The B.C. Mental Health Act Protects My Daughter

The author of the original article, Susan Inman, wrote this piece for the Huffington Post from personal experience. Susan’s daughter has suffered from schizophrenia for the past 16 years, and Susan has seen first hand how involuntary hospitalization and medication have helped her daughter have years of stability.

Susan discusses how provisions in B.C’s Mental Health Act which protect people with severe mental illnesses are currently under attack. This came when a challenge was filed with B.C’s Supreme Court which states both inpatient and outpatient involuntary treatment are violations of people’s human rights. The challenge does not deal with involuntary hospitalisations, rather it proposes changes that would mean people can avoid involuntary treatment no matter how ill they are. Two of the plaintiffs themselves have received involuntary treatment.

Some may feel that the most morally responsible position is to allow people to choose whether they want to be treated, but Susan highlights how this ignores some vital information about psychotic orders. In psychosis, a person loses the ability to differentiate between what is real and what isn’t. Even as some of its symptoms begin to subside, people can be left with anosognosia, a brain-based inability to understand that they are or have been ill.

As Susan argues, mental illness policy changes can be dangerous when they ignore the impact of the most severe mental disorders, such as suicide, aggression or neglect of one’s most basic personal needs. In their challenge, the plaintiffs fail to address the consequences of the changes they propose on people with profound or life-threatening illness. Any policy changes of this nature must be looked at in depth, looking not only at the change itself but also the consequences that will follow.

Let us know your thoughts on the proposed changes to B.C’s Mental Health Act, join the discussion on our twitter page. Click here to read the full article.

This article previously appeared in Huffington Post Canada.  

The overdose crisis in British Columbia

Dr. Arlene King of Fraser Health Authority and former chief medical officer of health of Ontario gave an update on the evolving overdose epidemic in Fraser Health region, which covers communities from White Rock to Hope, British Columbia.  On September 21, the chief coroner of BC had announced 488 overdose deaths to date in BC, a 62% increase compared to the same time in 2015. According to Dr. King, who gave a plenary presentation on September 23 at the 2016 Pacific Psychopharmacology Conference in Vancouver, more than 60% of deaths in Fraser region were related to fentanyl, and if the current trend continues through 2016, 258 people will have died of overdose in the region. Although most people who die of overdose have a chronic substance-use disorder, young, naïve users are at high risk because of the presence of fentanyl in a wide variety of substances sold in the black market in BC. Fentanyl is a potent legal opioid, but the street form is mostly imported from clandestine markets in Asia. Fraser Health Authority is undertaking a variety of measures to prevent lethal drug overdoses; more information is available on Fraserhealth.ca .

On the previous day, Dr. Annabelle Mead, lead physician for Heartwood Centre for Women and an addiction medicine consultant for Vancouver Coastal Health, described the evidence for providing take-home naloxone kits and overdose education to prevent deaths. Naloxone kits are available in communities across BC, and specific outlets are posted on the Web site Toward the Heart which is maintained by the BC Centre for Disease Prevention. The site offers information about a variety of harm reduction approaches including a link to Insite, North America’s first legal safe-injection site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. In other Canadian cities, efforts are underway to open safe-injection sites, which have strong evidence for preventing disease transmission and fatal overdoses, but no site has yet been announced in the Fraser region.

Drs. Ric Procyshyn, Christoph Correll, and Bill MacEwan visit the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver

Drs. Ric Procyshyn, Christoph Correll, and Bill MacEwan visit the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver

Vitamin D deficiency in treatment-resistant schizophrenia

Vitamin D deficiency is associated with schizophrenia, although cause and effect are undetermined. Various published findings include low serum levels of vitamin D in people with chronic schizophrenia, elevated risk for schizophrenia in people who as neonates had low blood levels, and increased risk and higher symptom burden in early-psychosis cohorts (1). In a recent study from the Netherlands, whose population resides at latitudes similar to that of most Canadians, 28 people with treatment-resistant schizophrenia, 77% men and 61% Caucasian, who resided in a mental-health facility, underwent plasma vitamin D3 (calcidiol) analysis in April and June of the same year (2). A control group of 29 staff at the residence, mostly Caucasian women, also underwent testing. People using vitamin supplements were excluded. The researchers estimated the amount of time each participant spent outdoors daily was 2.3 hours for patients and 0.8 hour for staff.

