In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” However, mental illnesses are not seen in the same light as physical illnesses. People who get labeled with psychiatric diagnoses often carry a heavy burden of social stigma regarding those diagnoses, and are generally uncomfortable disclosing and/or discussing them openly.
In ordinary conversation, it is not considered strange to mention that you had an appendectomy or discuss how you’ve been dealing with your diabetes for years. However, saying that you’ve been manic-depressive for years or that you’ve been desperately trying to overcome panic attacks is something that typically generates a negative response, and raises red flags for some people.
Why is mental health perceived so differently than somatic and physical health?
My inspiration for writing this piece was a debate about mental disorders held at the Emmanuel Centre in London, entitled: We’ve Overdosed. Psychiatrists and the Pharmaceutical Industry are to Blame for the Current Epidemic of Mental Disorders. Psychoanalyst Darian Leader, and accomplished author on the issue Will Self, argued for the “overdosed” side, while Dr. Declan Doogan and Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, argued against it.
Is it true that mental disorders are made up by big pharma? Or is it just that we have a difficult time accepting that our psyche can, indeed, be a subject (or object, depending how you see it) of pathologic deviance and aberration? And that such aberration could and should be subjected to medical treatment?
Some critics view mental disorders as illnesses that have no definitive pathomorphological substrates. Are physicians overprescribing these agents to satisfy big pharma interests? Do they purposefully try to make the psychiatric bible (a.k.a. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM) thicker and thicker in each subsequent edition by bloating it with irrelevant and artificially fabricated diagnoses?
No one is claiming that every form of deviation from the “gold standard” of behavior (if such thing exists at all) is and should be proclaimed as a psychiatric disorder. No one is saying that every psychiatric disorder needs to be treated pharmacologically. No one is denying that many psychotropic drug treatments, unfortunately, fail among some patients. No one is saying that some classes of psychotropic drugs don’t induce debilitating side effects.
However, as future physicians we always have to remember that we will have a person with a problem sitting in front of us. This person will be seeking our help. We only have what is available to help them. We can only fight with the weapons that we have. Yes, sometimes treatment in psychiatry feels like we are trying to kill a mosquito with a rocket launcher. But it is the only thing we have got and for some it can be a salvation, regardless of the collateral damage.
My psychiatry professor once said, “if there is an equivalent of hell on Earth, it would be in a soul of a depressed person.” I could not agree more.
Severe mental disease is not a joke. It is not something that can be solved with a thoughtful late afternoon conversation, by reading a line or two from Coehlo, or by reciting a poem by Neruda. Sure, activities like those are great adjuncts and can help ameliorate the situation to a degree, but people who are in trouble often need and demand much more from us.
Let’s not forget that when we’re talking about mental disease we are talking about the state of a diseased brain (physical) and mind (cognitive/psychiatric), which is most likely due to a neurochemical imbalance within the central nervous system circuits. This imbalance needs to be medically treated, especially in cases where it severely interferes with daily living. For some people, psychotropic medication is their only hope and the only chance they are going to get. For some people these medications perform miracles. We do not have a right to deny them such a possibility.
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