The Curious Psychology of “Disability”

December 28, 2011

I’ll start this post with a brief clinical vignette:

I have been seeing Frank, a 44 year-old man, on a regular basis for about six months.  He first came to our community clinic with generalized, nonspecific complaints of “anxiety,” feeling “uncomfortable” in public, and getting “angry all the time,” especially toward people who disagreed with him.  His complaints never truly met official criteria for a DSM-IV disorder, but he was clearly dissatisfied with much in his life and he agreed to continue attending biweekly appointments.  Frank once requested Xanax, by name, but I did not prescribe any medication; I never felt it was appropriate for his symptoms, and besides, he responded well to a combined cognitive-interpersonal approach exploring his regret over past activities as a gang member (and related incarcerations), feelings of being a poor father to his four daughters, and efforts to improve his fragile self-esteem.  Even though Frank still has not met criteria for a specific disorder (he currently holds the imprecise and imperfect label of “anxiety NOS”), he has shown significant improvement and a desire to identify and reverse some of his self-defeating behaviors.

Some of the details (including his name) have been changed to preserve Frank’s privacy.  However, I think the general story still gets across:  a man with low self-worth, guilty feelings, and self-denigration from his overidentification with past misdeeds, came to me for help.  We’ve made progress, despite a lack of medications, and the lack of a clear DSM-IV (or, most likely, DSM-5) diagnosis.  Not dramatic, not earth-shattering, but a success nonetheless.  Right?

Not so fast.

Shortly after our appointment last week, I received a request for Frank’s records from the Social Security Administration, along with a letter from a local law firm he hired to help him obtain benefits.  He had apparently applied for SSI disability and the reviewers needed to see my notes.

I should not have been surprised by this request.  After all, our clinic receives several of these requests each day.  In most cases, I don’t do anything; our clinic staff prints out the records, sends them to SSA, and the evaluation process proceeds generally without any further input from us (for a detailed description of the disability evaluation process, see this article).  But for some reason, this particular request was uniquely heartbreaking.  It made me wonder about the impact of the “disability” label on a man like Frank.

Before I go further, let me emphasize that I’m looking at Frank’s case from the viewpoint of a psychiatrist, a doctor, a healer.  I’m aware that Frank’s family is under some significant financial strain—as are many of my patients in this clinic (a topic about which I’ve written before)—and some sort of welfare or financial support, such as SSI disability income, would make his life somewhat easier.  It might even alleviate some of his anxiety.

However, in six months I have already seen a gradual improvement in Frank’s symptoms, an increase in his motivation to recover, and greater compassion for himself and others.  I do not see him as “disabled”; instead, I believe that with a little more effort, he may be able to handle his own affairs with competence, obtain some form of gainful employment, and raise his daughters as a capable father.  He, too, recognizes this and has expressed gratitude for the progress we have made.

There is no way, at this time, for me to know Frank’s motives for applying for disability.  Perhaps he simply saw it as a way to earn some supplementary income.  Perhaps he believes he truly is disabled (although I don’t think he would say this—and if he did, I wish he’d share it with me!).  I also have no evidence to suggest that Frank is trying to “game the system.”  He may be following the suggestions of a family member, a friend, or even another healthcare provider.  All of the above are worthwhile topics to discuss at our next appointment.

But once those records are sent, the evaluation process is out of my hands.  And even if Frank’s request is denied, I wonder about the psychological effect of the “disability” label on Frank’s desire to maintain the gains he has made.  Labels can mean a lot.  Psychiatric diagnoses, for instance, often needlessly and unfairly label people and lead to unnecessary treatment (and it doesn’t look like DSM-5 will offer much improvement).  Likewise, labels like “chronic,” “incurable,” and “disabled” can also have a detrimental impact, a sentiment expressed emphatically in the literature on “recovery” from mental illness.  The recovery movement, in fact, preaches that mental health services should promote self-direction, empowerment, and patient choice.  If, instead, we convey pessimism, hopelessness, and the stigma of “disability,” we may undermine those goals.

As a healer, I believe that my greatest responsibility and most difficult (although most rewarding) task is to instill hope and optimism in my patients.  Even though not all of them will be entirely “symptom-free” and able to function competently in every situation life hands them, and some may require life-long medication and/or psychosocial support (and, perhaps, disability income), I categorically refuse to believe that most are “disabled” in the sense that they will never be able to live productive, satisfying lives.

