Editors’ Note: Curbside Consult is an occasional column aimed at helping psychiatrists think through family and cultural considerations when treating patients. It examines case vignettes and is written by two Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) committees – the Committee on Family Psychiatry and the Committee on Cultural Psychiatry. The contributors have revised selected patient details to shield the identities of the patients/cases and to comply with HIPAA requirements.
Bill is a 25-year-old man of Chinese descent who sought psychiatric evaluation of his psychosis risk. His parents emigrated from China to Canada more than 30 years ago; Bill was born in Canada, and moved to the United States with his parents and two siblings at age 7.
His family has a strong history of mental illness. His older sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia; she frequently got into verbal altercations with her parents. When Bill was 15, she walked out of the house after a fight with the family and never returned. Bill’s family thinks his father has had paranoid delusions. In the past, he attempted to call the police multiple times because he suspected the neighbors had planted a listening device in his front yard. The family stopped him from making the actual calls. However, the family never brought him to psychiatric evaluation because of perceived stigma and social discrimination in their community. He also was emotionally and physically abusive to Bill during his childhood by calling him names and hitting him with a belt. As an adult, Bill still has posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance when thinking about his father.
Bill identifies himself as Chinese American and speaks English only. He often perceives himself as a newcomer to U.S. society, making comments such as: “I guess I should live my life like this to fulfill the American dream.” Bill’s parents placed a strong emphasis on academic success, often at the expense of their children’s social interaction and playtime activities. Bill describes himself as a “loner” with few friends. He maintained high academic achievement during high school and was accepted by a prestigious college. Although he was interested in music composition, Bill was “forced” by his parents to major in courses deemed good preparation for law school.
During college, he suffered severe depression with insomnia, low energy, hopelessness, anhedonia, social withdrawal, poor appetite with weight loss, and ruminative thoughts but without delusional thoughts or perceptual disturbances. He had one near-lethal suicide attempt, during which he impulsively took the contents of an entire bottle of Tylenol in the context of family conflicts, resulting in psychiatric hospitalization. Bill recalled with animosity the inpatient psychiatrists who put him on psychotropic medications during a 3-day hospitalization. He was not adherent to the medication and did not follow up with postdischarge outpatient care. He did not remember the medication trial he had during the hospitalization, nor did he give consent to obtain medical records from there. Bill withdrew from college in sophomore year, because of his declining academic performance secondary to his mental illness. He currently works at a gas station.
Over the last year, Bill’s interpersonal communication has become disorganized in both work and social settings, and he has developed thought blocking, causing him substantial distress. He intermittently hears voices of strangers in the background; these have gradually become more frequent, now occurring 3-4 times a week. Bill also is more depressed, with frequent crying episodes and worsening social isolation. He often thinks that life is not worth living, but he has no active suicidal plans or intent.
Bill’s supervisor and coworkers strongly suggested that he seek medical evaluation. As an outpatient, Bill started weekly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and biweekly medication sessions for early psychosis symptoms, receiving low-dose risperidone (1 mg b.i.d.) and fluoxetine (20 mg daily). Despite initial improvement, he was very skeptical about continuing the medications because of concern that they will cause a “change in his identity” by altering his body chemistry. His parents have been reluctant to join family meetings, because they were ambivalent about Bill’s ongoing psychiatric treatment.