The medical establishment has made wonderful strides in destigmatizing psychiatric disorders. However, we have helped to create a devastating stigmatization of emotional distress. Somehow, as it has become acceptable to suffer from a psychiatric illness, it has become increasingly unacceptable to suffer from emotional distress and the current medical practice has nurtured this change.
We have simply and overwhelmingly lost touch with the human aspect of medicine. When someone is in distress, no empathic conversation makes room for and supports an emotional experience. There is no listening ear that helps a patient identify their feelings and make sense of them. There is a medicalization of the experience as abnormal and a prescription given to essentially silence whatever emotional state we are confronted with.
When a patient comes in and complains of anxiety, this is the beginning of an important conversation. In our current climate, it’s the beginning and the end of the conversation. You are now identified as ill. We miss the young man who drinks ten beers at night, the woman who’s being abused, the teen that’s being bullied. We encourage that patient to view negative emotions as something to eliminate, not an essential and rich source of information. Now it’s not the alcohol that’s the problem, or the abuser or the bully, it’s the patient. I had a patient come in demanding medication to treat her “anxiety.” When pressed to clarify the context of her anxiety, she told me that she feels anxious when she leaves her young daughter alone with her questionable new boyfriend. This young woman has come to believe, with the help of medicine, among other factors, that her emotional state was pathological and not the wondrous and instinctual signal to protect her child.
We are nurturing an environment of emotional phobia where people can no longer identity and frankly fear their own emotions and the emotions of others. This lack of emotional connection impacts our personal emotional health and the emotional health of others because it affects our ability to function as parents, friends, and co-workers. In a world where we have become increasingly adversarial, unforgiving, and punitive, I can’t help but see the connection between emotional illiteracy and our “cancel culture.” The lack of ability to identify our own humanness and, in turn, recognize it and empathize with it in others is further reaching than we might imagine.
Patients seem to now chide when a diagnosis is not given. Having an emotional experience is felt to be unimportant, shameful, and weak. When in reality, what could be more common and important than the breadth of human emotional experience. Curiosity and compassion are sometimes met with anger or suspicion because it’s not normally experienced. Human explanations are no longer welcome and bring about feelings of shame.
We constantly hear about the “mental health crisis.” This is not a psychiatric crisis. This is a social and emotional crisis. Medicine is not the only culprit, but it’s a big player. Corporate greed has severely damaged the sacred patient-doctor relationship. There are things we can do though we may feel powerless. Start with our emotional health. Acknowledging our own humanness so we can accept it in our patients without turning away or attempting to turn it off. Learning to say no and acknowledge the limits and harm of medicine. Accepting the truth that feeling good is not a given and feeling bad is not an illness.
The author is an anonymous physician.
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