Consult-Liaison Observations Systems

Demoralization and Status.

This TikTok video provides an accurate (and shouty) summary of the National Guard member who leaked classified military documents. In short, it appears that the Airman shared these documents in an effort to elevate his status within an online cohort. (Someone on the internet opined something like, “This was a cosmic level of stepping on a rake that hits you in the face.” Correct.)

We all have engaged in behaviors to heighten our position in relation to others. Depending on who you ask, some argue that we are constantly adjusting our behaviors to communicate and maximize our status.

Our perception of our own status is not always accurate. It seems that we sometimes exert tremendous effort to demonstrate high status to make ourselves feel better, rather than to assert that we have higher rank than others. (Much research has been done to show how humans assess and react to status.)

Maybe it’s a stretch to link demoralization and status to each other, though this is what has come to my mind over the past few weeks. Demoralization is usually framed as an individual process, whereas status involves groups of people.

Merriam-Webster provides the following definitions:

  • demoralization: weakened morale; to be discouraged or dispirited
  • status: position or rank in relation to others

I’ve written about demoralization before, though it was more in reference to individuals experiencing medical illness. The paper I reference in that post offers this definition of demoralization:

the “various degrees of helplessness, hopelessness, confusion, and subjective incompetence” that people feel when sensing that they are failing their own or others’ expectations for coping with life’s adversities. Rather than coping, they struggle to survive.

This is where I might be speaking out of turn: Is it fair to apply principles usually applied to a single person, particularly one’s intrapsychic processes, to groups of people? (Would I be a true psychiatrist if I didn’t use the word “intrapsychic“?)

But let’s consider this together. I’m starting with the Airman, but that isn’t actually the point of this post.

What if that Airman was feeling demoralized? Within his Discord group, he may have been able to rely on his age to maintain high status. What teenager doesn’t think a 21 year-old person is cool? But what if group dynamics shifted and, suddenly, the Airman was no longer the proverbial “alpha”, but had been demoted to a “beta”?

In an effort to restore his status, he might have employed any one of the strategies to reduce his vulnerability:

The sharing of classified military documents isn’t a demonstration of resilience, but it is a display of power that produces postures of coherence, agency, and courage. In sharing classified papers that only he has access to, he is dissolving any confusion he or anyone else may have about his “rightful” status. To combat feelings of helplessness, he demonstrated agency to provide evidence of his power. It takes some flavor of courage (…) to share sensitive information. By sharing these documents with his Discord cohort, he facilitated communion, established a purpose for himself, and got to bask in the gratitude of his friends. What a way to escape the isolation that accompanies a degradation of status!

So let’s consider other things that are happening in the nation that might be reactions to demoralization and efforts to reinstate high status: states banning TikTok, banning abortions at six weeks, protecting access to transgender care.

Again, is it fair to apply individual, intrapsychic processes to groups of people, particularly groups of people in politics? (But aren’t political groups comprised of individual people?)

The passage of laws—something that feels real and concrete—brings coherence and fosters communion! It brings hope and purpose! Doing something—exhibiting agency—summons courage and generates gratitude! Your rank in relation to others feels like it is rising. Even though there are people who will view your actions as further erosion of your status, it doesn’t matter: You feel better. You feel more power.

The passage of laws reduces confusion, despair, and helplessness. Instead of feeling isolated, people can channel their feelings of helplessness and resentment into doing something, which makes cowardice evaporate. You may already possess high status—all the other people around you may already defer to you because they view themselves as having lower status. And, yet, if you feel demoralized, the positive regard from others may be insufficient to elevate your own status in your own eyes.

We can never get away from ourselves.

Consult-Liaison Reading

Biased Thoughts.

The only social media platform I have yet to abandon is Twitter. It’s a good example of “variable ratio reinforcement”. Think of a slot machine: People put money into it with hopes of winning a jackpot. A reinforcer increases the likelihood that a specific behavior will happen. Here, the reinforcer is the pay out. The chance of a jackpot makes it more likely that someone will stay and continue to put money into the slot machine. However, the slot machine doesn’t pay out money on a predictable schedule or ratio. Jackpots happen on a variable schedule. This “variable ratio reinforcement” is what keeps people at slot machines (a specific behavior) for hours.

