Our latest study on beliefs about causes of depression

Beliefs of people taking antidepressants about causes of depression and reasons for increased prescribing rates
Journal of Affective Disorders 168 (2014) 236–242

John Read, Claire Cartwright, Kerry Gibson, Christopher Shiels, Nicholas Haslam

Background: Public beliefs about the causes of mental health problems are related to desire for distance and pessimism about recovery, and are therefore frequently studied. The beliefs of people receiving treatment are researched less often.

Method: An online survey on causal beliefs about depression and experiences with antidepressants was completed by 1,829 New Zealand adults prescribed anti-depressants in the preceding five years, 97.4% of whom proceeded to take antidepressants.

Results: The most frequently endorsed of 17 causal beliefs were family stress, relationship problems, loss of loved one, financial problems, isolation, and abuse or neglect in childhood. Factor analysis produced three factors: ‘Bio-Genetic’, ‘Adulthood Stress’ and ‘Childhood Adversity’. The most strongly endorsed explanations for increases in antidepressant prescribing invoked improved identification, reduced stigma and drug company marketing. The least strongly endorsed was ‘Anti-depressants are the best treatment’. Regression analyses revealed that self-reported efficacy of the antidepressants was positively associated with bio-genetic causal beliefs, negatively associated with childhood adversity beliefs and unrelated to adulthood stress beliefs. The belief that ‘People can’t get better by themselves even if they try’ was positively associated with bio-genetic beliefs.

Limitations: The convenience sample may have been biased towards a favourable view of bio-genetic explanations, since 83% reported that the medication reduced their depression.

Conclusions: Clinicians’ should consider exploring patients’ causal beliefs. The public, even when taking antidepressants, continues to hold a multi-factorial causal model of depression with a primary emphasis on psycho-social causes. A three factor model of those beliefs may lead to more sophisticated understandings of relationships with stigma variables.


ISPS-UK Conference ‘From Diagnosis to Dialogue’


ISPS-UK Residential Conference
‘From Diagnosis to Dialogue’
17-18 September 2014, University of Leicester, UK
Speakers: Lucy Johnstone, Arnhild Lauveng, John Read, Marius Romme, Jaakko Seikkula, Phil Thomas, Rachel Waddingham


ECT and ketamine: not the whole truth

Important analysis of Dr Anderson’s response to our open letter

ECT statistics

In my last post I discussed an article in the Observer about the Manchester ECT and ketamine study. The article described how a number of mental health professionals had raised concerns about the study. On 30 June the Guardian gave Ian Anderson, professor of psychiatry at Manchester University and the lead investigator of the study, some space to respond to these concerns.

The response explains how ketamine is “an anaesthetic in daily use throughout the NHS” and has sometimes been used as an anaesthetic for ECT. The main objective of the study, it says, is to investigate whether “cognitive side effects, including memory problems” can “reduced or eliminated.” The response points to the fact that other similar studies have been done but are too small to provide conclusive evidence of ketamine’s ability to reduce the cognitive effects of ECT, hence the need for the Manchester researcher’s own larger study. Smaller…

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June 19, 2014


We are a group of nine mental health experts, including four psychiatrists and affiliates of five Universities. We are writing to you (as a funder, an ethics committee or a NHS Trust) to raise concerns about, and recommend suspension and investigation of, the ‘Ketamine augmentation of ECT to improve outcomes in depression’ study.

{Funder Ref Number: EME-10/90/04 REC Ref: 12/NW/0021 EudraCT Number: 2011-005476-41 ISRCTN Ref: ISRCTN14689382 CTA Ref: 23148/0004/001-0001 Ketamine-ECT Study Protocol – Version 4.2 (03.07.2013)}.


When several mental health staff in the Manchester area started to contact some of us, from August 2013, with concerns about this study, we contemplated writing to you all at that stage to immediately pass on those concerns, as they seemed legitimate and significant.

 We decided instead to write to Professor xxxxxxxxxx (and his co-investigators) raising our concerns and asking for further information. Our first correspondence with him was on 29th October, 2013.

 Professor xxxxxxxxxxx declined, on two separate occasions, to send us key documents, including the Ethics Application and the Funding Application, necessary for us to make an informed decision about what our professional/ethical responsibilities were with regard to whether to raise our concerns with yourselves.

 This necessitated our making a Freedom of Information request, on 19th November, 2013.

 Having finally received all the information necessary for us to make an informed decision we made a final attempt to resolve the issues without having to involve Ethics Committees, Funders and NHS Trusts.