The mean plasma level of vitamin D3 in April and June was significantly lower in the patients than in the staff, and the increase in plasma concentration during the spring was much less robust in the patients. The prevalence of vitamin D deficiency (as determined by plasma concentration) was 90% in April and 79% in June in the cohort of people with severe schizophrenia; in staff it was 17% in June. Because Caucasians have a greater capacity to synthesize vitamin D when their skin is exposed to sunlight, the investigators did subanalyses and found that non-Caucasian patients had lower mean plasma vitamin D than Caucasian patients, and the non-Caucasian patients’ mean plasma value did not increase during the spring.

The significance of these finding for the mental health of people with schizophrenia is unknown, and the researchers did not describe the medication treatments or the diet of the patients, other than to say it was healthy. Vitamin D is naturally available in eggs, some seafood, and is added to milk in some countries including Canada. The effects of vitamin D deficiency in general are most prominent on bone health. The central nervous system is however rich with vitamin D receptors, and deficiency has been linked to neuropsychiatric illness including depressive disorders and multiple sclerosis. Given that supplementation is recommended for Canadians, especially in the winter when it is impossible for most of us to obtain adequate vitamin D from sunlight, ensuring adequate intake for people with schizophrenia, in particular those in chronic care, is justifiable. The possibility that those with chronic illness cannot synthesize vitamin D with more-than-adequate sunlight exposure suggests that year-round oral supplementation is necessary to prevent or treat deficiency.

References

1. Chiang M, Natarajan R, Fan X. Vitamin D in schizophrenia. Evid Based Mental Health. 2016;19:6-9. Abstract

2. Bogers J, Bostoen T, Broekman TG. Low levels of vitamin D poorly responsive to daylight exposure in patients with therapy-resistant schizophrenia. Nordic J Psychiatry. 2016;70:262-266. Abstract

Refugees in Canada have a high incidence of psychosis

A recent article which I reviewed found evidence for an increasing incidence of schizophrenia in Canada. The researcher speculated that Canada’s high rate of immigration may contribute to this finding. Studies from other industrialized countries have found that immigrants, both in the first and second generation, have an elevated risk of developing schizophrenia, but evidence of this in Canada is lacking. A group from the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto estimated the incidence of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder in Ontario, the most populous and immigrant-rich province of Canada, by examining hospital and billing records with the records maintained by Canadian immigration authorities.

The identified cohort was all Ontario residents who were age 14 to 40 years at the beginning of the 10-year period from 1999-2008. Because of the universal health-care system, all people who come to medical attention have their diagnosis recorded in a provincial data set. All those listed as an immigrants by the federal ministry of citizenship were classified as such whereas all those not listed were classified as non-immigrants. The investigators also noted which immigrants were admitted under refugee status, an indication of a more vulnerable and likely trauma-exposed group.

The rate of new-onset psychosis in the general population was 55.6 (95% CI 54.9–56.4) per 100 000 person-years and 51.7 (95% CI 49.2–54.4) per 100 000 person-years in first-generation immigrants; these rates are not significantly different. Among the immigrants classified as refugees, the rate was higher: 72.8 (95% CI 67.1– 78.9) per 100 000 person-years, but this is not significantly different from the other rates. Closer examination found that immigrants of various origins had differing rates; those from the Caribbean and Bermuda had significantly higher risk whereas those from northern and southern Europe and east Asia had significantly lower risk than the general population. Among refugees, those from east Africa and south Asia had significantly greater risk of psychosis than the general population.

The shortcomings of this kind of study are considerable, mainly the retrospective design and the reliance on administrative-level diagnostic data. Furthermore, the general population included second-generation immigrants who could not be identified by the study methods but who also probably have a higher risk of psychosis. Moreover, the researchers mention that refugees often have other mental illnesses such as posttraumatic stress disorder which may be misdiagnosed as psychosis. Despite these sources of bias, the findings support an emerging theoretical framework in which those immigrants most subject to discrimination, often because of their race, may be most vulnerable to onset of psychosis. Socioeconomic factors and trauma also likely play a role. Early intervention programs may increase their effectiveness by taking this into consideration. The findings also underline the significance of the federal role in health-care funding for refugees, a highly vulnerable population.

Anderson KK, Cheng J, Susser E, McKenzie KJ, Kurdyak P. Incidence of psychotic disorders among first-generation immigrants and refugees in Ontario. CMAJ. 2015;17:e279-e286. Article

Increasing prevalence of schizophrenia in Canada

The burden of schizophrenia for Canadian society is significant. In a review of incidence and prevalence studies published in peer-reviewed journals dating from 1953 through 2006, Dealberto estimated the one-year prevalence of schizophrenia in Canada at 2.5 to 5.6 per 1000. The investigator found that published incidence and prevalence rates have increased during the past 4 decades. Furthermore, the prevalence and incidence in Canada were greater than international median rates, with Canada’s estimated incidence rate situated between the 45th and 100th percentiles of international comparators.

