In the initial interviews with patients who suffer psychotic symptoms, it might be striking that the usage of terminology of descriptive psychopathology lingers on an arbitration of knowledge of 'truth' by using terms like delusions or hallucinations with their definition as false beliefs or false perceptions (Casey & Kelly 2007). These terms can cause annihilation of value to patient's experience, which may pose an initial strain on the egalitarian patient-doctor relationship. In an era, where deference to experts is dead, it might be worthy on agreeing on the effect of these experiences prior to lablelling them. Delusions can not be objectively detected and described, because it evolves and exists within subjective and interpersonal dimensions. Severe psycopathological symptoms share the fact that they are statistically deviant, and thus can be labeled as 'unshared'. Symptoms may be perceived as 'distressing' and they might be 'disabling' to them. The outcome behaviour which may raise concern can be a 'dysfunctional' behaviour (Adams & Sutker 2004).
Jaspers considered the lack of understandability of how the patient reached conclusion to be the defining factor of a delusional idea. The notion of defining 'delusion' as false belief was challenged by Jaspers. Sims gives the example of a man who believed his wife was unfaithful to him because the fifth lamp-post alone on the left was unlit. What makes it a delusion is the methodology not the conclusion which may be right (Sims 1991).
Some delusions might be mundane in their content, others may not be falsifiable. Dereistic thinking is not based on logic but rather on feelings. It is possible to find ways to evade falsification; an ad hoc hypotheses may also be part of the presentation. Fish stated that delusional elaboration may follow delusion and/or hallucination which may have convergence with the concept of the ad hoc hypothesis. Absence of verification from the patient's side does not lead to deductive falsification (Casey & Kelly 2007). Otherwise, the doctor-patient relationship carry the risk to transform to detective-suspect relationship, where the latter may perceive the need to present evidence of innocence. Mental health professionals are usually encountered by people who suffer to various degrees or make others suffer, and not because of various degrees of conviction. The primary role of the therapist is to be defined as some one who tries to alleviate the sufferings of others rather than correcting their beliefs. Communicating with patients in terms of how functional is their belief rather than it's truth may prove to be more egalitarian and clinically tuned. This may provide some middle ground in communication, without having to put an effort on defining the differences between what is 'true' and what is 'real'.
The criterion for demarcation between what is real and what is pathologic may be different in the patient-doctor relationship. The assertion on the clinician's part on the falsity of a belief or experience can have the risk of dogmatism. The statistical deviance of symptoms, their distressing nature, disabling consequences, the resultant dysfunctional behaviour and apparent leap from evidence to conclusion may be a more agreeable surrogate starting points. This might be more in line with essence of medicine or 'ars medicina' (art of healing). Concordance with patients on their suffering may serve as an egalitarian platform prior to naming the symptoms.
The term delusion commonly identified as false fixed belief, when used by a psychiatrist, it does not address only a symptom. It rather puts the interviewer in the position of an all knowing judge. After all, a service-user may argue that how come a doctor who never encountered or experienced any of the service-user's aspects of the problem as being persecuted at work and home, as plainly false. Then, does the psychiatrist know the truth. From a service-user point of view what he/she experience is real; which might not necessarily be true. The same applies for people who lead an average life, people who go to work bearing with them their superstitions, beliefs about ghosts, luck, horoscopes, zodiacs, or various revered beliefs.
This term has the risk of creating a temporary crack in the mutual sense of equality between the therapist and the service-user. This may be due to the labelling of certain dysfunctional belief as unreal by one side. It has the potential for a subtle change in the relationship to the mental health professional placing himself/herself in the omniscient position and it contrasts with the essence of medical practice where practitioners assume the truth in what the patients say as in the rest of subjective symptoms as headache for example. The subsequent sequel of this is other labels such as 'bizarre delusions' or 'systematised delusions', further add to the deviation of the role of the professional therapist to an investigator in the domain of 'Truth' and architecture of 'Truth'. Furthermore, it might be strenuous to the relationship when the therapist - based on skeptic enquiry - starts explaining such symptoms. For example, if the service-user believes that Martians have abducted him, implanted a device in his brain and sent him/her back to earth, and the response communicated back is the 'delusional'. It could be argued by the service-user that the therapist who had not seen a Martian or a brain device before, labelled the whole story as 'delusion' in a rather perceived dismissive labelling with no intention to check on the existence of Martians or the device. In other words, the healer became the arbiter of truth, where both lack evidence for or against the whole thing; one member in the relationship stepped into power on basis of subjective view of plausibility or lack of thereof.
