Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘Psychopathology’ Category

Coming Back….

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 16, 2014


My hiatus is officially over and now I am returning to my blog, perhaps with less intensity in terms of the number of posts, but not with less intensity in terms of my deep concerns for the movement of psychiatry towards quick assessments and hence hasty diagnosis and treatments.


One might wonder why I was on hiatus, and why I am back. One might also wonder what I have been up to professionally. Let me begin there. I was honored to speak at the UCLA Child Psychiatry graduation. This was a special honor as it was my students who wanted me to wish them on their way to what I hope to be a very rewarding career. So, here is my speech…



Thank you- the graduates if 2014- for asking me to speak at this- momentous occasion- marking you as newly minted child psychiatrists. Your class is very important to me as you provided me the opportunity to teach the clinical practicum- the class that formally introduces you to child psychotherapy . It was an honor and a privilege to teach you – as it is an honor to stand here tonight.

As I think about you- the graduates-I am reminded of my mentors who very sadly are no longer here- Denny Cantwell, Chris Heinicke and Ken Silvers-  three UCLA professors who each gave me the courage to launch a very rewarding career.


I would like to speak to you about those rewards- as you are about to embark in the next chapter of your life!

The parent calls confused and bewildered as to how to help their child. We listen to their confusion and we think about the neurobiology, the possible psychopharmacology and the issues of child development. Through these multiple lenses we can analyze the situation with empathy and compassion to help this family get back on track .

That first call may be because someone told them their child might need  medication, but the family stays in treatment- not just for their prescription- but also to help their child grow up and navigate their worlds through the foibles of their parents and the challenges of their own biology.

Nature and nurture come alive for a child psychiatrist. Like no other specialty in medicine, we have the privilege of a cradle to grave specialty because our toolbox is wider and deeper than our colleagues! We can see how their birth and subsequent development landed them in our offices and then we can help them understand how to cope with their circumstances.

As Denny said you have to pick your parents carefully if you want to do well in the world and this motto has helped me help my patients understand that there is not just a brain lottery but there is a parent lottery as well.

To be a child psychiatrist- as you- the 2014 graduates will learn more and more- is to feel the heartbreak of both children and parents. The art in this field is to walk a fine line between empathizing with the child and the parent at the same time.  It is both sad to watch a child be abused by his parent and it is also sad to watch a parent being tortured by a difficult child. This ability to see multiple points of view is the excitement of this field.

To be a child psychiatrist also means feeling the reward of helping kids mature. I am reminded of
of male teenager I see who is now 18 but I have worked with him since he was 12.  I will call him Tom. Tom came to me against his will. He was having severe substance abuse issues and conduct problems. He was failing at school and was disrespectful to his parents. I worked with him and his parents over the years . I gave him an SSRI briefly but it did not have a big impact on his mood so we decided to do intensive psychotherapy to help him through his issues. He reluctantly agreed. Now he is off to an Ivy League college, he has nice friends and he enjoys his life . This past week in one of our sessions-he completely surprised me as he reflected on our work. “You know,” Tom said sweetly, ” I think we have a good relationship and I think you have really helped me grow up and see the world in a very different way then I did a few years ago.” I could feel my ego swell as those words came out of his mouth. The gratitude from a g adolescent is a particularly special experience.

Being a child psychiatrist is in one way like going to the movies every day- seeing a tale unfold in unique ways – but- perhaps more like  a videogame- we get to attempt to change the ending. I just cannot imagine a more rewarding career. Good luck to all of you and most importantly-stay in touch!


Another important professional development is that I am now on faculty at LMU. I will be teaching psychopharmacology to first year art therapy students.


Meanwhile, I continue to teach at Los Angeles Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, where I am now teaching the first year class about basic psychoanalytic concepts.



In November, I will begin teaching Psychoanalytic Understanding of Mood Disorders at the New Center for Psychoanalysis and in January, I will teach basic clinical concepts to their evening psychodyanmic psychotherapy program.


