Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Special Needs Trust: A Public Service Announcement

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 31, 2016

Posted in Asperger's Disorder | Leave a Comment »

Should Psychiatrists Weigh Their Patients?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 8, 2016

We prescribe antipsychotic medications which cause weight gain and serious metabolic side effects. Why don’t we weigh patients at every appointment to monitor the impact of our medications? It seems obvious that we should, but changing the model of care is slow and out of step with our shift towards a more medical model of treatment, and away from the more psychological, or history-driven emphasis of care. Psychiatrists were quick to embrace becoming “pill-mills” which meant shortening appointment times, lengthening the time between visits, and relying on non-MDs for the patient’s history, and yet, we, as a group, are slow to embrace the “data” available to us, which in this case means weight. Although it is a simple point, I think it speaks volumes about the inconsistencies in my profession. If we are to align ourselves with our internal medicine colleagues, then we should follow their lead in collecting as much patient data as we can. At the same time, we can maintain the strong principle of listening, allowing ourselves time to understand, as a means of healing. As I have posted previously, I take issue with our new model of care in which the psychiatrist prescribes in the dark, without understanding the meaning of the patient’s symptoms in the larger context of his history and his associations to his struggles. I now also go on record as objecting to the lack of data mining to monitor the impact of our prescribed medication. It is time to weigh our patients.

Posted in Psychiatry in Transition, Psychopharmacology | 2 Comments »

Homeless Bureacracy

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 1, 2016

Rory Gallegos, left, and Axel Cortes



“Gallegos was caught in a historic transition in housing policy as the federal government  wrestled with how to parcel out inadequate resources to the most needy. It’s a shift away from waiting lists toward what is essentially a homelessness grading system.”


The most vulnerable population gets hurt over and over again. Without advocacy, the mentally ill are often falling through the proverbial crack. In my experience, those well enough to “work the system” often get tremendous benefits, but those who have little insight into how a city distributes funding, or those who do not have loved ones who can help them,  suffer the most. Systems can be “gamed” and those savvy enough to understand that get to the top of the line. Cynical, you say? Maybe, but maybe also true. The issue with mental illness is that, by definition, the illness impairs their ability to navigate systems of care and as such, they often lack the mental tools necessary to deal with changing rules, and as such, homelessness often results. The homeless mentally ill, by and large, do not vote, and as such they lack political power. Having said that, there are wonderful advocacy groups such as NAMI, which make a large impact on helping the helpless. Still, there is work to be done. This LA Times story of Rory brought tears to my eyes. How he could fall down on the list because the rules changed on him is simply tragic. This new system is based on a paper and pencil test, which more insightful folks, will fill  out to gain priority, rather than honestly answering the questions, thereby tilting the program to the less-needy.

We know that “Housing First” programs work. . The lower the threshold to get housing, the faster people, including people with mental illness, will function independently. If we know that, why don’t we act on that? The answer is that there a huge housing shortage in LA County. Too many developers are gaining from building new apartments and homes for paying customers. They often create low-income housing along with new housing, but not enough to meet the growing need to house this population. Government must intervene to care for our most needy. As a psychiatrist, I want to shout about it. It is a baby step.



Posted in Chronic Mental Illness | 2 Comments »

Maybe We Have Too Many Child Psychiatrists?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 29, 2016



If child psychiatrists spend their time prescribing medication, and if foster children are over medicated, then it stands to reason that child psychiatrists are exacerbating the problem and then the so-called shortage of child psychiatrists, might, in fact, be a good thing. It is true that foster children are not only treated by child psychiatrists, as these medications may be prescribed by pediatricians, neurologists, primary care physicians or nurse practitioners, it is still true, that if child psychiatrists stop prescribing these medications, then these other providers would not feel comfortable prescribing them. The use of these medications for behavioral management is simply inhumane because of the metabolic and cognitive side effects. There, I have said it again, as I will again, as this has got to stop.


Posted in Child Psychiatry | 4 Comments »

Child Psychiatry Shortage: Impact?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 28, 2016

“There are only about 8,500 child psychiatrists in America, not nearly enough for the estimated 15 million kids who need one, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says. On the local level, the shortfall becomes more pronounced. No individual state meets the AACAP’s standard of 47 child psychiatrists for every 100,000 children 17 or younger — or one for every 2,127 kids. In Wyoming, there is one child psychiatrist for 22,960 children, and in Texas the ratio is one per 12,122. Only Washington D.C., enjoys what the group calls “sufficient supply,” with one child psychiatrist for every 1,797 children.”