I would bet that most doctors and most patients agree with me.  With the proper supports and interventions, all patients (or “users” or “consumers,” if you prefer those terms) can have the opportunity to succeed, and potentially extricate themselves from invisible chains of mental illness.  In Frank’s case, he is was almost there.

But the fact that we as a society provide an institution called “disability,” which provides benefits to people with a psychiatric diagnosis, requiring that they see a psychiatrist, and often requiring that they take medication, sends a very powerful—and potentially unhealthy—psychological message to those who can overcome their disability.  To Frank, it directly contradicts the messages of hope and encouragement I try to offer at each visit.  It makes him dependent upon me, rather than upon himself and his own resources and abilities.  In other words, to a man like Frank, disability is anti-recovery.

I don’t have an easy answer to this problem.  For starters, changing the name of “disability” to something like “temporary psychological material support”—a substitute label, nothing more—might be helpful.  Also, rewarding recipients (e.g., not repealing their benefits) for meeting predetermined milestones of recovery (part-time work, independent housing, etc) may also help.  But the more I think about the life-affirming and empowering potential of recovery, and about how we allocate our scarce resources, the more I believe that the recovery-based—as opposed to disability-based—practice of psychiatry has much more to offer the future of our patients, our profession, and our nation, than the current status quo.  For the sake of Frank’s recovery, and the recovery of countless other men and women like him, maybe it’s time to make that happen.


How To Retire At Age 27

September 4, 2011

A doctor’s primary responsibility is to heal, and all of our efforts and resources should be devoted to that goal.  At times, it is impossible to restore a patient to perfect health and he or she must unfortunately deal with some degree of chronic disability.  Still other times, though, the line between “perfect health” and “disability” is blurred, and nowhere (in my opinion) is this more problematic than in psychiatry.

To illustrate, consider the following example from my practice:

Keisha (not her real name), a 27 year-old resident of a particularly impoverished and crime-ridden section of a large city, came to my office for a psychiatric intake appointment.  I reviewed her intake questionnaire; under the question “Why are you seeking help at this time?” she wrote: “bipolar schizophrenia depression mood swings bad anxiety ADHD panic attacks.”  Under “past medications,” she listed six different psychiatric drugs (from several different categories).  She had never been hospitalized.

When I first saw her, she appeared overweight but otherwise in no distress.  An interview revealed no obvious thought disorder, no evidence of hallucinations or delusions, nor did she complain of significant mood symptoms.  During the interview, she told me, “I just got my SSDI so I’m retired now.”  I asked her to elaborate.  “I’m retired now,” she said.  “I get my check every month, I just have to keep seeing a doctor.”  When I asked why she’s on disability, she replied, “I don’t know, whatever they wrote, bipolar, mood swings, panic attacks, stuff like that.”  She had been off medications for over two months (with no apparent symptoms); she said she really “didn’t notice” any effect of the drugs, except the Valium 20 mg per day, which “helped me settle down and relax.”

Keisha is a generally healthy 27 year-old.  She graduated high school (something rare in this community, actually) and took some nursing-assistant classes at a local vocational school.  She dropped out, however, because “I got stressed out.”  She tried looking for other work but then found out from a family member that she could “apply for disability.”  She applied and was denied, but then called a lawyer who specialized in disability appeals and, after about a year of resubmissions, received the good news that she can get Social Security Disability, ensuring a monthly check.

How is Keisha “disabled”?  She’s disabled because she went to see a doctor and, presumably, told that doctor that she can’t work because of “stress.”  That doctor probably asked her a series of questions like “are you unable to work because of your depressed mood?”, “Do you find it hard to deal in social situations because of your mood swings?” etc., and she answered them in the affirmative.  I’ve seen dozens—if not hundreds—of disability questionnaires, which ask the same questions.

I have no doubt that Keisha lives a stressful life.  I’ve driven through her part of town.  I’ve read about the turf wars being waged by the gangs there.  I know that her city has one of the highest murder rates in America, unemployment is high, schools are bad, and drug abuse and criminal activity are widespread.  I would be surprised if anyone from her neighborhood was not anxious, depressed, moody, irritable, or paranoid.

But I am not convinced that Keisha has a mental illness.

