Editorials

"30 Second Diagnosis and One-Day Cure" for Depression


Phillip W. Long, M.D.
October 10, 1996

Dr. David D. Burns, the author of Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy, announced on October 6, 1996 that he had perfected a technique for a “30 Second Diagnosis and One-Day Cure” for depression.

Dr. Burns presented this technique during a workshop I attended in Vancouver, Canada entitled: “Secrets Of Successful Psychotherapy: A Two-Day State-of-the Art Training Program.” The on-site registration fee for this workshop was $399, and the accompanying course book (entitled Therapist's Toolkit) was available for an additional $214. In all, approximately one hundred therapists (physicians, psychologists, social workers, and nurses) attended.

The printed program for this workshop stated:

“Dr. David D. Burns, M.D., a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Stanford University, is one of the world's most highly regarded experts on cognitive therapy. His best-selling Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (1980) has sold over two million copies worldwide, and is the book most often recommended by both American and Canadian mental health professionals to their patients ... In this training workshop Dr. Burns will share the secrets he has gleaned from over 20,000 cognitive therapy sessions with a wide spectrum of patients.”

In his opening remarks, Dr. Burns stated that, in his twenty years of treating depressed patients with cognitive behavior therapy, he has had “only 10 patients relapse, and most fully recovered with only 1-2 additional sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy.”

Dr. Burns stated that, earlier in his career at the University of Pennsylvania, he “used to average 17-20 sessions per patient” to cure their depression. Now at the Stanford University, Dr. Burns stated that “most of my depressed patients are cured in one day” using his “Five-Step Program,” a cognitive behavioral therapy which consists of three group sessions held in one day.

When questioned whether he felt there might be a biological basis to depression, Dr. Burns stated that “all psychiatrists are liars and their research is horseshit” concerning a biological basis to depression. Dr. Burns emphatically stated that “only our thoughts affect our moods.”

Dr. Burns presented a case of a “depressed woman with ovarian cancer.” Dr. Burns stated that this woman reported three main problems: “feeling guilty [100% rating] , feeling ashamed [100% rating], and feeling worthless [100% rating].” Dr. Burns' cognitive behavioral therapy for this woman consisted of having her write down her negative thoughts. For this patient, her negative thoughts were: “(1) I'm letting my family down [100% rating], and (2) they can't survive without me [100%].” In their first therapy session, Dr. Burns had this woman write a positive thought opposite each negative thought. Then Dr. Burns asked the patient to again rate the severity of her negative thoughts. Using this technique, Dr. Burns was pleased to report that, after only 20 minutes of cognitive behavioral therapy, this depressed woman rated her negative thoughts as being “only 10-20%.” Thus, Dr. Burns concluded that her depression was cured, and he “never needed to see the woman again for a follow-up session.”

Dr. Burns then reviewed case after case of similarly depressed patients that he had quickly cured with his cognitive behavioral therapy. After this, Dr. Burns taught the audience how, using his copyrighted checklist, they could diagnose depression “in 30 seconds.”

In all, this workshop was unlike anything I have ever witnessed in Canada.

Permit me now to editorialize. A recent World Health Organization report predicts that depression (suicide) will be the leading cause of disability and premature death in the industrial world in the next 25 years. Ten to fifteen percent of people suffering from severe depression (i.e., Major Depressive Disorder) commit suicide. Thus, it is remarkable that Dr. Burns states that he can cure depression in only one day with cognitive behavioral therapy and have virtually no treatment relapses.

This claim is a cruel hoax perpetrated on depressed patients suffering from this life-threatening disease.

In the twenty years that I have been a psychiatrist, I have learned how to diagnose when a fellow therapist is attempting to perpetrate a medical fraud. I would like to share my “diagnostic criteria for medical fraud” with you:

  1. The perpetrator of the fraud claims miracle cures (e.g., curing depression in one day with virtually no risk of relapse).
  2. The perpetrator of the fraud discounts all research contrary to his/her own as “horseshit,” and all of his/her detractors as “liars.”
  3. The perpetrator of the fraud stands to make millions selling his/her fraudulent claims (e.g., by selling 2 million books, or by going on lucrative speaking tours).
  4. The perpetrator of the fraud abandons his/her patients (e.g., treating a severely depressed patient for only one day, then deciding to do no further follow-up).

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