a qualified psychiatrist. And think about this: if a patient doesn't like the psychiatrist, there are fewer repeat or return visits. The winners are the insurance companies.

Dr. Friedman is also critical of trends in research, not because they are wrong, but because of simplistic logic. "The doubling down on basic neuroscience research" he says, "seems to reflect the premise that if we can unravel the function of the brain, we will have a definitive understanding of the mind and the causes of major psychiatric disorders." He points to an editorial in May in one of the most respected journals in our field, JAMA Psychiatry, emphasizing the brain but not mentioning the mind, the complexity of mental illness, or anything about how psychotherapy scientifically helps the brain. Friedman believes that "an undertaking as ambitious as unraveling the function of the brain would most likely take many years. Moreover, a complete understanding of neurobiology is unlikely to elucidate the complex interactions between genes and the environment that lie at the heart of many mental disorders."

"Anyone who thinks otherwise should remember the Decade of the Brain, which ended 15 years ago without yielding a significant clue about the underlying causes of psychiatric illnesses."
—Professor and Psychiatrist Richard Friedman

Dr. Friedman's article generated a number of replies, including this one from Christopher Lukas, a noted author:

"Over the years, I have had talking therapy for my depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and I don’t believe I would be alive were it not for those sessions. I have also taken a whole range of medications for depression and find that psychotherapy outweighs the benefits of any of those drugs.

"Some psychiatrists and some patients think that drugs are better because they work like aspirin: Take two and call me in the morning. But, as Dr. Friedman pointed out, and as I have experienced, other patients find doses of talking therapy can work well if we’re patient and if we understand that many emotional problems may take time to go away.

"Persistence, willingness to give yourself over to the process and willingness to change therapists if the talk isn’t helping you: These are key to talk therapy’s benefits."


The comments by Lukas remind me of something I pointed out to a patient just last weekend. Asking about Alcoholics Anonymous, she wanted to know what it takes to succeed in finding sobriety through AA. "An easy way to think about it," I said, is to remember the three letters H-O-W." The old AA acronym stands for "honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness."

Another writer, who is a physician herself, also agreed with Dr. Friedman:

"For the past 30 years psychotherapy has been given short shrift as drug therapy has become the treatment of choice. There are many reasons for this, but the most powerful are economic.

"Doctors can manage medication for many more patients in a day than they can treat with psychotherapy. More important, pharmaceutical companies, which profit from the drug sales, support research, thus providing funds to psychiatry departments that receive no similar support for psychotherapy research.
Sadly, in the past generation or two there has been a huge loss in professional expertise as fewer psychiatry residency programs provide top-notch psychotherapy education and supervision.

"Twenty-eight years ago I went to medical school planning a career in child psychiatry. My interest had been primed by fascinating conversations I’d heard in high school between my father, a psychoanalyst, and his colleagues.
My medical school psychiatry rotation was a disappointment. There was no attempt to solve the riddles of patients’ emotions and behavior, only the adjustment of medication doses to treat symptoms. Still wanting to solve puzzles, I chose a career in radiology.

"When my father died, I was tremendously moved to hear some of his patients who attended his funeral tell me how the treatment he provided had profoundly changed their lives. Psychotherapy should be an integral part of psychiatric training."

Since I do both — I am a psychotherapist who prescribes medication when appropriate — it's understandable that I agree with Dr. Friedman. It's also true that I practice this way because that approach provides the best care for the brain, the mind, and the whole person.

Those Danged Cognitive Distortions

Lately I've been discussing CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, with a number of people, and the topic of cognitive distortions has come up several times. For convenience, I'm posting here the list of the common thinking patterns that generate distress and reduce psychological well being. In Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, this sort of problem is called "stinkin' thinkin'." See the links page for recommended sites on CBT and many other topics.

1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and-white categories. If performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself or others as total failures.
2. OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Phrases like "You always …" or "You never …" exemplify overgeneralization.
3. MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and obsess on it so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors an entire glass of water.
4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. Often this manifests as making excuses when somebody pays you a compliment.
5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion often a "wait and see" attitude is called for in these situations.
MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude (usually by personalizing their behavior) that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don't bother to check this out.
THE FORTUNE TELLER ERROR: You often anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
6. MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your achievements or someone else's goof up), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own character defects or other people's acceptable behavior). This is also called the "binocular trick."
7. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You allow your negative emotions to color how you see the world with an "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
8. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself or others with should and shouldn't, as if needing be whipped and punished before you could be expected anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders. The emotional consequences are guilt. When you
direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment as do they!
9. LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. "I'm a loser." When someone else's behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him "He's a dumb jerk!" Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and
emotionally loaded, and generally not factually descriptive.
10. PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

My generation of psychiatrists was the first to break with the old-fashioned, unscientific model known as Freudian psychoanalysis—the stereotype of the patient lying on the couch for years and being "analyzed" by the shrink. For some reason, our generation just didn't see this as very helpful or useful. Psychoanalysis in its pure form means 4-5 visits a week to the psychoanalyst, and the typical course of therapy is measured in years! There were no outcome studies proving the effectiveness of this approach. We really wanted something that would produce results, and an approach that the average person could afford.