The Twitter algorithm occasionally (on an unpredictable, variable schedule) shows me interesting and useful information. It recently introduced me to a paper called Toward Parsimony in Bias Research: A Proposed Common Framework of Belief-Consistent Information Processing for a Set of Biases. (Though the paper isn’t too jargony, it is wordy… but worth your attention if you like this sort of stuff.) Of course, this paper played right into my biases: I like parsimony (or, more simply put, in a world of Lumpers and Splitters, I am generally on Team Lumper) and I like thinking about biases and how they affect our emotions and behaviors.

The authors argue that bias is embedded in every step we take when we process information. We already have a set of beliefs. Unless we exert deliberate effort, our thinking habits automatically try to confirm what we already believe. This bias manifests in what we pay attention to, how we perceive things, how we evaluate situations, how we reconstruct information, and how we look for new information.

The authors also put forth the idea that most of our biases are forms of confirmation bias. (The list of biases is biased towards Splitters; see this enormous list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia.) As Lumpers, the authors distill common biases down to two:

  • “My experience is a reasonable reference.”
  • “I make correct assessments.”

As a result, they argue that we can significantly reduce our biases “if people were led to deliberately consider the notion and search for information suggesting that their own experience might not be an adequate reference for the respective judgments about others” (see comment above about article wordiness) and “if people deliberately considered the notion that they do not make correct assessments”.

My mind then ties these biases into the primary framework of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying and changing thoughts to then alter emotions and behaviors. The three “categories” of “thought targets” include:

  • core beliefs (things we believe about ourselves, other people, and the world that come from our past experiences)
  • dysfunctional assumptions (we tend to believe “negative” things, rather than “positive” things)
  • automatic negative thoughts (these are “habits of thought” that we are often unaware of; much of CBT focuses on recognizing and identifying these thoughts)

(This is a common complaint about CBT: “So you’re telling me that my problem is that I think ‘wrong’ thoughts. Thanks a lot.”)

If it is true that biases can be reduced to only two, then can we assume that these two beliefs—that we ourselves are reasonable reference points and that we make correct assessments—should be common “thought targets” in CBT? Instead of chasing down every single “automatic negative thought”, could we instead focus on these two common beliefs? (I see value in reframing it this way. Labeling something as an “automatic negative thought” can preclude the value that the thought has in our daily lives. For example, I might have the automative “negative” thought, “I am not entirely safe when I go outside.” However, this automatic thought—which may have led me to take self-defense classes and always monitor my surroundings—may have contributed to me staying out of harm’s way. Astute readers will note that my example included the word “entirely”. It is up for debate about whether the inclusion of that word makes it an adaptive, nuanced thought or a true “negative” automatic thought.)

Focusing on these two beliefs seems to tread into Buddhist psychological thought, too. From a lens of impermanence, are thoughts even real? Can they be sustained? Our ideas—our thoughts—can be reasonable in one moment, and completely unreasonable in the next. Same with our assessments: New data and new context can make our assessments wrong in a moment. And what about non-self? Can we even speak of “my reasonable reference” and “my correct assessments” if, in fact, there is no “self”? And aren’t thoughts yet another concept that keep us trapped in suffering?

So, I think there are three main ideas to take from this post:

  • Twitter has some value, some of the time, and is an excellent demonstration of variable ratio reinforcement.
  • You might be able to significantly reduce your cognitive bias if you adopt two habits of thought: (1) Look for evidence that your own experience is inadequate when assessing other people and situations, and (2) Look for evidence that you do not make correct assessments.
  • An oldie but goodie: You can’t always believe what you think.
Consult-Liaison Nonfiction

Delirium Adventures with ChatGPT.

I still think one of the most valuable skills psychiatrists have is to help distinguish psychiatric illness from “delirium”, which, for the purposes of this post, we can call “acute brain failure”. Other organs can abruptly stop working for a variety of reasons. Hepatitis infections can cause acute liver failure; dehydration can lead to acute kidney failure; we’re all familiar with acute heart failure, too.

