I had an interesting chat with a psychiatrist last week. He said that working with diseases of the mind was infinitely more difficult than dealing with those of the body. Why? Because with diseases of the body, say diabetes or high cholesterol, people take action. Their doctors say, ‘You must take insulin or your liver will shut down,’ or ‘It is imperative you take statins to bring your cholesterol levels down or you could have a heart attack.’ But when he makes a diagnosis of say, ‘ADHD,’ and suggests medication, often the patient, ‘feels they are just fine,’ so sees no need to follow his recommendations.
Particularly difficult are those clients over 18 who are at liberty to make those choices themselves without parental input. Even more difficult? The elderly who figure they’ve made it this far, why start now?
“It is criminal, really,” he confides. “Because if someone had a broken leg and as their doctor I did NOT set it and put it in a cast, I could be and should be sued. But if I tell them, ‘You are in a cyclical depression and need to take medication to help you get out of it,’ they can’t really ‘feel’ or even ‘see’ the urgency of the problem. Their thinking gets in the way. With the mind, the problem itself is the problem.”
I have never considered this before, but he makes a rather extraordinary point. We cannot access and view the mind in the same way that we do the body. Even with expanding technologies from MRI’s to mapping neural connections, the brain is still a complex and hidden mystery. If we bleed, we reach for a bandage. If we feel the pain of a broken bone, we get an x-ray. If there are gaps in our thinking---well, there are gaps in our thinking.
People live their entire lives with mental illness and do absolutely unequivocally nothing. It is not because they wouldn’t want to live happier more ‘normal’ lives. It is because they think they ARE normal. As a counselor AND a human being, this gives me pause. . .
Helen Hudson is a counselor and 20 year member of the ACA. She is also the author of "Kissing Tomatoes," and speaks around the country on the importance of caring for the elderly, particularly those with Alzheimer's, with compassion.