I continue to teach at UCLA where I supervise both an adult psychiatry resident and a child psychiatry  fellow. I also remain active there on the board of the Volunteer Clinical Faculty Association.

Finally, I continue to teach and serve on the board at the Venice Family Clinic.


In returning to my blog, I plan on posting about psychiatry, psychoanalysis, child psychiatry and the changing of the profession, given the presence of electronic medical records. I want this blog to be a place where ideas are shared with thoughtfulness and consideration for the writer (me) and the audience. Of utmost importance to me is maintaining the privacy of my patients. Keeping this in the front of my mind, I want to use  small moments, without identifying information, to illustrate important clinical concepts. I am happy to receive comments, either personally or publicly.


Thank you readers who have waited patiently for me to return. I appreciate all of your support during my hiatus.





Posted in Psychoanalysis, Psychopathology, Psychopharmacology | 3 Comments »

The Violent Brain

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 15, 2013

Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating location of the anterior cingulate cortex.…/la-na-prisoner-brains-20130715,0,5130358.story

The anterior cingulate cortex(ACC)  fires, giving the person a feeling for what others experience, otherwise known as empathy. It stands to reason that those who have an ACC which fires with more intensity are going to have a greater sense for what others experience. So, the researchers from Kent Kiehl’s laboratory found that when scanning violent inmates, those with low ACC firing are more likely to be repeat offenders. As Michael Haederle reported in today’s LA Times…


“The trove of data they have gathered has revealed telltale abnormalities in the structure and functioning of psychopaths’ brains. On the whole, they have

less gray matter in the paralimbic system — believed to help regulate emotion — which may help account for their characteristic glibness, pathological lying,

lack of empathy and tendency to act impulsively.”

The nature/nurture argument returns. Empathy and impulsivity seem to be largely innate qualities, such that if we can measure brain activity in convicted criminals, we would get a better sense of a person’s predisposition towards further heinous crimes. Yes, this is not perfect, and so biological data can be used to convict criminals who should be given a second chance. However, this does not mean that further exploration about how brain activity predicts behavior should not be done. In other words, this report is an exciting development in understanding how brain function influences judgment.

Posted in Mental Health and the Media, Nature/Nurture, Neurobiology of Behavior, Psychopathology | 5 Comments »

The Cost of Therapy

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 15, 2013

Alexander, seventy-two is spending his retirement money on therapy. His friends and family tell him he is “crazy”. “They don’t understand that I have very strange and bothersome thoughts and I have no one to talk to about that.” Alex explains to me, even though I know that. He is feeling defensive and misunderstood by his village. “On the one hand I know these people care and they are trying to help me so that I don’t run out of money, but on the other hand, they have no idea what I struggle with internally.” He tells me, again, even though we have discussed this many times. I hear the loneliness of someone who has such invisible suffering that no one, other than a mental health professional, can understand. The torture of brain suffering is beyond the comprehension of most people, even beyond some trained in the helping profession. Plus, friends and family presume to know his financial situation and this presumption hurts Alex’s feelings since he feels demeaned that they do not respect his decision-making. “Maybe you have lead them to believe that you have financial problems so they are confused why you invest so much of your resources into psychotherapy.” I say, knowing that he does need to be careful with his money, but at the same time, therapy, for Alex, is a life-line. “Yes, I do complain about money, but this expense is not optional for me. At least it does not feel that way.” Alex explains, mostly to himself. I am left feeling privileged with my medical training. Years of seeing how the brain can cause so much invisible misery has sensitized me to Alex’s issue. He suffers in ways, if he were to explain to his loved ones, would only alienate them and scare them away. Understanding goes a really long way, particularly for Alex.