Lest you think that I don’t care about Keisha’s plight, I do.  Keisha may very well be struggling, but whether this is “major depression,” a true “anxiety disorder,” or simply a reaction to her stressful situation is unclear.  Unfortunately, psychiatry uses simple questions to arrive at a diagnosis—and there are no objective tests for mental illness—so a careless (or unscrupulous) provider can easily apply a label, designating Keisha’s situation as a legitimate medical problem.  When combined with the law firms eager to help people get “the government money they deserve,” and the very real fact that money and housing actually do help people like Keisha, we’ve created the illusion that mental illness is a direct consequence of poverty, and the way to treat it is to give out monthly checks.

As a physician, I see this as counter-therapeutic for a number of reasons.  With patients like Keisha, I often wonder, what exactly am I “treating”?  What constitutes success?  An improvement in symptoms?  (What symptoms?)  Or successfully getting her on the government dole?  And when a patient comes to me, already on disability after receiving a diagnosis of MDD (296.34) or panic disorder (300.21) from some other doctor or clinic, I can’t just say, “I’m sorry about your situation, but let’s see what we can do to overcome it together,” because there’s no incentive to overcome it.  (This is from someone who dealt with severe 307.51 for sixteen years, but who also had the promise of a bright future to help overcome it.)

Moreover, making diagnoses where there is no true pathology artificially inflates disease prevalence, further enlarging state and county mental health bureaucracies.  It enables massive over-prescription of expensive (e.g., atypical antipsychotics like Seroquel and Zyprexa), addictive (like stimulants and benzodiazepines), or simply ineffective (like SSRIs) medications.  And far from helping the downtrodden who claim to be its “victims,” this situation instead rewards drug companies and doctors, some of whom prefer serving this population because of the assembly-line nature of this sort of practice:  see the patient, make the diagnosis, write the script, and see them again in 3-6 months.

The bottom line is, here in America we’ve got thousands (perhaps millions?) of able-bodied people who, for one socioeconomic (i.e., not psychiatric) reason or another, can’t find work and have fallen upon psychiatric “disability” as their savior.  I’d love to help them, but, almost by definition, I cannot.  And neither can any other doctor.  Sure, they struggle and suffer, but their suffering is relieved by a steady job, financial support, and yes, direct government assistance.  These are not part of the psychiatric armamentarium.  It’s not medicine.

Psychiatry should not be a tool for social justice.  (We’ve tried that before.  It failed.)  Using psychiatric labels to help patients obtain taxpayers’ money, unless absolutely necessary and legitimate, is wasteful and dishonest.  More importantly, it harms the very souls we have pledged an oath to protect.

Community Psychiatry And Its Unintended Consequences

May 10, 2011

What impact can psychiatry have on the health of a community?

For three years, I have worked part-time in a non-profit psychopharmacology clinic, treating a wide range of individuals from a poor, underserved urban area.  In a recent post, I wrote that many of the complaints endorsed by patients from this population may be perceived as symptoms of a mental illness.  At one point or another (if not chronically), people complain of “anxiety,” “depression,” “insomnia,” “hopelessness,” etc.—even if these complaints simply reflect their response to environmental stressors, and not an underlying mental illness.

However, because diagnostic criteria are so nonspecific, these complaints can easily lead to a psychiatric diagnosis, especially when the diagnostic evaluation is limited to a self-report questionnaire and a 15- or 20-minute intake appointment.

Personally, I struggle with two opposing biases:  On the one hand, I want to believe that mental illness is a discrete entity, a pathological deviation from “normal,” and presents differently (longer duration, greater intensity, etc) from one’s expected reaction to a situation, however distressing that situation may be.  On the other hand, if I take people’s complaints literally, everyone who walks into my office can be diagnosed as mentally ill.

Where do we draw the line?  The question is an important one.  The obvious answer is to use clinical judgment and experience to distinguish “illness” from “health.”  But this boundary is vague, even under ideal circumstances.  It breaks down entirely when patients have complicated, confusing, chaotic histories (or can’t provide one) and our institutions are designed for the rapid diagnosis and treatment of symptoms rather than the whole person.  As a result, patients may be given a diagnosis where a true disorder doesn’t exist.

This isn’t always detrimental.  Sometimes it gives patients access to interventions from which they truly benefit—even if it’s just a visit with a clinician every couple of months and an opportunity to talk.  Often, however, our tendency to diagnose and to pathologize creates new problems, unintended diversions, and potentially dire consequences.