Dr. Ben Martin at PsychCentral describes the new, scientific talk therapy this way: Cognitive behavioral therapy (also known by its abbreviation, CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel. It is used to help treat a wide range of issues in a person’s life, from sleeping difficulties or relationship problems, to drug and alcohol abuse or anxiety and depression. CBT works by changing people’s attitudes and their behavior by focusing on the thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes that we hold (our cognitive processes) and how this relates to the way we behave, as a way of dealing with emotional problems.

An important advantage of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it tends to be short, taking four to seven months for most emotional problems. Clients attend one session per week, each session lasting approximately 50 minutes. During this time, the client and therapist are working together to understand what the problems are and to develop a new strategy for tackling them. CBT introduces them to a set of principles that they can apply whenever they need to, and which will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be thought of as a combination of psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. Psychotherapy emphasizes the importance of the personal meaning we place on things and how thinking patterns begin in childhood. Behavioral therapy pays close attention to the relationship between our problems, our behavior and our thoughts.

Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention

Dr. Sarah Bowen has published a study on mindfulness and relapse prevention in JAMA Psychiatry, a specialty journal of the American Medical Association. According to Bowen, substance abuse is another example of that too-human automatic drive to move toward pleasure and away from pain—one that affects an estimated 24 million Americans, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Traditional treatment for substance abuse often focuses on avoiding or controlling triggers that result in negative emotion or craving. While research has shown that this approach can help, substance abuse relapse remains a problem: about half of those who seek treatment are using again within a year.

Bowen has spent much of her career studying another approach: mindfulness, which involves cultivating moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. She and her colleagues have developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), which combines practices like sitting meditation with standard relapse prevention skills, such as identifying events that trigger relapse. Rather than fighting or avoiding the difficult states of mind that arise when withdrawing from a substance, this combination tries to help participants to name and tolerate craving and negative emotion.

But how do mindfulness-based approaches compare to traditional substance abuse treatments? And do mindfulness-based treatments work for everyone? Researchers like Bowen are beginning to answer these questions.

Here is the key to the success of the program: MBRP helps people to relate differently to their thoughts, and use tools to disengage from automatic, addictive behaviors.

The JAMA Psychiatry article describes how effective the Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention program is in comparison to a standard relapse-prevention program as well as a conventional 12-step program. Six months following the intervention, the mindfulness-based program and the standard relapse-prevention program were both more successful at reducing relapse than the 12-step program. One year later, the mindfulness-based program proved better than the other two in reducing drinking and drug use.

Bowen says that when people cultivate mindfulness, they’re developing a tool to become aware of that inclination to want only pleasurable things and escape uncomfortable things. Mindfulness also helps people learn to relate to discomfort differently. When an uncomfortable feeling like a craving or anxiety arises, people like Sophia are able to recognize their discomfort, and observe it with presence and compassion, instead of automatically reaching for a drug to make it go away. Bowen says that awareness of our experience and the ability to relate to our experience with compassion gives us more freedom to choose how we respond to discomfort, rather than defaulting to automatic behaviors.

More research is needed to determine why MBRP might be more successful than other programs in reducing substance abuse relapse, but Bowen speculates that MBRP holds an advantage because mindfulness is a tool that can be applied to all aspects of one’s life.

Standard relapse-prevention programs teach tools specific to struggles with substance abuse—for instance, how to deal with cravings or how to say no when someone offers you drugs. A year after completing the program, a person may have a very different set of challenges that the relapse-prevention program did not equip them to deal with.
But because mindfulness is a tool that can be used in every part of a person’s life, practicing moment-to-moment awareness could continue to be an effective coping tool.

James Davis and his colleagues at Duke University are investigating mindfulness training as a way to help people quit smoking. Davis speculates that mindfulness is likely an effective tool in helping people with addiction because it’s a single, simple skill that a person can practice multiple times throughout their day, every day, regardless of the life challenges that arise. With so much opportunity for practice—rather than, say, only practicing when someone offers them a cigarette—people can learn that skill deeply.