Delirium is a symptom of an underlying medical condition. It’s like a fever or a cough: Many conditions can cause fevers or coughs, so you have to seek out the “real” reason. When people develop delirium, their thinking, behavior, and levels of consciousness change abruptly. People can get confused about who or where they are; they might start seeing things or hearing things that aren’t there; sometimes they seem to “space out” for periods of time. These are all vast departures from their usual ways of thinking. (The abruptness here is key; people with dementia may have similar symptoms, but those typically develop over months to years.)

(Fellow psychiatrists and hospital internists recognize that delirium isn’t always that dramatic. Sometimes people are lying quietly in bed, hallucinating and feeling confused, but never behave in a way that would suggest otherwise.)

Because I spent a few years working in medical and surgical units (where the risk of delirium is higher than in the community), it is still my habit to consider delirium when I am meeting with people. Given the disease burdens that people experiencing homelessness and poverty face, this is prudent. (Fellow health care workers might also more likely to believe a psychiatrist when we report that someone might be delirious, rather than psychiatrically ill.)

I wondered if there is any evidence to support that psychiatrists are more likely to detect delirium compared to other health care professionals. Enter ChatGPT.

ChatGPT cited two papers that reported that, yes, psychiatrists are more likely to detect delirium, though shared only the journal and the year, along with a summary of results. I asked for a list of authors for one, thinking that might help narrow down the search. It did not. So then I asked for the title of the two papers.

I could not find either title on Pubmed. This was curious. And concerning.

I then asked ChatGPT to share with me the Pubmed ID (a number assigned to each article) for each paper. Here’s what happened:

ChatGPT said that the first paper, “Detection of Delirium in the Hospital Setting: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Formal Screening Tools”, was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2018. ChatGPT said that the ID was 26944168. In PubMed, this leads to an article called “Probable high prevalence of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2D in Taiwan”.

The second paper reportedly had the title of “Detection of delirium in older hospitalized patients: a comparison of the 3D-CAM and CAM-S assessments with physicians’ diagnoses”. (CAM stands for Confusion Assessment Method, which is a real, validated tool to help measure delirium.) ChatGPT said that the ID was 29691866. In PubMed, this leads to an article called “Gold lotion from citrus peel extract ameliorates imiquimod-induced psoriasis-like dermatitis in murine”. (I did learn that “gold lotion” is “a natural mixed product made from the peels of six citrus fruits, has recently been identified as possessing anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory effects.”)

It makes me wonder how ChatGPT generated these articles and their titles, where it created the summaries from, and where it found the PubMed ID numbers.

Indeed, ChatGPT is artificial, but not so intelligent. And it will take me a bit more time to find the answer to my question.

Consult-Liaison Education

On the Emotion of Anger.

I have no idea if the vicissitudes of life at this moment are more challenging than times past. Perhaps the intensity and quality of suffering in humanity remains unchanged, but now, due to technology and the increased breadth of our situational awareness, we are simply more aware of the degree and scale of human suffering. Our ancestors had no way of knowing as much as we do now.

(Humans, though, have suffered individual and local tragedies for as long as we have existed. Sometimes—often?—these individual tragedies induce greater suffering than we can ever imagine. Consider the parent whose spouse and child have both died. Surely deaths from disease and war affect this person, too, but how do those compare to the indescribable grief and heartbreak from the loss of kin? I don’t know. Someone out there does know. For them, I wish them peace, even if this wish is functionally just a spindly raft in a deep sea of sorrow.)

The range of human emotions is vast. In American culture, certain emotions are more acceptable than others. (This is likely true across all cultures.) And perhaps I should be more precise here: American culture tolerates the expression of certain emotions more than others. For example, American culture is intolerant of men weeping for any reason. We have been conditioned to consider that men who are crying—even for the most valid of reasons—are weak, incompetent, and incapable.

These social norms influence the individual and shape our behavior. If society cannot tolerate my tears, then I will do what I can to avoid crying. This can involve psychological acrobatics to avoid feeling the emotion that induces crying.

The problem is that emotions serve a function. Emotions give us information about the people we are around, the situations we are in, and what matters to us. They help us choose and express our behaviors, even if some of these choices don’t happen entirely consciously.

