By Michael Kaufman
NEW ORLEANS–By the time I’m finished covering the American Psychiatric Association (APA) annual meeting I think I’m going to need to see a psychiatrist. I should do it while I’m still here since there are thousands to choose from, running the gamut from members of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP) to the psychiatry branch of the Christian Medical Association (CMA).
In a delicious bit of irony those two groups were assigned adjacent tables in the exhibit hall, where they are surrounded by far more elaborate booths promoting the wares of pharmaceutical companies large and small. An uneasy truce prevails between the Christians and gays. “We’re here for them,” says Dr. Rosa Lewis of the CMA about the homosexuals next door. “The love of God is for everyone.” Behind her is a CMA banner bearing their slogan, “Changing Hearts in Healthcare.”
“They’re all very polite,” says Dr. Jack Drescher of his Christian neighbors. He agreed that politeness is preferable to the “Torquemada approach.” Drescher says the specialty of psychiatry has come a long way since homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s list of officially recognized mental illnesses in 1973. “Opening Minds” is the motto of the AGLP.
Both groups offer books for sale. The CMA seeks to open hearts with titles like Jesus MD: A Doctor Examines the Great Physician and Could it Be This Simple? A Biblical Model for Healing the Mind. The AGLP hopes to open minds with the likes of Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man and Uncoupling Convention: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Same Sex Couples and Families. Both groups invited me to attend some of their APA convention activities.
I decided to pass up the CMA breakfast meeting on “The Christian Legacy in Psychiatry.” It cost $20 and the people I’m covering the APA meeting for aren’t paying my expenses. Besides, I wanted to have breakfast at Mother’s. I also passed up an invitation to a three-hour seminar on “The Role of the Psychiatrist within the Church.” I’d have felt like an interloper. But I accepted the invitation to attend the AGLP reception at the Renaissance Arts Hotel in the warehouse district, where I was told there would be free hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar.
Also looking a bit like a fish out of water amongst the glitzy exhibits is the table promoting the National Death Index (NDI), a project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While other exhibitors offer free gelato, lattes, Dippin’ Dots ice cream, and beignets to attract visitors, all the NDI offers is information and a plea to healthcare providers to report the deaths of any patients they have been treating and the medications the patients were taking. This will help the CDC identify risks that may be associated with certain medications. The table hasn’t attracted much traffic.
Upon my arrival at the convention hall I was greeted by a noisy group of more than 100 demonstrators chanting, “Don’t drug our kids, don’t harm our kids, leave our kids alone!” They carried placards with photos of some of the leading researchers and clinicians who treat patients with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Beneath the photos was the amount of money these doctors have received from pharmaceutical companies in the form of grant support, speaker fees, advisory board participation, etc.
Dr. Joseph Biederman of Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital topped the list at $4 million. A few years ago I had the opportunity to work on educational projects with Biederman as well as the others who were singled out on the placards. I happen to agree with the general point made by the demonstrators regarding the questionable ethics and undue influence of the pharmaceutical industry. However, I could not help but be impressed by the dedication of Biederman and his colleagues to help children and adolescents with severe mental illnesses. We are not talking about your garden variety ADHD here. These patients and their families live tormented lives.
The demonstrators also carried placards bearing photos of young people who committed suicide while being treated for depression. Under each photo was the name, year of birth and year of death. At first my heart went out to the people who carried the photos, who I assumed were family members. But I noticed something odd when I tried to interview the participants. No one would speak to me. With friendly smiles they referred me to one of the marshals of the sponsoring organization, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). When I tried talking to the marshal, he smiled knowingly and took me to meet a “spokesperson.” She politely told me she would be happy to speak with me…later, at the opening of the group’s “History of Psychiatry Traveling Exhibit” at the Riverwalk Marketplace. When I got to the press room I learned from friends that the CCHR is the creation of the Scientology cult. Calling this anti-science group Scientology is like calling an ugly housing project built in a formerly green space “Liberty Green.”
No big medical specialty meeting would be complete without the appearance of a celebrity motivational speaker. The APA had two: Carrie Fisher and Terry Bradshaw. Fisher spoke Monday night at the annual Convocation. “Having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything (okay fine, not acting, but what about a tiny award for writing? Nope), I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill,” she quipped. “I’m apparently very good at it and am honored for it regularly.”
She looked and sounded terrible as she cracked wise about seeing “shrinks” almost continuously since she was a teenager, the troubled daughter of celebrity parents Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. She spoke of her battles with drug and alcohol addiction and depression, and of the help she has received from talk therapy, drug therapy, and electroconvulsive therapy, which she said, gets a bad rap. Some shrinks were not impressed and walked out on her narcissistic monologue. Others laughed and applauded.
Bradshaw, former football great and current broadcaster, was featured in the APA’s ninth annual Conversations event, funded by Astra-Zeneca. He told of how he developed clinical depression after being labeled a dunce because of his slow drawl and the accusation that he was too dumb to read defenses when he started out as a quarterback in the National Football League. Following his successful treatment, he began to talk publicly about his experience to help fight the stigma attached to mental illness and to encourage others who are suffering to get help.
A loop of Bradshaw talking about his experience ran repeatedly in the exhibit area. After hearing the same message all afternoon, a sales rep at a nearby exhibitor’s booth said, “Hey, I love Terry Bradshaw. I’m from Alabama and I’m a big football fan. But come on, Terry, get over it already. It’s been years!”
The AGLP members greeted me warmly at their reception, which featured music by a trio of elderly jazz musicians and an aging female vocalist. But food was scarce and the drinks at the cash bar were a little pricey so I headed to another event to which I’d been invited by a representative of a company called Practice Fusion, which offers “free, web-based electronic health records.” This one was at Mulate’s restaurant and bar near the convention center, which features traditional New Orleans food, and there was a nice little buffet and free drinks.
Practice Fusion promises fast set-up and no downtime…and you can switch your practice over in an afternoon. So if you are a medical practitioner and you aren’t pleased with your current record-keeping system, you might want to give them a call.
Maybe George Weiss, the old baseball general manager, was right after all when he snorted, “Sportswriters! You can buy them with a steak.” I’ll have to ask my shrink about that.
Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.