If ever there was a good example of why health journalists should seek to gain a proper understanding of the material they are writing about it is this:
People with mental illness made “remarkable” improvements by taking a daily dose of nutritional supplements rather than conventional medicines, a trial has found.
The work by a Canterbury University clinical psychologist has shown the potential that consumption of the right micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and amino acids, could have for helping a range of mental health problems.
Cue hordes of depressed people rushing off to the vitamin store to cure their depression…
There is only one problem with the above opening lines. It gives entirely the wrong impression. Of course the journalist who wrote this can claim that this impression is erroneous. After all, he carefully used weasel words such as “potential”, “could have” and “range”. But there is no doubt that the opening line supports the heading. And the heading is simply claptrap.
Firstly, this is a tiny trial of 14 people, so it is hardly a definitive study. Compare that to the literally tens of thousands of people involved in trails of medications such as Prozac.
Secondly, the mental illnesses studied here were ADHD and Severe Mood Dysregulation (similar to but less severe than bipolar disorder). Both of these are usually paediatric diagnoses although this trial was with adults. Presumably, they all therefore had long-standing diagnoses. Both of these problems are unusual in that have been shown in other studies to be strongly related to diet. It is therefore dangerous to drawn any conclusions from this study about other mental illnesses. I was particularly concerned to read this:
“Most of the individuals were in a moderate to severe depressed state at the start of the trial,” Dr Rucklidge said..
“At the end of the eight weeks, the mean score on the depression measure fell in the normal non-depressed range, which is a fairly remarkable change in such a short time, especially as many had not experienced such improvements with other conventional treatments.
This is exactly the sort of statement that should be avoided. It gives the impression that vitamin therapy is an effective form of treatment for depression and yet there is no evidence for this beyond Dr. Rucklidge’s tiny study. It is well within the bounds of possibility that both the placebo effect and the simple act of engaging in continuing assessment of these people lead to their improvement. Yet a mental health patient will read this and take themselves off their medication to “try vitamins”. They will not ask their GP first (trust me on this), they will simply do it.
Guess who will be cleaning up the resultant mess. Not Dr. Rucklidge.
When will doctors stop promoting inconclusive, often unpublished studies and journalists learn to ignore self-serving clinicians?