Their intervention results showed a significant difference in smoking cessation for people who completed the intervention, as compared to people who were given nicotine patches and counseling from the Tobacco Quit Line.

Both Bowen and Davis emphasize that mindfulness is not a panacea; it doesn’t always work for everyone.

Dr. Zev Schuman-Olivier and his colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Addiction Medicine suggest that the type of therapy a person responds to may have something to do with their disposition. People who had the tendency to treat thoughts and behaviors with non-judgment and acceptance before the intervention began were more likely to be successful in reducing smoking following the mindfulness training. They write that if a person already has the skill to treat the self with non-judgment and acceptance, learning mindfulness practices likely comes easier to them than someone who has not previously practiced this skill.

Ultimately, the type of therapy that works best for a given person will likely capitalize on their pre-disposed strengths.Of course, as Bowen and Davis both note, the skills of mindfulness can be taught to everyone. But Schuman-Olivier’s finding suggests that people who are not oriented toward mindfulness may need a more vigorous or lengthy intervention, in order to more thoroughly learn mindfulness skills. It may be the case that people with less disposition toward mindfulness would fare better with a different therapy.

Another predictor of success in mindfulness-based treatment could be a person’s motivation to engage in the therapy. In Davis’ study, the people that started the intervention with the highest level of nicotine addiction were the most successful in reducing smoking by the end of the treatment. Davis said that this seemingly counterintuitive result likely reflects their motivation to quit; the people that were the most addicted had, at that point, tried everything, and were willing to try their hardest to make this therapy work. Meanwhile, people that were less addicted saw their addiction as less of a problem. They reasoned, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll be ok—something else will work, eventually.” As a result, they were likely less motivated to quit, and less engaged in the therapy.

Changing the Brain

Current neuroscience reveals that both psychotherapy and psychiatric medications produce positive changes in the brain. Research at UCLA demonstrates that people who suffered from depression had abnormally high activity in the prefrontal cortex.  Psychotherapy patients who improved show more nearly normal brain activity in this hyperactive region. For obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) was associated with a decrease in the hyperactivity of the caudate nucleus, and the effect was most evident in people who had a good response to CBT.  In other words, the better the therapy seemed to work, the more the brain activity changed.
People with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) tend to have a decrease in a type of brain tissue called grey matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  OCD researchers in the Netherlands provided 16 sessions of CBT, and found significant increases in gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex.  This seems to suggest that the CFS patients were able to “recover” some gray matter volume after CBT.

The bottom line: Although medication and psychotherapy appear to work their magic in difference places, the results are positive for both. The mechanism of action remains unclear, but studies also show that the combination of psychotherapy and the right medication (getting it right is very important!) is an excellent approach for many individuals. As the brain changes, we see the production of new proteins, which change our brains through neuroplasticity.   In selecting a treatment strategy, sometimes medication works best, sometimes psychotherapy is the best option, and sometimes it’s a combination of the two. 

Treatment Philosophy

My work includes general psychiatric problems like anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, family conflict, childhood behavior, stress, and other issues. Many people know me through my work as a specialist in the treatment of alcoholism and other addictions or chemical dependencies.

My approach to psychiatric practice reflects many years studying human nature and working to help people who are having a hard time in life. By the time most people see a psychiatrist, they are worried, or they are sad, or they are very confused about something I will just call “the problem,” or “the complaint.” Let me make some general comments about my approach, and then I will discuss my thinking on the use of medications.

People seek psychiatric help for a variety of problems, but everyone wants the same result: to feel better, to think more clearly, to rediscover satisfaction and happiness, and to regain a sense of self control and personal freedom. The problem may be related to mood, energy level, motivation, sleep, worry, relationships, anger, troubled behavior, obsessions, compulsions -- it’s a long list. People who drink too much, use drugs, or misuse prescription medication are often using these chemicals to find relief. Alcoholism and substance abuse are widespread in our culture.

Dealing with life is never easy.

Most persons first try to solve the problem or deal with the complaint on their own. Frustrated that things aren’t improving, they may seek advice from others. Sometimes a person hides the problem or lives in silence with the complaint. They may read a book, go to a support group, consult the internet, or try a new religious practice. We all have problems and complaints, and we all do the best we can to solve the dilemmas of life. When someone calls me about consultation, I almost always hear them say that they have a problem, they have tried to solve the problem, and they are looking for someone who knows how to help make things better.