The first consequence is the overuse of powerful (and expensive) medications which, at best, may provide no advantage over a placebo and, at worst, may cause devastating side effects, not to mention extreme costs to our overburdened health care system.  Because Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements are better for medication management than for other non-pharmacological interventions, “treatment” often consists of brief “med check” visits every one to six months, with little time for follow-up or exploring alternative approaches.  I have observed colleagues seeing 30 or 40 patients in a day, sometimes prescribing multiple antipsychotics with little justification, frequently in combination with benzodiazepines or other sedatives, and asking for follow-up appointments at six-month intervals.  How this is supposed to improve one’s health, I cannot fathom.

Second, overdiagnosis and overtreatment diverts resources from where they are truly needed.  For instance, the number of patients who can access a mental health clinic like ours but who do not have a primary care physician is staggering.  Moreover, patients with severe, persistent mental illness (and who might be a danger to themselves or others when not treated) often don’t have access to assertive, multidisciplinary treatment.  Instead, we’re spending money on medications and office visits by large numbers of patients for whom diagnoses are inaccurate, and medications provide dubious benefit.

Third, this overdiagnosis results in a massive population of “disabled,” causing further strain on scarce resources.  The increasing number of patients on disability due to mental illness has long been chronicled.  Some argue that the disability is itself a consequence of medication.  It is also possible that some people may abuse the system to obtain certain resources.  More commonly, however, I believe that the failure of the system (i.e., we clinicians) to perform an adequate evaluation—and our inclination to jump to a diagnosis—has swollen the disability ranks to an unsustainably high level.

Finally—and perhaps most distressingly—is the false hope that a psychiatric diagnosis communicates to a patient.  I believe it can be quite disempowering for a person to hear that his normal response to a situation which is admittedly dire represents a mental illness.  A diagnosis may provide a transient sense of relief (or, at the very least, alleviate one’s guilt), but it also tells a person that he is powerless to change his situation, and that a medication can do it for him.  Worse, it makes him dependent upon a “system” whose underlying motives aren’t necessarily in the interest of empowering the neediest, weakest members of our society.  I agree with a quote in a recent BBC Health story that a lifetime on disability “means that many people lose their sense of self-worth, identity, and esteem.”  Again, not what I set out to do as a psychiatrist.

With these consequences, why does the status quo persist?  For any observer of the American health care system, the answer seems clear:  vested interests, institutional inertia, a clear lack of creative thought.  To make matters worse, none of the examples described above constitute malpractice; they are, rather, the standard of practice.

As a lone clinician, I am powerless to reverse this trend.  That’s not to say I haven’t tried.  Unfortunately, my attempts to change the way we practice have been met with resistance at many levels:  county mental health administrators who have not returned detailed letters and emails asking to discuss more cost-effective strategies for care; fellow clinicians who have looked with suspicion (if not derision) upon my suggestions to rethink our approach; and—most painfully to me—supervisors who have labeled me a bigot for wanting to deprive people of the diagnoses and medications our (largely minority) patients “need.”

The truth is, my goal is not to deprive anyone.  Rather, it is to encourage, to motivate, and to empower.  Diagnosing illness where it doesn’t exist, prescribing medications for convenience and expediency, and believing that we are “helping” simply because we have little else to offer, unfortunately do none of the above.

Mental Illness and Social Realities

May 2, 2011

Does the definition of “mental illness” differ from place to place?  Is there a difference between “depression” in a poor individual and in one of means?  Are the symptoms identical?  What about the neurobiology?  The very concept of a psychiatric “disease” implies that certain core features of one’s illness transcend the specifics of a person’s social or cultural background.  Nevertheless, we know that disorders look quite different, depending on the setting in which they arise.  This is why people practice psychiatry, not computers or checklists.  (Not yet, at least.)

However, sometimes a person’s environment can elicit reactions and behaviors that might appear—even to a trained observer—as mental illness.  If unchecked, this may create an epidemic of “disease” where true disease does not exist.  And the consequences could be serious.


For the last three years, I have had the pleasure of working part-time in a community mental health setting.  Our clinic primarily serves patients on Medicaid and Medicare, in a gritty, crime-ridden expanse of a major city.  Our patients are, for the most part, impoverished, poorly educated, have little or no access to primary care services, and live in communities ravaged by substance abuse, crime, unemployment, familial strife, and a deep, pervasive sense of hopelessness.

