Cases That Test Your Skills

Command hallucinations, but is it really psychosis?

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Due to intense family conflicts, Ms. D, age 26, often is suicidal. She has been hospitalized >25 times, and has received varying diagnoses and medication regimens. How would you help her?



CASE Frequent hospitalizations

Ms. D, age 26, presents to the emergency department (ED) after drinking a bottle of hand sanitizer in a suicide attempt. She is admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit, where she spends 50 days, followed by a transfer to a step-down unit, where she spends 26 days. Upon discharge, her diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder–bipolar type.

Shortly before this, Ms. D had intentionally ingested 20 vitamin pills to “make her heart stop” after a conflict at home. After ingesting the pills, Ms. D presented to the ED, where she stated that if she were discharged, she would kill herself by taking “better pills.” She was then admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit, where she spent 60 days before being moved to an extended-care step-down facility, where she resided for 42 days.

HISTORY A challenging past

Ms. D has a history of >25 psychiatric hospitalizations with varying discharge diagnoses, including schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), and borderline intellectual functioning.

Ms. D was raised in a 2-parent home with 3 older half-brothers and 3 sisters. She was sexually assaulted by a cousin when she was 12. Ms. D recalls one event of self-injury/cutting behavior at age 15 after she was bullied by peers. Her family history is significant for schizophrenia (mother), alcohol use disorder (both parents), and bipolar disorder (sister). Her mother, who is now deceased, was admitted to state psychiatric hospitals for extended periods.

Her medication regimen has changed with nearly every hospitalization but generally has included ≥1 antipsychotic, a mood stabilizer, an antidepressant, and a benzodiazepine (often prescribed on an as-needed basis). Ms. D is obese and has difficulty sleeping, hypothyroidism, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hypertension, and iron deficiency anemia. She receives medications to manage each of these conditions.

Ms. D’s previous psychotic symptoms included auditory command hallucinations. These occurred under stressful circumstances, such as during severe family conflicts that often led to her feeling abandoned. She reported that the “voice” she heard was usually her own instructing her to “take pills.” There was no prior evidence of bizarre delusions, negative symptoms, or disorganized thoughts or speech.

During episodes of decompensation, Ms. D did not report symptoms of mania, sustained depressed mood, or anxiety, nor were these symptoms observed. Although Ms. D endorsed suicidal ideation with a plan, intent, and means, during several of her previous ED presentations, she told clinicians that her intent was not to end her life but rather to evoke concern in her family members.

Continue to: After her mother died...


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