 There follows a complete copy of the email we sent to Professor xxxxxxxxxxxx and his team, on March 14, 2014.



Dear xxxxxxxx and colleagues

We are sorry about the long delay in responding since receiving the information we requested via the FOI Act.

There was a large amount of information and we needed to read it very carefully.

Having done so, we have the following four concerns (and one comment).



The facts of the matter, although open to interpretation like all bodies of research, are as follows (Read and Bentall, 2010, pp. 335-337):

Of the ten studies that have ever compared ECT to placebo (simulated ECT [SECT]) five have found no difference during the treatment period. Of the other five, four either invalidated their findings by administering ECT to the SECT group or found differences only for subgroups of patients and/or differences perceived only by one group of raters but not by other groups of raters.

More importantly, there has never been a single study that has shown that ECT is superior to SECT at follow up (ranging from 1 to 6 months). None of the eight meta-analyses published have claimed superiority beyond the end of treatment (p. 337)

Furthermore, despite repeated claims by ECT proponents about the ‘life-saving capacity’ of ECT, no study has ever found that ECT prevents suicide more effectively than SECT.

Under these circumstances, your claim that ECT is effective, in the study protocol, the ethics application, the funding application and the Participant Information Sheet [PIS], is incorrect and misleading. Your statements actually go well beyond the claim that it is effective. You repeatedly use phrases like ‘the most effective antidepressant treatment’, ‘a large therapeutic effect against sham treatment’ and even ‘it is widely recognised as the most effective treatment antidepressant treatment’ {italics added}. On p. 8 of the Ethics Application you state ‘ECT is recommended as a possible treatment for this group of patients by NICE because it is the most effective treatment available’. We can find no such statement in the NICE guidelines.

The most concerning location of these misleading claims is the PIS, where you write ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is the most effective treatment for severe depression and it can be life-saving’. We believe these two false statements to potential participants are unethical, because they subvert the participants’ ability to give informed consent.

(Statements such as ‘psychological treatment outcomes are extremely disappointing’ [Study Protocol p. 5] are equally biased and misleading but are not relevant to the content of the PIS)



Here we must commend you for the many statements acknowledging the sometimes long-lasting cognitive dysfunction caused by ECT, which is often denied or minimised by other ECT proponents.

However, your statement in the study protocol (p 1) that ‘otherwise ECT is a very safe and effective treatment’ ignores multiple studies showing that ECT involves a small but significant mortality risk, most frequently via cardiac arrest or stroke (Read & Bentall, 2010, pp. 341-342). We believe that ECT recipients, whether or not they are involved in a study, should be informed of that risk.



Your claims of the effectiveness of ketamine in treating depression, which form a significant part of the rationale for your study, seem premature and exaggerated. For example, you claim, in the Study Protocol, that ‘One of the most exciting new findings in the treatment of depression has been the replicated, very rapid antidepressant effect after a single dose of intravenous ketamine alone’. However, a recent review concluded: “Although the first clinical report in MDD was published in 2000, there is a paucity of adequately controlled double-blind trials, and limited clinical experience outside of research settings. Given the potential risks of ketamine, safety considerations will ultimately determine whether this old drug is successfully repositioned as a new therapy…” (Mathew et al., 2012). Another review highlights: ‘… the paucity of randomized controlled trials, lack of an active placebo, limited data on long-term outcomes, and potential risks’ (Rot et al., 2013).

There does not appear to have been a single study demonstrating that a single dose of ketamine has any long-term benefit for depressed patients. In fairness, you acknowledge that ‘relapse occurs very rapidly on stopping treatment’ (Study Protocol, p. 2).

We conclude that the statement in the PIS, that ‘… ketamine is believed to work together with the effect of ECT to improve mood’ is, without a qualifier such as ‘in the very short-term’ or ‘temporarily’, misleading to potential participants who are seeking a solution to their depression.



Ketamine is a ‘street drug’ which, while undoubtedly producing a ‘high’ (seen as an ‘antidepressant’ effect by some psychiatrists), has multiple significant adverse effects. In light of these effects the ACMD recommended, in 2013, that the government reclassify ketamine to become a Class B drug. On 12 February 2014 the Home Office announced they would follow this advice.