Even though our resources are extremely limited, I can honestly say that I have made a difference in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals.  But the experience has led me to question whether we are too quick to make psychiatric diagnoses for the sake of convenience and expediency, rather than on the basis of a fair, objective, and thorough evaluation.

Almost predictably, patients routinely present with certain common complaints:  anxiety, “stress,” insomnia, hopelessness, fear, worry, poor concentration, cognitive deficits, etc.  Each of these could be considered a feature of a deeper underlying disorder, such as an anxiety disorder, major depression, psychosis, thought disorder, or ADHD.  Alternatively, they might also simply reflect the nature of the environment in which the patients live, or the direct effects of other stressors that are unfortunately too familiar in this population.

Given the limitations of time, personnel, and money, we don’t usually have the opportunity for a thorough evaluation, collaborative care with other professionals, and frequent follow-up.  But psychiatric diagnostic criteria are vague, and virtually everyone who walks into my office endorses symptoms for which it would be easy to justify a diagnosis.  The “path of least” resistance” is often to do precisely that, and move to the next person in the long waiting-room queue.

This tendency to “knee-jerk” diagnosis is even greater when patients have already had some interaction—however brief—with the mental health system:  for example, a patient who visited a local crisis clinic and was given a diagnosis of “bipolar disorder” (on the basis of a 5-minute evaluation) and a 14-day supply of Zyprexa, and told to “go see a psychiatrist”; or the patient who mentioned “anxiety” to the ER doc in our county hospital (note: he has no primary care MD), was diagnosed with panic disorder, and prescribed PRN Ativan.

We all learned in our training (if not from a careful reading of the DSM-IV) that a psychiatric diagnosis should be made only when other explanations for symptoms can be ruled out.  Psychiatric treatment, moreover, should be implemented in the safest possible manner, and include close follow-up to monitor patients’ response to these interventions.

But in my experience, once a patient has received a diagnosis, it tends to stick.  I frequently feel an urge to un-diagnose patients, or, at the very least, to have a discussion with them about their complaints and develop a course of treatment—which might involve withholding medications and implementing lifestyle changes or other measures.  Alas, this takes time (and money—at least in the short run).  Furthermore, if a person already believes she has a disorder (even if it’s just “my mother says I must be bipolar because I have mood swings all the time!!!”), or has experienced the sedative, “calming,” “relaxing” effect of Seroquel or Klonopin, it’s difficult to say “no.”

There are consequences of a psychiatric diagnosis.  It can send a powerful message.  It might absolve a person of his responsibility to make changes in his life—changes which he might indeed have the power to make.  Moreover, while some see a diagnosis as stigmatizing, others may see it as a free ticket to powerful (and potentially addictive) medications, as well as a variety of social services, from a discounted annual bus pass, to in-home support services, to a lifetime of Social Security disability benefits.  Very few people consciously abuse the system for their own personal gain, but the system is set up to keep this cycle going.  For many, “successful” treatment means staying in that cycle for the rest of their lives.


The patients who seek help in a community mental health setting are, almost without exception, suffering in many ways.  That’s why they come to see us.  Some clinics do provide a wide assortment of services, including psychotherapy, case management, day programs, and the like.  For the truly mentally ill, these can be a godsend.

For many who seek our services, however, the solutions that would more directly address their suffering—like safer streets, better schools, affordable housing, stable families, less access to illicit drugs, etc.—are difficult or costly to implement, and entirely out of our hands.  In cases such as these, it’s unfortunately easier to diagnose a disease, prescribe a drug which (in the words of one of my colleagues) “allows them to get through just one more night,” and make poor, unfortunate souls even more dependent on a system which sees them as hopeless and unable to emerge from the chaos of their environment.

In my opinion, that’s not psychiatry.  But it’s being practiced every day.

Stress, Illness, and Biological Determinism

March 27, 2011

Two interesting articles caught my attention this week, on the important subject of “stress” and its relationship to human disease—both psychological and physical.  Each offers some promising ways to prevent stress-related disease, but they also point out some potential biases in precisely how we might go about doing so.