Dealberto explained the relatively high prevalence of schizophrenia in Canada by three possible factors. First, many studies have found that immigrants have an increased incidence of schizophrenia in both the first and second generations. Canada has a high rate of immigration, about twice that of the United States; 20% of Canadians were born in another country. Second, schizophrenia is more common in countries at high latitude, although the cause of this effect is unknown. Third, urban populations have a greater prevalence of schizophrenia, and 80% of Canadians live in cities.

Population-based studies of the prevalence of treatment-resistant schizophrenia in Canada do not exist. Most reports indicate that treatment resistance occurs in about 30% of patients, hence based on Dealberto’s findings, the estimated one-year prevalence of treatment-resistant schizophrenia in Canada is 7.5 to 17 per 10,000.

Given these data, and assuming a continuation of current immigration policy in Canada, governments at federal and provincial levels must plan for and fund the health-care and social-service needs of a growing number of people with this disorder.

Reference

Dealberto MJ. Are the rates of schizophrenia unusually high in Canada? A comparison of Canadian and international data. Psychiatry Res. 2013;209(3):259-265. Abstract

Health Care is a Human Right

On July 19th, 2014, Dr. Randall White was invited to speak at  The Western Washington Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program’s Ninth Annual Public Meeting. This year’s theme was: “Health Care is a Human Right: Making it Real in Washington State.” As a physician who has practiced both in Canada and the US, Randall brings a unique perspective to the table. Dr. White is a known advocate for health care equality, and stresses that financial access to health care is a major source of inequality. He says “Inequality has greater effects on Health Care than the actions of doctors and caregivers. In Canada, Health Care is a human right.” He goes on to encourage his American colleagues to continue to strive for universal health care.

The economic burden of treatment-resistant schizophrenia

In this systematic review, the investigators sought to find the cost of treatment-resistant schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder in the United States, which they estimate affects 500,000 people (1). They defined treatment resistance as failure to respond to one or more adequate antipsychotic trials, which is more inclusive than most clinical definitions. They examined studies published from 1996 through 2011 and included 65 that met their criteria. In addition to demographics and illness characteristics of the study populations, they looked at psychiatric and medical comorbidities, employment, and mortality including suicide. They also attempted to obtain data on treatment costs, productivity losses, and impacts on quality of life.

The rate of treatment response in clinical trials among TRS patients ranged from 14% to 25%. Compared with the general population, the TRS population had on average higher rates of substance use including tobacco addiction, of aggressive behavior, and a high burden of adverse medication effects. Suicidal ideation or behavior occurred in 54% of patients.

The standard metric for burden of disease in a population is quality-adjusted or disability-adjusted life-years (QALYs or DALYs), which include impacts on longevity and quality of life, but the investigators found no studies that calculated these for TRS or TRSA. One study provided health utility weights, which estimate the impact of a disease on a scale in which 0 is equal to death and 1 is equal to perfect health. Severe schizophrenia was given a weight of 0.56, similar to that of people on chronic renal dialysis; based on this, the investigators estimated a loss of 145,000 QALYs per year.

Estimates of total health-care costs of TRS were $66,360 to $163,795 per patient-year in 2012. This compares with an estimate of about $15,500 to $22,300 for non-treatment-resistant patients. In TRS and non-TRS, about half these costs were attributable to inpatient treatment. The authors estimated that the 20% of patients with TRS account for up to 80% of all schizophrenia health-care costs. No studies looked at lost productivity, but unemployment likely exceeds 70% in TRS patients, and costs related to crime, incarceration, and care-giver impacts were also lacking.

The limitations of the study are mostly related to deficiencies in the body of publications on the societal and personal impacts of this disorder. Given these gaps in data, the researchers believe that their findings represent an underestimate of the costs of TRS. This illness is costly on many levels, some of which have not been adequately studied and others of which may not be quantifiable.

Reference

1. Kennedy JL, Altar CA, Taylor DL, Degtiar I, Hornberger JC. The social and economic burden of treatment-resistant schizophrenia: a systematic literature review. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. Published online 29 Aug 2013. Abstract

Benzoate and not benzodiazepines for antipsychotic augmentation

Dr. Jari Tiihonen, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institure in Stockholm, Sweden, discussed findings from his research on polypharmacy in people with schizophrenia on September 20 at the 7th Annual Pacific Psychopharmacology Conference. Using national databases in Finland, his team examined prescription medications and all-cause mortality in a cohort of 2,588 patients during 7 years. Antipsychotic polypharmacy was not associated with increased mortality, and antidepressant use was associated with a decreased risk of death by suicide. In contrast, benzodiazepine use was associated with an increase in suicide and all-cause mortality. Dr. Tiihonen speculated that the sedative effects of benzodiazepines may predispose to unintentional injuries, and withdrawal symptoms may increase agitation and dysphoria which could elevate the risk of suicide.