The mantra that there are not enough child psychiatrists in the US, as stated above, comes from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A group that I respect and often attend their professional meetings. Yet, I question this assertion. Child Psychiatrists, by and large, prescribe medication, and as such, they help some children, while, at the same time, they, as a profession, are guilty of over-prescribing medication to children who could benefit more from behavioral and/or psychological interventions. So, it is not clear to me that the problem is physician supply, but rather I see the problem as the need to re-define the job of the child psychiatrist. If the child psychiatrist were in charge of systems of care for children, we would not need more child psychiatrists, but rather we would need to change the training of child psychiatrists to include leadership skills to improve the health and welfare of children and their families. If we do not train child psychiatrists to take the aerial view of the profession, and we continue to train them to take a piecemeal view of children, then training more child psychiatrists will not help. We need to learn how to be thought leaders, and as such, we need to learn how to execute our ideas into a major overhaul of mental health for children which includes wellness centers, home visits, and family interventions. Medication can be a piece of this, but, it is only one of many pieces. This is the message that we need to get out to policy makers. Incentivizing child psychiatry by loan repayment programs or higher salaries are not the answer. The field needs to change its focus. There, I have said it again.



Posted in Child Psychiatry | 2 Comments »

Achievement Gap

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 23, 2016


White privilege, in academic measures, leads to higher school performance than minority children, creating, what experts call the “achievement gap.” Although many factors contribute to this gap, the increase in stressors, be it poverty, domestic violence, childhood neglect and abuse, make it difficult for children to learn, and to have a supportive learning environment. Further, minorities tend to go to schools with fewer resources to support their education. Given that, what is the role of the child psychiatrist? How can he/she advocate for these kids? Providing mental health care at these schools is one answer. If these schools were staffed with mental health professionals who were trained to help children cope with their environments, could their school performance improve? I bet so, but studies are needed to prove this hypothesis. Plus, what about the funding? Well, if we assume that kids with lower achievement are more likely to drop out, and therefore have fewer employment opportunities, and be more likely to end up in the correctional system, then keeping these kids in school could pay off in the long run. My solution: have every parent sign a consent for mental health treatment, at school, if the need arises and is deemed necessary by school personnel. That way, as soon as symptoms are identified, intervention could be immediate. There, I have solved the problem. Of course not, but I think that is a good first step.

Posted in Child Psychiatry, school refusal, school visit | 4 Comments »

Mothers and Daughters

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 15, 2016

Mothers need to separate from daughters. Daughters need to separate from mothers. Each yearns for a close relationship, and yet, there needs to be a separation before there can be a closeness, as each needs their own identity. Like a figure eight, there are times when their lives are intertwined, and other times when their lives are far apart and so the dynamic, the journey of their relationship, is hardly ever linear. Issues of rivalry, control, and independence, come in and out of the foreground as each party struggles with her own sense of being in the world. Lila and Zoe come to mind. Lila is a thirty-two year old female, insecure, and confused about her future. Zoe is a sixty-year old female, cancer survivor, retired school teacher, who is happily married to Lila’s father, but who feels that Lila needs her help to navigate her future. Lila has mixed feelings. She wants her mother’s help, her guidance, her advice, but at the same time, when she talks to her mother she is left feeling helpless and inadequate. “Why do you seek your mom’s advice?” I ask Lila, knowing that the answer is layered with conflicting feeling, but hoping to begin a dialogue about these issues. Lila understands that talking to her mother dents her self-esteem, but she also feels she has “no choice” because her mother often has “good ideas”. “You have good ideas too,” I say, hoping that Lila can come to understand that her brain is a good resource for her, if she could allow herself access to her own thoughts. Lila struggles, as if she does not quite believe me that she has the  capacity to make good decisions for herself. Our work continues, slowly, with the hope that Lila can learn to trust herself. This will allow Lila to have more self-confidence, and ultimately a more adult relationship with Zoe. The figure eight of their dance continues, now at the intersection, but working towards a separation leading to another coming together, but the figure eight is three-dimensional such that their next connection will be at a higher level.

Posted in Families, Psychotherapy | 2 Comments »