Posted in Psychoanalysis, Psychopathology, Psychotherapy, Relationships | 7 Comments »

The Independence Journey

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 28, 2012

Tomorrow, in my “Play Class” we will talk about Winnicott’s paper (1963)  about emotional growth in “terms of the journey from dependence to independence”. In this essay he coins his famous phrase “primary maternal preoccupation,” the time in a mother’s life, third trimester pregnancy along with the first few months of infancy, where the mother can think of little else besides her baby. The significance of this concept is that a mother has the challenge to follow a parallel journey with her child; a journey which begins with a merger, and ends with separateness. This parenting process is hard because it is overwhelming to feel responsible for another human being, and then it is overwhelming again, to let go of that responsibility so that the child can develop his/her own ego. A mother/caretaker has to have the emotional sophistication to know when to be hovering and when to let go. This, the lay public might say, is a “mother’s instinct”. Winnicott teaches us that without a mature mother, a child is psychologically damaged because he/she does not have the opportunity for ego development, for coping skills. For example, if a mother is afraid of their child’s upset, then she might feed them continuously. If the child never gets hungry, then the child does not know how to cope with the need for self-care, possibly leading to an eating disorder. The process of development, of maturation, demands that the child experience frustration followed by gratification. Optimal frustration is the key to healthy growth, as the child learns that needs can be met with thought and patience. Without optimal frustration the child is vulnerable to feeling omnipotent, where every need is immediately met, and hence arrogance ensues. The proof of healthy development, Winnicott would say, is quality interpersonal relationships, where quality is defined by mutual satisfaction. In other words, the metric of good mental health, is socialization. The ability to cultivate relationships requires flexibility and compromise. This has to be learned  in the tender developmental years, and then again, throughout life. Winnicott’s theory still holds true, fifty years later. Let’s see if my students feel the same way.

Posted in Child Psychiatry, Parenting, Play, Psychoanalysis, Psychopathology, Psychotherapy, Teaching, Winnicott | 4 Comments »

Inertia and Denial: The Case for Psychoanalysis

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 22, 2012


“Why did you want me to come more often?” Harold, forty-two, asks me after working with me for ten years. Inertia and denial,” I responded quickly. “When I see you less often, you lapse into old patterns of unconscious living, so the more we can focus the light on the issues, the more we can battle the forces of both inertia and denial.” I repeat. As Freud taught us, the mind is tug of war between wanting to grow and develop and wanting to maintain the status quo, maintain our current defense system. This to and fro of the mind creates a need for what Kohut called “working through,” meaning the necessary repetition of looking at how one’s behaviors and judgments messes with their own enjoyment of their lives. The “internal saboteur,” and yet another term for describing how so often the individual is their own worst enemy. The more intensely one can focus on internal conflicts, the more likely a healthy resolution can happen. This is a simple concept. Almost anything, when done repetitively and consistently will improve: tennis, hiking, yoga are all examples of this. So, psychotherapy fits in to this paradigm as well.

Posted in Psychopathology, Psychotherapy | 8 Comments »

Attention Spectrum Disorder

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 24, 2010

This blog is part of my series on psychopathology.

In my previous blog I spoke about how ADHD is both a cognitive issue and an ego or personality issue. Children with ADHD have a problem with inhibition and as such, they do not wait to hear what the other person has to say. In turn, friendships can be quite challenging. When severe, ADHD children can be very lonely and subsequently depressed. This clinical picture of the lonely, depressed ADHD child can resemble a child with Asperger’s Syndrome.

My six year old female patient who is highly intelligent, unable to focus, hyperactive, has poor frustration tolerance and has no friends. What is the diagnosis? As I have mentioned many times, all psychiatric diagnoses are clinical diagnoses and as such they are subjective. One doctor would call her Asperger’s, another would call her ADHD and a third would say she has both. What do I say? I say that her primary diagnosis is ADHD as she has trouble with focus, trouble controlling her body and trouble containing her frustration. If these problems could be addressed then she would be able to have friends.

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states-beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge-to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions are different from one’s own. It is typically assumed that others have minds by analogy with one’s own. Based on the reciprocal nature of social interaction, as observed in joint attention, the functional use of language and understanding of others’ emotions and actions. Having a theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions and to posit their intentions.