As for new findings in treatment-resistant schizophrenia, Dr. Tiihonen mentioned the recently published clinical trial of famotidine (see my blog post of July 14). His group is now attempting a replication for which they plan to recruit 140 patients. He also called attention to a randomized clinical trial of sodium benzoate at a dose of 1 gram daily which was presented at the December, 2012 meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. The researchers added benzoate or placebo to treatment of 52 patients with chronic schizophrenia “stabilized with antipsychotics for 3 months or longer.” According to the abstract posted on the ACNP Web site, at 6 weeks of treatment, the benzoate group showed significant improvement in PANSS total, positive, and negative scales, as well as in overall neurocognition. The effect size on PANSS total was 1.76, which is very large. It’s not clear if these patients met the usual definition of treatment resistance, i.e. poor response to adequate trials of two antipsychotics, but we should know more soon as the study is in press.

Reference

Tsai GE, Lane H-Y, Green MF. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled add-on treatment of benzoate, a D-amino acid oxidase Inhibitor, for schizophrenia. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2012; 38: S198-S313. Available at: http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v38/n1s/full/npp2012220a.html (poster T162)

Clinical Neurosciences Conference 2013

Treatment resistant schizophrenia (TRS) is a clinical challenge for mental health professionals, patients and families. Dr. Herbert Meltzer, Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine in Evanston, Illinois, spoke about his research on this disorder at the Clinical Neurosciences 2013 conference in Vancouver on March 8, 2013. Dr. Meltzer was an investigator in the 1988 pivotal U.S. clozapine trial. He emphasized that clozapine remains the best treatment and is greatly underutilized in North America. He shared data of a 15-year follow-up of clozapine-treated patients indicating that their reduction in psychosis and functional gains persisted and in some cases continued to improve. The one domain in which the outcomes were worse was cognition as measured by the Wisconsin Card Sort test.

For TRS patients who cannot tolerate clozapine, we need more options. Dr. Meltzer has recently investigated high-dose second-generation antipsychotics such as olanzapine, risperidone, and lurasidone. In a 2008 trial of high-dose olanzapine (mean dose 34 mg daily) compared with clozapine (mean dose 564 mg daily) in TRS, he found no difference between the treatments at 6 months, although olanzapine caused more weight gain. This may seem like a long time to wait, but full clozapine response may take as long or longer.

He has also examined high-dose risperidone for TRS in the form of risperidone microsphere depot injections, 100 mg every 2 weeks, compared with a more conventional dose of 50 mg every 2 weeks for 6 months. He found no difference between the doses, which had less robust outcomes than clozapine, but he added that the serum levels of risperidone were not higher than in oral dosing. Dr. Meltzer said that were he to investigate further, he would consider testing 150 mg of risperidone microspheres every 2 weeks.

In other presentations, Dr. Ofer Agid discussed the algorithm for first-episode schizophrenia that he and his team devised at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Drs. Debbie Thompson and Joing Wu presented their experience and data from the Fraser Health Psychosis Treatment Optimization Program. Dr. Bill MacEwan, who organizes the annual conference, discussed findings from the Vancouver Hotel Study, and Andrea Jones described distinguishing characteristics of substance-induced psychosis in polysubstance users.

The speaker who perhaps most captivated the audience was Erin Hawkes, a woman living with schizophrenia who discussed her experience as a patient in B.C. hospitals. She has courageously spoken and written about being psychotic, refusing medication, and being restrained and injected. Although she now accepts her diagnosis and treatment, what she underwent was at times degrading and traumatizing. She reminded the audience that small acts of kindness and a gentle approach can make a difference when someone is in great distress and turmoil.

Note from the United States

A friend and colleague, Dr. Kate Tairyan, sent me a link to a commentary in the New York Times by Paul Steinberg, a U.S. psychiatrist. I happen to be in the United States visiting family for the holidays and this article made me grateful to have the opportunity to practice psychiatry in a functional health care system instead of a dysfunctional patchwork of public and private health care payers and deliverers. Although Canadian health care institutions are imperfect,the inadequacy of mental health care in the United States for the neediest patients is tragic and as we have witnessed in 2012, even lethal.

Happy New Year and I hope that our efforts at the BC Psychosis Program will continue to improve in 2013.