There’s a concept called “secondary emotions”, which are emotions we feel (and then express) as a result of other emotions. Some examples will help clarify this. (The emotion of anger—and we see so much anger these days—is what prompted this post, so I will use anger in these examples.)

American culture often discourages women from expressing anger. Women who express anger are often called “bitches”, even if their anger is justified. The (antiquated?) phrase “resting bitch face” illustrates this: That woman isn’t really an angry “bitch”, that’s just her face. If a woman feels and expresses the primary emotion of anger, she may then quickly feel and express the secondary emotion of guilt: “I shouldn’t feel anger; it makes me seem like I’m not a nice person. But I want to be a nice person. But maybe I’m not a nice person because nice people don’t get angry like this. So maybe I’m a terrible person. Oh no.” Society is more accepting of a woman’s deferential behavior that may follow. (Those familiar with CBT will recognize black-and-white thinking happening here.)

Similarly, American culture discourages men from expressing sadness. Our culture instead tolerates men expressing anger. Thus, men may actually feel a primary emotion of sadness, but the secondary emotion is anger. Maybe they express anger to counteract their perceived “weakness” for feeling sadness. Maybe they express anger because they know, whether consciously or not, that they are less likely to get want (including respect) if they express sadness.

Anger is also an activating emotion. Recall that emotions can and do drive behavior. When feeling sad, people are generally more likely to withdraw and isolate. Some people who feel sad will reach out to others for support, but sadness usually pulls people inward. When feeling angry, people are generally more likely to do something and take initiative. Feeling angry makes people feel more powerful.

Consider someone stomping down a hallway and throwing open a door while exiting. This behavior may seem like a withdrawal from people, but they busted out the door. Such a behavior requires initiative and energy, and often benefits from an audience. We turn our heads when we see someone storm out of a building while muttering profanity; we don’t when someone slips out the back door in tears.

There is little utility in denying our emotions. You feel what you feel. Sometimes, though, we resist feeling the primary, foundational emotion, maybe one that is too tender for us to acknowledge. It forces questions to the surface that we may not want to answer: What does it mean if I am unwilling or unable to feel sad? What would I discover if I sat with my anger and felt its sharp, jagged edges? What would I learn about myself if I explored this contempt? What things would I have to change about myself if I understood that there is something soft and vulnerable under this rage?

Consult-Liaison Homelessness Public health psychiatry Systems

On “Involuntarily Removing Mentally Ill People from Streets”.

Photo by Mart Production

There’s been buzz about the report of New York City to Involuntarily Remove Mentally Ill People From Streets. The comments section of the article as well as letters to the editor articulate the complexities around this issue. I also appreciate that the New York Times solicited perspectives from people experiencing homelessness themselves.

In trying to think through this myself, I turn to two mental models: First, what problem are “we” trying to solve? Second, can health care ethics provide guidance here?

What problem are “we” trying to solve? This requires reading the mind of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, which I cannot do. He has argued that The Royal We have a “moral obligation” to solve the problem of “assist[ing] those who are suffering from mental illness”. If we take him at his word, then we can fold his argument within the framework of medical ethics.

If, however, Mayor Adams is trying to solve a different problem (e.g., make homelessness invisible; reduce the number of complaints from the public about people exhibiting unusual or dangerous behaviors; demonstrate that he is “doing something” about homelessness, etc.), then the framework of medical ethics may not apply. If he is trying to solve a different problem, then instead of assisting those who suffer from mental illness, he is using those who suffer from mental illness to assist him and his actual agenda.

Of course, he may be trying to solve multiple problems through the guise of only one.

Can health care (or medical) ethics provide guidance here? One model used in medical ethics is called the four box model. Of note, the four boxes focuses on individual patients, not on populations of people.

