A recent article by Gina Kolata in The New York Times discussed research about five psychiatric issues that share what she calls a genetic “glitch”: — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, major depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The article, published in a leading academic medical journal, The Lancet, was a look at psychiatric disorder through genetic mapping, instead of symptoms. The study is important in psychiatry because it is a clear sign of a new approach to mental illness, understanding it through genetics and seeing the hidden links between conditions.
I was first aware of this research years ago, when I was training in the Department of Psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I brought the study to the attention of my patients for two reasons. The first was to reassure them that I am well informed about current findings in psychiatry because of my training at Hopkins—and how important that type of excellent training is to the outcomes of patients in some form of psychiatric care, whether the problem is a mild depression or a full-blown mania from bipolar disorder. A lot of people today hang out a shingle and market themselves as an expert in mental health, but it’s quite important to know exactly what the training of that professional is—or is not.
In particular, I spoke with several patients about the study’s finding of underlying similarities between psychiatric disorders on a genetic level. This is an important concept for anyone on psychiatric medication. Unlike medications for other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, the drugs used in psychiatry can treat multiple issues. For example, Person A is diagnosed with a form of psychosis. Person B is suffering from a severe depression. The psychotic person isn’t depressed. The depressed person isn’t psychotic. Yet, the same medication can be effective for each of them exactly because of these underlying genetic links—and that’s important for all the stakeholders in patient’s care to understand.