We note that the PIS acknowledges that among ‘the most common side effects’ are ‘hallucinations, vivid dreams, nightmares…’ etc. (p. 3). We also note, however, that you are accurately inform potential participants that you are using a lower dose than used when ketamine is used as an anaesthetic. Nevertheless your claim in the PIS that you ‘expect very few side effects’ is not really an evidence-based expectation. Earlier in the PIS (p. 2) you argue that ‘by the time you wake up from the ECT treatment the effect of ketamine will have mostly or completely worn off’. As you know, the immediate post ECT period almost invariably involves a high level of confusion and disorientation and anything that potentially exacerbates, even minimally, confusion and distress during that period should be avoided, and certainly not minimised to potential participants. Furthermore, your argument that the effects may have worn off by the time consciousness is regained, is irrelevant to vivid dreams and nightmares.


Mathew, S., et al. (2012). Ketamine for treatment-resistant unipolar depression. CNS Drugs, 26, 189–204.

Read, J. & Bentall, R. (2010). The effectiveness of electroconvulsive therapy: a literature review. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 19, 333-347.

Rot, M., et al. (2012). Ketamine for depression: where do we go from here? Biological Psychiatry, 72, 537–547.



From the data provided to us we calculate that in some locations there has been an increase in the number of people receiving ECT since the study commenced (most notably an 80% increase in the Manchester site). However, other sites have seen reductions and overall there is not an increase. So the increases in some locations, although quite large in some instances, may well be accounted for by random variation.


On the basis of the points raised above we request that you:

1. Amend the PIS from ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is the most effective treatment for severe depression and it can be life-saving’ to ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) has been found to temporarily improve mood for some depressed people’.


2. Add to the PIS ‘ECT has a small increased risk of death, usually from heart failure or stroke’


3. Add a qualifier such as ‘in the very short-term’ or ‘temporarily’ to the PIS statement that ‘… ketamine is believed to work together with the effect of ECT to improve mood’.


4. Delete from the PIS ‘We therefore expect very few side effects using ketamine in this study and previous experience is that side effects don’t seem to be troublesome when it is used in this way’.


We will be contacting you in six months to ask for an update on the number of patients referred for ECT at the different sites.

As researchers ourselves we realise that these requests may cause additional work and, perhaps, irritation. Please be assured that our concerns are not raised – as suggested in the minutes of your Trial Management Group meeting (5.11.13) – because we are ‘hostile’ or ‘against the use of ECT’ (although the latter may apply to some of the signatories) but because we are genuinely concerned – as we assume you all are – about the wellbeing and safety of potential participants to your study, and about the importance of informed consent in all research. We would expect others to raise similar concerns about our own studies if we had inadvertently missed or minimized risks.


Please acknowledge receipt of this email and let us know whether you think a month is a reasonable time frame to consider and respond to our requests.



Professor xxxxxxxxxxxxx has subsequently agreed to only partially address only one of our four requests.

Specifically he has, rather than change the PIS from ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is the most effective treatment for severe depression and it can be life-saving’ to ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) has been found to temporarily improve mood for some depressed people’,  changed it to ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) has been found to be the most effective short-term treatment for severe depression in clinical trials’  This is definitely less misleading but remains potentially misleading nevertheless as it implies, to vulnerable potential participants, that ECT is the most effective treatment, which is certainly debatable.

He has declined our three other requests to change what we believe to be misleading statements about the safety of ECT and about the safety and efficacy of ketamine.

We feel we have now exhausted our efforts to encourage Professor xxxxxxxxx and his team to stop making what we believe to be misleading statements to potential participants.

Having carefully considered the issues over many months now, it is our shared opinion that this study may be unethical because it appears to be making inaccurate statements about the risks and benefits to people who are depressed, some of them severely/suicidally depressed (if the usual criteria for ECT are being applied) and who may therefore feel desperate enough to accept any treatment that is offered to them.


We ask, therefore, that you suspend ethics approval, funding and Trust support/permission for this trial while you investigate whether our concerns are warranted.

We have, of course, informed Dr xxxxxxxxxxxx and his co-researchers that we are writing to you. We have also made it clear to them that although we have concerns about the study as a whole we would be satisified if they made the changes to the PIS that we have requested.

We realise that you will need time to consider our concerns and recommendation. In due course please respond to (or request further information from) Professor John Read (readj@liv.ac.uk) who will pass on your response to the group as a whole. Thank you for taking the time to consider this complex set of issues.