One of the individuals consulting with me said, “I feel like I’m in a box, and the directions for getting out of the box are printed -- on the outside of the box.”

A successful airline pilot, a Vietnam combat veteran, said, “Doc, I’m out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas.”

Often the person seeking help has waited so long that demoralization has begun to set in, and they are beginning to lose hope. This doesn’t mean that the individual is suicidal or, in fact, any more unhappy than many of the people at the workplace or in the neighborhood. It means that they are resigned to always feeling this way, never feeling any better than this. Demoralization means a state of mind in which a person considers accepting fate, giving up, and abandoning the idea that things can get better.

Fear, anger, resentment, feeling constantly wounded, feeling overwhelmed, feeling unappreciated, feeling worthless -- all of these emotions are part of our lives. But when we feel negative all the time, or most of the time, most days, then we need help. There are very few emotional problems that defy intelligent therapy and reasonable efforts toward a solution.

When I meet someone for the first time in consultation, I have three major concerns. First, I want to get to know the person and hear about the problem are the complaint. My first question usually is simply, “How can I help?” or “What brings you to see me?” Second, I want to explore the individual’s point of view or understanding of the problem, including what solutions have been attempted. Third, I want to consider what we can do, working together, to improve the situation. I tend to focus more on results than on reasons. I’m not always sure about why things happen, but I am very focused on what we can do now. Sometimes I explain in detail how the brain works, and sometimes I discuss how life works. The process of recovery involves growth, change, and even personal transformation.

Research shows that psychotherapy can help, medication can help, and intelligent problem solving helps. Psychotherapy is not for everyone, and medication is not for everyone, but the vast majority of people who want help can find it. One of my favorite expressions is, “You have to do it yourself, but you can’t do it alone.”

Over the years I have developed a style that I call “sober conversation.” The word “sober” does not apply just to alcohol and addictions. To be sober is to be serious, to focus on what is most important, and to try to get it right. I believe in the importance of what we care about, and in this regard I have seriously studied the specific problem of human will. I call it “the problem of human will” because we are often confused about what we will ourselves to do, or not to do. When I work as a psychotherapist, I am most interested in what people care about, how their beliefs and assumptions about life have been formed, and where they feel stuck or at odds with themselves. Sometimes we have conflicting feelings about the same thing. For example, someone wants to take life in a certain direction, but he or she feels conflicted about it. Or someone tries to solve a problem, not realizing that it’s part of a bigger problem, or a different kind of problem. My definition of psychotherapy is that it is a form of personal consultation, focused on the situation of the client, with the goal of solving problems and feeling better.

Not everyone is cut out for in-depth or long-term conversation. Some people like to come for a few visits, and some like to keep going for weeks, or even months on a weekly basis. Some people prefer to come two or three times a week because they want to do the work and get on with whatever is next. Some people come for an hour, and some come for an afternoon.

Psychotherapy does take time, because the process is basically two people getting to know each other in the context of a specific purpose. Psychotherapy at its best is about taking life seriously, getting it right, and feeling the satisfaction that comes from clarity of thought, commitment to integrity, and comfort with the complexity of one’s own emotions and ideas. Some say that psychotherapy is a dying art, and this may be true. Psychiatrists today (and perhaps psychologists as well) do not receive the extensive training in psychotherapy that we did thirty years ago. Many psychiatrists and psychologists are not interested in psychotherapy. And many psychotherapists are not really very good or very well trained. Today there are thousands of people who call themselves “life coaches,” and anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself a “life coach.” There are several private organizations that offer “certifications,” but there are no license requirements, there is no government regulation, and no educational standard that is generally accepted. For these reasons, I think the concept makes sense, but in practice let the buyer beware -- caveat emptor!

Medications can be very helpful in treating some specific psychiatric problems. Today we have excellent medications for anxiety, depression, moodswings, insomnia, attention deficit disorder, and other conditions. Bipolar disorder, for example, is a devastating condition that can be very effectively managed with medication, restoring individuals to a life of normalcy and stability. I have absolutely no doubt about the value of psychiatric medications. I also believe that what is most important is getting the right diagnosis and the correct strategy for intervention and treatment. I see many people who have been misdiagnosed, and even mistreated, because they have not been well assessed. Assessment can take time, and I never jump to conclusions about diagnosis. After knowing someone for a few weeks, together we may decide that we see the condition in a different way.

Psychiatric medications are powerful, effective tools when used properly, but they also have side-effects, and they are expensive. Getting the right medication for the right diagnosis is extremely important. And there is an old saying from Hippocrates, creator of The Hippocratic Oath: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.“