Mental Health Consult

Policy Segment 3: When depression is the differential diagnosis for distress


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People in this video: Dr. James Griffith, the Leon M. Yochelson Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and chair of psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington; Whitney McKnight, cohost and producer of Mental Health Consult.

Whitney: I think we need to step back and define mental illness. For that, I’m going to go to you, Griff, because I think it’s important that we remember not all primary care doctors really do have an understanding of the nuances to definitions of mental health.

You and I were having a discussion about “How do you define depression?” There’s clinical diagnosis of it, but then there are other ways that it gets used.

Dr. James Griffith: There’s a big push in medical education to shorten it, to do more in less time, but this is complex. There has not been much acknowledgment of the complexity. I’ll give you two difficult scenarios.

“Huge numbers of people treated in primary care who would have high scores on the PHQ-9 are in fact just lonely.” – Dr. James GriffithOne is disorder versus distress. If you simply download a Patient Health Questionnaire-9 off the Internet, give it to people: They have a high score; we say they’re depressed, give them an antidepressant. Huge numbers of people in primary care who would have high depression scores, in fact, are lonely; they’re in abusive relationships; they’re grieving losses; they are demoralized because their aspirations in life won’t take place – none of these problems are helped by an antidepressant.

Medical students, or for that matter, psychiatry residents, are not well taught in how to distinguish disorder from distress. All of these are solvable problems. There’s sort of a myth of the depressed patient that if only we would recognize depressed people, give them a prescription, everything would be okay, but it doesn’t.

Whitney: How do you teach that, then? What is missing in the curriculum?

Dr. Griffith: It’s a little bit like what Dr. Kirschner said about money and teams. You don’t have teams, if you don’t have funding. You don’t have teaching, if you don’t have time, and that’s one of our first issues.

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