Professors John Read and Richard Bentall  Clinical Psychology, University of Liverpool


Dr Pat Bracken  Consultant Psychiatrist -West Cork Mental Health Service


Dr Adam Danquah Clinical Psychologist Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust


Jacqui Dillon Chair, Hearing Voices Network – UK


Dr Suman Fernando  Consultant Psychiatrist (retired) – London Metropolitan University


Dr David Harper  Clinical Psychologist, University of East London


Dr Philip Thomas  Psychiatrist, University of Bradford


Dr Sami Timimi  Consultant Psychiatrist – Lincolnshire Partnership Foundation NHS Trust & Lincoln University



Models of Madness (2nd edition) – 2013. John Read & Jacqui Dillon

This second edition of Models of Madness challenges the simplistic, pessimistic and often damaging theories and treatments of the ‘medical model’ of madness. Psychiatric diagnoses and medications are based on the false premise that human misery and distress are caused by chem- ical imbalances and genetic predispositions, and ignore the social causes of psychosis and what psychiatrists call ‘schizophrenia’. This edition updates the now extensive body of research showing that hallucinations, delusions etc. are best understood as reactions to adverse life events and that psychological and social approaches to helping are more effective and far safer than psychiatric drugs and electroshock treatment. A new final chapter discusses why such a damaging ideology has come to dominate mental health and, most importantly, how to change that.
Models of Madness is divided into three sections:

• Section One provides a history of madness, including examples of violence against the
‘mentally ill’, before critiquing the theories and treatments of contemporary biological psychiatry and documenting the corrupting influence of drug companies.
• Section Two summarises the research showing that hallucinations, delusions etc. are primarily caused by adverse life events (eg. parental loss, bullying, abuse and neglect in childhood, poverty, etc) and can be understood using psychological models ranging from cognitive to psychodynamic.
• Section Three presents the evidence for a range of effective psychological and social approaches to treatment, from cognitive and family therapy to primary prevention.

This book brings together thirty-seven contributors from ten countries and a wide range of scientific disciplines. It provides an evidence-based, optimistic antidote to the pessimism of biological psychiatry. Models of Madness will be essential reading for all involved in mental health, including service users, family members, service managers, policy makers, nurses, clin- ical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, counsellors, psychoanalysts, social workers, occupational therapists and art therapists.


The effectiveness of electroconvulsive therapy: A literature review (2010)

John Read, Richard Bentall

Epidemiologia e Psichiatria Sociale, 19, 4, 2010


Aim – To review the literature on the efficacy of electroconvulsive therapy [ECT], with a particular focus on
depression, its primary target group.

Methods – PsycINFO, Medline, previous reviews and meta-analyses were searched in an
attempt to identify all studies comparing ECT with simulated-ECT [SECT].

Results – These placebo controlled studies show minimal support for effectiveness with either depression or ‘schizophrenia’ during the course of treatment (i.e. only for some patients, on some measures, sometimes perceived only by psychiatrists but not by other raters), and no evidence, for either diagnostic group, of any benefits beyond the treatment period. There are no placebo-controlled studies evaluating the hypothesis that ECT prevents suicide, and no robust evidence from other kinds of studies to support the hypothesis.

Conclusions – Given the strong evidence (summarised here) of persistent and, for some, permanent brain dysfunction, primarily evidenced in the form of retrograde and anterograde amnesia, and the evidence of a slight but significant increased risk of death, the cost-benefit analysis for ECT is so poor that its use cannot be scientifically justified.


Adverse emotional and interpersonal effects reported by 1829 New Zealanders while taking antidepressants

Adverse emotional and interpersonal effects reported by 1,829 New Zealanders while taking antidepressants

John Read, Claire Cartwright, Kerry Gibson

Psychiatry Research, 2014, 216, 67-73ABSTRACT

Background: In the context of rapidly increasing antidepressant use internationally, and recent reviews raising concerns about efficacy and adverse effects, this study aimed to survey the lived experience of the largest sample of AD recipients to date.

Methods: An online questionnaire about experiences with, and beliefs about, antidepressants was completed by 1829 adults who had been prescribed antidepressants in the last five years (53% were first prescribed them between 2000 and 2009, and 52% reported taking them for more than three years).

Results: Eight of the 20 adverse effects studied were reported by over half the participants; most frequently Sexual Difficulties (62%) and Feeling Emotionally Numb (60%). Percentages for other effects included: Feeling Not Like Myself – 52%, Reduction In Positive Feelings – 42%, Caring Less About Others – 39%, Suicidality – 39% and Withdrawal Effects – 55%. Total Adverse Effect scores were related to younger age, lower education and income, and type of antidepressant, but not to level of depression prior to taking antidepressants.

Conclusions: The adverse effects of antidepressants may be more frequent than previously reported, and include emotional and interpersonal effects.