Joint attention is key to a theory of mind, such that a problem with attention will lead to problems in theories of mind. Hence, with my six year old patient, I say that her primary diagnosis is ADHD and not Asperger’s Syndrome. As such, I propose that the explosion in the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders is in part a result of clinicians missing the diagnosis of ADHD. It seems to me that since clinicians think of ADHD as a series of cognitive deficits and they think of Asperger’s Syndrome as a series of social deficits, there is an artificial separation between these two diagnoses. I propose that we see ADHD as a spectrum disorder and as such, put children into the category of Attention Spectrum Disorder. Once again, I hear my critics worried about funding, since Autism Spectrum Disorders receive state and federal funding, whereas the diagnosis of ADHD does not, in our current system, warrant such funding. I do not want to take funding away from children who need it. At the same time, I do want to focus on having more accurate diagnoses so that we can better comprehend what we are dealing with. We need to give the child and his family greater insight into their struggles. Understanding is our first step.

Posted in ADHD, Musings, Psychopathology | 4 Comments »

ADHD: Is It A Thinking Problem or a Personality Problem?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 24, 2010

This blog is part of my series on psychopathology.

When I was a child psychiatry fellow from 1989-91, I was taught by Dennis Cantwell MD, a world leader in ADHD, who stated that kids who have problems concentrating have different brains than other kids. As such, they have struggles that other children do not have. Typically, this means that an ADHD child cannot focus on things that he has no interest in, whereas another child of the same age, could force himself to focus on something, even if it bores him.

Karen Gilmore MD, as have child psychoanalysts before her, add that children with  ADHD,  also have problems regulating their ego. Personality is often defined by how one monitors themselves. The word ego, in this sense, is interchangeable with the word personality. Dr. Gilmore argues that the inconsistency and variability of the integrative, organizational and synthetic functions of personality are really the problem in ADHD. In other words, the child with ADHD suffers because he has a harder time forming relationships, in addition to suffering because he has a harder time learning.

Historically, at the turn of the last century in England, George Still (great name) observed a group of children in his practice who showed a pattern of aggressiveness, defiance, resistance to discipline, excessive emotionality, little “inhibitory volition,” “lawlessness,”  spitefulness and cruelty; these children were also notable for their impaired attention, over activity, and a “defect” in moral control” (Still 1902).This syndrome was attributed to an underlying neurological deficiency.

More recent research has taught us that ADHD has pointed us to areas of the brain which may be affected such as the frontal lobes, the inhibitory mechanism of the cortex, the limbic system and the reticular activating system. It has been said that 70% of the brain is there to inhibit the other 30% of the brain. It is possible that those with ADHD have a lower percentage of inhibition.

To meld these psychoanalytic ideas with the neurological notions, I have come to understand that ADHD children have a hard time with inhibition. As such, learning is difficult, particularly for tasks with low enjoyment, and relationships are difficult, particularly if they involve a reliance on verbal interchange. In general, school is hard for kids who do not feel rewarded by pleasing others. The same could be said for relationships. As such, it is easy to understand the child with ADHD in that he struggles in school and he may also suffer with friendships. Having said this, each child with ADHD is  unique, such that some will have more difficulties with school, others will have more difficulties with relationships, and the most severe cases will have difficulties with both.

As we look to Russell Barkley’s work, we derive the answer. Although attention may be a prominent part of ADHD, the most disabling symptom is the inability to control impulses. Without the ability to control impulses, no one will cut you slack: not your friends and not your teachers. If no one wants to help, then the child will have problems learning things which do not interest him, and he will have problems being patient with friends. Impulse control is an ego function. Impulse control is  a cognitive skill. Both are true. Dr. Cantwell, may he rest in peace, would agree.

Posted in ADHD, Musings, Psychopathology | 15 Comments »

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