In the case of hallucinations, the clinician labelling the patient's experience as hallucinations can be imposing fundamental dilemma for the patient. For example, if a patient hears a voice that says that everything is unreal apart from the voice, and the clinician says that the voice is the thing that is unreal. Both do not give evidence to their 'truth' apart from their statement. The clinician's existence to the patient's subjective reality is distorted by the multiple realities of the patient, and arguing on basis of mere existence that the 'voice' is the one that is 'false', does not give the patient a clue of the future methodology to discern from both, since percetption is deceived and/or distorted. In this case, another tool of the mind can be employed to address the patient.
The same can be applied to a concept like 'over valued ideas', where the clinician decides that this particular idea is 'over valued', or that this 'idea' is 'over valued' in a pathological way. The value put on these ideas or not the patient values but the clinician's evaulation of 'value' and 'pathology'. The cut of point of 'value' and 'over value' seems to be subjective from the clinician's perspective. Also, 'derailment' pauses the notion of expecting a certain direction of talk. The concepts of 'grooming' and 'eye contact' implicitly entail the reference to a socio-cultural normative values. Thus, deviation from the normative value is reflected to the patient as pathology, which is an ambiguous definition, in comparison to the clarity of pathology.
The usage of terms like 'dysfunctional unshared belief' or 'distressing auditory perception' or other related terms that address the secondary effect of a pathologic experience may be helpful to engage with the patient, and may be more logically plausible and philosophically coherent yet require empirical validation of beneficence. Taylor and Vaidya mention that it is often helpful to normalise, but this is not to minimise or be dismissive of patient's delusional beliefs.(Taylor & Vaidya 2009). The concept can be extended to cover other terms such as 'autistic thinking, 'apathy', 'blunting of affect', 'poor grooming', 'over-valued ideas', other terms can be applied to communicate these terms with service-users with minimal deviation from the therapeutic relationship.
The limitation of these terms in communication of psychopathology are special circumstances as folie a deux, where a dysfunctional belief seems to be shared with others Also, symptoms such as Charles-Bonnet syndrome; usually does not have negative consequences. The proposed terms are not intended for use as a replacement to well carved descriptive psychopathological terms. Terms like 'delusion' or 'hallucination' are of value in teaching psychopathology. However in practice, meaningful egalitarian communication may require some skill in selecting suitable terms that is more than simplifying jargon. They also may carry the burden of having to add to the psychiatric terminology with subsequent effort in learning them. They can also be viewed as 'euphemism' or 'tautology'. However, this has been the case from 'hysteria' to 'medically unexplained symptoms' which seems to match with the zeitgeist of an era where 'Evidence Based Medicine' is its mantra; regardless advances in treatment. Accuracy of terminology might be necessary to match with essence of scientific enquiry; systematic observation and accurate taxonomy.
The author does not expect that such proposal would be an easy answer to difficulties in communication during practice. This article may open a discussion on the most effective and appropriate terms that can be used while communicating with patients. Also, it might be more in-line with an egalitarian approach to seek to the opinion of service-users and professional bodies that represent the opinions of service-users. Empirical validation and subjection of the concept to testing is necessary. Patient's care should not be based on logic alone but rather on evidence. Despite the limitations of such proposal with regards to completeness, it's hoped that the introduction of any term may help to add to the main purpose of any classification or labelling that is accurate egalitarian communication.
This blog is adapted from BMJ doc2doc clinical blogs
Philosophical Streamlining of Psychopathology and its Clinical Implications
The blog is based on an article named 'Towards a More Egalitarian Approach to Communicating Psychopathology' which is published in the Journal of Ethics in Mental Health, 2013
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Sims A., Symptoms in the mind, (1991) an introduction to psychopathology, Baillere Tindall
Taylor and Vaidya (2009), Descriptive psychopathology, the signs and symptoms of behavioral disorders, Cambridge university press