Medical Indications
(Beneficence and Nonmaleficence)
Patient Preferences
(Respect for Autonomy)

Quality of Life
(Beneficence, Nonmaleficence,
and Respect for Autonomy)

Contextual Features
(Justice and Fairness)

Medical indications asks what benefits and harms the patient might experience from interventions. Would involuntary psychiatric hospitalization help people with mental illness who are homeless? Some of them, yes. Would it help all of them? Maybe, maybe not. Could involuntary psychiatric hospitalization cause harm? That is not the intention, but sometimes it does. For reasons valid and invalid, it might discourage people from engaging in psychiatric services ever again. Anything involuntary always involves some degree of coercion, which people generally dislike.

Just because people are behaving in unusual ways and are living outside does not mean that psychiatric hospitalization is guaranteed to “fix” them. I do not mean to diminish the care people receive in psychiatric hospitals. People often need more than involuntary psychiatric hospitalization to get and stay well. Sometimes there is no medical indication for psychiatric hospitalization (involuntary or otherwise) for people with mental illness who are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes they just need a stable place to live.

Patient preferences refers to the dignity and choices people should have in living their lives. Some people would rather take pills by mouth every day than receive a monthly injection of medicine. Some people would prefer not to take any medicine at all. Patient preferences matter.

Some people who are living outside and behaving in unusual ways may not want to be in a hospital. Or maybe they are willing to be in a hospital, but not at that moment—maybe they have other things to take care of that day. Or maybe they are only willing to go to certain hospitals on their own, not at the behest of law enforcement. By definition, involuntary removal of people from the streets disregards patient preferences. Options other than psychiatric hospitalization, such as crisis centers, partial hospital programs, or day programs, can help preserve patient preferences and hence their dignity.

Quality of life describes the patient’s quality of life. Interventions should provide benefit, minimize harm, and maximize the dignity and choices of patients. This does not refer to the quality of life of the general public. If involuntary removal and psychiatric hospitalization are the means to the end of improved quality of life, how can these improvements be sustained following hospitalization?

It is absolutely true that psychiatric hospitalization can be life-saving and life-improving. However, people need and benefit from ongoing care and services following hospitalization. Mayor Adams’s target population also need places to live to maintain their gains. If you’ve ever been hospitalized for any reason, can you imagine the course of your recovery if you had no place to go upon leaving the hospital? How are you supposed to rest when you don’t know where you will sleep that night? Quality of life requires planning and sustained care; acute interventions alone rarely produce improvements in quality of life.

Contextual features are the intersections of a patient’s care with the rest of the world. There are a multitude of contextual features in Mayor Adams’s plan (and it makes me wonder if the mayor consulted with any partners prior to making his announcement). Here are a smattering of contextual features that come to my mind:

  • How will first responders decide if someone has a mental illness? What if they think someone has an “attitude problem” and instead refers them to jail? How severe do psychiatric symptoms have to be? Will only those who attract the attention of law enforcement be involuntarily removed? (What about the elderly woman who keeps to herself and has been homeless for decades and won’t move indoors because the voices tell her that she will die if she does?)
  • How will hospital psychiatrists react to people who, in their professional opinion, do not need hospital-level care, though the law argues otherwise? Will psychiatrists become agents of social control on behalf of the jurisdiction? There are some parallels here to the overturning of Roe v. Wade: Some gynecologists are not performing abortions, even though there are medical indications to do so, because of the law. Here, psychiatrists may proceed with involuntary treatment even though there are no medical indications to do so… because of the law.
  • Let’s say someone experiencing homelessness is involuntarily removed from the street and is psychiatrically hospitalized. Where will they go upon discharge? What if they prefer returning to the street instead of a shelter? What if they have no sources of income and there is insufficient affordable housing? (This is not actually a “what if” question.)
  • What about all the people who are homeless, but do not demonstrate symptoms of mental illness? Are there any opportunities to prevent or reduce the chances of mental illness in this population? (Yes, by increasing access to stable housing.)
  • What about all the people with severe mental illness who are not homeless? Are there any opportunities to prevent or reduce the chances of homelessness in this population? (Yes, by increasing access to and flexibility of psychiatric services.)

The four box model here highlights some ethical problems with Mayor Adams’s plan, though there are solutions to increase beneficence, autonomy, and justice while reducing non-maleficence. My hope is that Mayor Adams and leaders of other jurisdictions with similar ideas will take heed.