Burn Out

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 13, 2016

What happens when the provider does not care any more? Is this shameful? Unspeakable? Is it a problem of the health care delivery system or an inherent issue with the helping profession? Does it stem from a deep question of efficacy or simply fatigue and poor self-care? How do providers discuss this without feeling judged? After all, “I want to help people” becomes a mantra for admission into a caring profession. To think, not even to say, that there is a strong tug to not want to help, to do something else, or think about something else, is akin to a massive betrayal, a betrayal to oneself, perhaps, but a feeling of betrayal nevertheless. And so, at times, begins provider substance abuse. Saying “I have a problem with addiction” is more favorable than saying “I don’t want to keep doing what I am doing because I simply do not care.” Lucy, thirty-two, comes to mind. She worked hard in her private élite high school to go to her private élite college and then to her private élite medical school and then to her high-prestige psychiatry residency. She graduates with massive debt, and scores a high-paying job, prescribing medication to patients in rapid fire. At first, she is happy with her new-found income, and hope of paying down her loans, but as time goes on, as days begin to feel longer, and weeks unending, and Sunday nights, simply dreadful, she finds herself unhappy and unable to be honest about it, with herself. She begins to take pain pills, as her chronic back pain, seems worse, perhaps because she sits all day, and perhaps because her mood is so low, that every ache in her body is accentuated. At first she functions at work, taking opiates, but as time goes on, she needs more and more pills to function, and eventually she starts missing work, culminating in her admitting that she has an opiate addiction, but not admitting that she finds no, or little satisfaction in her job. She welcomes the opportunity to go to a rehabilitation facility, and she welcomes the break from her friends, her job, and her responsibilities. She is a model rehab patient. She is thoughtful and participatory. She feels the rehab has saved her life and she is grateful for the experiences. She is discharged from the rehab after sixty days, and she returns to work, and within days, her opiate use returns. Once again, my point is simple. Lucy does not have a problem with opiates, but rather, she has a problem dealing with authenticity, and as such, opiates provide a clean escape from her fraudulent self. Facing the satisfactions and disappointments in her life, in her choices, in her daily routines, is nearly impossible for Lucy. It is much easier for Lucy to look externally and say the problem is the opiate, and not with the way she has set up her life. Addiction treatment programs, in collusion with Lucy, propel this forward. Rather than promoting long-term, continuous care, there is an emphasis on relatively short-term care, which often becomes a revolving door, with changing treatment teams. As such, there is burn-out in the staff, making it even harder for health-care professional patients, to face their own burn-out. To combat the issue, the values need to change. Placing a value on truth, self-truth, puts all feelings and ideas as fair game, no matter how bad they might sound. This is what Freud taught us. Speak first, no matter how difficult that might be, and then work with your thoughts and feelings after that. This is his notion of “free association”. With this freedom comes a personal truth which leads, as he would say, to the ability to love and work. With those abilities, no escape is necessary. Lucy could be set free from her trapped existence.

Posted in Psychiatry in Transition | 2 Comments »

ADHD, In Context: Give Me A Break

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 8, 2016


ADHD can look like PTSD, or in the new language,  a result of ACEs (adverse childhood events), in that the lack of focus could be a result of traumatic experiences interfering with the ability to concentrate. Understanding the child in context can help discern the various factors which contribute to difficult or disruptive behaviors. I am just not sure why this needs to be said, as it is inherently obvious. Yet, in lecture after lecture, that I go to, given by people with impressive degrees, I hear this as a take-away point, as if the audience does not know this. Without understanding the child’s environment, the speaker said, you can make the wrong diagnosis. Duh, was my private thought, while I was  stuck on whether the speaker thought she was being profound or if she thought that her audience was so clueless that she had to state the obvious. Every child, every patient needs to be seen in the broader context of their family, social and academic environments. In today’s day of assembly-line medicine, perhaps this does need to be said. I close with a common refrain of mine. Sad, sad, sad.

Posted in ADHD | 2 Comments »

Helping Teens At School

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 7, 2016


I am dreaming of consulting to a high school wellness center where students are free to talk about their experiences, and concerning behaviors of self-injury, substance abuse, poor relationship choices can be discussed in a context of caring and concern, with a relatively low threshold to suggest psychotropic medication. In essence a place for teenagers to feel listened to, as a way to value listening as a healing art. This imaginary wellness center would be staffed by one psychiatrists, two psychotherapists, one yoga teacher, and parent and peer volunteers who want to help students who have found a bump in their road to adulthood. There would be couches, and ping-pong tables, and quiet spaces, and music areas, along with arts and crafts supplies and quiet confidential areas to talk in private. This would be part community center, part health club, part mental health clinic. Students would not be forced to go, but rather learn about this as an option, in case the “stress” ever gets to them. Students with school refusal could relax at the Wellness Center until he/she was comfortable migrating to the classroom. Clubs, or support groups, might form for students whose parents are getting divorced, or who are dealing with a loved one who is sick and/or dying. There might be periodic talks on mental health issues, such as “Thinking About Depression in Teens” or “Sports Supplements: Are they good for you?” My contention is that a Wellness Center on Campus will diminish the need for students to go on psychotropic medication and it will limit the number of students who need psychiatric hospitalization for self-injurious or suicidal behaviors. Where does the money come from, speaking from my imagination? The money comes from the school district, health insurance companies, and private donations. Who runs the place? A child psychiatrist, of course. Am I looking for a new gig? Maybe.

Posted in Adolescence, Psychiatry in Transition | 4 Comments »

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