A piece by Paul Tough in the New Yorker profiled Nadine Burke, a San Francisco pediatrician (the article is here, but it’s subscription-only; another link might be here).  Burke works in SF’s poverty-stricken Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, where health problems are rampant.  She recognized that in this population, the precursors of disease are not just the usual suspects like poor access to health care, diet/lifestyle, education, and high rates of substance use, but also the impact of “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs.

Drawing upon research by Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, Burke found that patients who were subjected to more ACEs (such as parental divorce, physical abuse, emotional neglect, being raised by a family member with a drug problem, etc.) had worse outcomes as adults.  These early traumatic experiences had an effect on the development of illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness, and addiction.

The implication for public health, obviously, is that we must either limit exposure to stressful events in childhood, or decrease their propensity to cause long-term adverse outcomes.  The New Yorker article briefly covers some biological research in the latter area, such as how early stress affects DNA methylation in rats, and how inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein are elevated in people who were mistreated as children.  Burke is quoted as saying, “In many cases, what looks like a social situation is actually a neurochemical situation.”  And a Harvard professor claims, “this is a very exciting opportunity to bring biology into early-childhood policy.”

With words like “neurochemical” and “biology” (not to mention “exciting”) being used this way, it doesn’t take much reading-between-the-lines to assume that the stage is being set for a neurochemical intervention, possibly even a “revolution.”  One can almost hear the wheels turning in the minds of academics and pharmaceutical execs, who are undoubtedly anticipating an enormous market for endocrine modulators, demethylating agents, and good old-fashioned antidepressants as ways to prevent physical disease in the children of Hunters Point.

To its credit, the article stops short of proposing that all kids be put on drugs to eliminate the effects of stress.  The author emphasizes that Burke’s clinic engages in biofeedback, child-parent therapy, and other non-pharmacological interventions to promote secure attachment between child and caregiver.  But in a society that tends to favor the “promises” of neuropharmacology—not to mention patients who might prefer the magic elixir of a pill—is this simply window-dressing?  A way to appease patients and give the impression of doing good, until the “real” therapies, medications, become available?

More importantly, are we expecting drugs to reverse the effects of social inequities, cultural disenfranchisement, and personal irresponsibility?


The other paper is a study published this month in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.  In this paper, researchers from Sweden measured “psychological distress” and its effects on long-term disability in more than 17,000 “average” Swedish adults.  The subjects were given a baseline questionnaire in 2002, and researchers followed them over a five-year period to see how many received new disability benefits for medical or psychiatric illness.

Not surprisingly, there was a direct correlation between high “psychological distress” and high rates of disability.  It is, of course, quite possible that people who had high baseline distress were distressed about a chronic and disabling health condition, which worsened over the next five years.  But the study also found that even low levels of psychological stress at baseline were significantly correlated with the likelihood of receiving a long-term disability benefit, for both medical and psychiatric illness.

The questionnaire used by the researchers was the General Health Questionnaire, a deceptively simple, 12-question survey of psychological distress (a typical question is “Have you recently felt like you were under constant strain?” with four possible answers, “not at all” up to “much more than usual”)  and scored on a 12-point scale.  Interestingly, people who scored only 1 point out of 12 were twice as likely to receive a disability reward than those who scored zero, and the rates only went up from there.

I won’t delve into other details of the results here, but as Sweden resembles the US in its high rates of psychiatric “disability” (between 1990 and 2007, the percentage of disability rewards due to psychiatric illness rose from ~15% to over 40%), the implication is clear: even mild psychological “distress” is a risk factor for future illness—both physical and mental—and to reverse this trend, the effects of this distress must be treated or prevented in some way.


Both of these articles—from different parts of the world, using different measurement instruments, and looking at somewhat different outcomes—nevertheless reach the same conclusion:  early life stress is a risk factor for future disease.  This is a long-recognized phenomenon (for an easily accessible exploration of the topic, read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, a former mentor of mine).

But what do we do with this knowledge?  My fear is that, rather than looking at ways to minimize “stress” in the first place (through social programs, education, and other efforts to raise awareness of the detrimental effects of stress), we as a society are instead conditioned to think about how we can intervene with a drug or some other way to modulate the “neurochemical situation,” as Nadine Burke put it.  In other words, we’re less inclined to act than to react, and our reactions are essentially chemical in nature.

As a psychiatrist who has worked with an inner-city population for many years, I’m already called upon to make diagnoses and prescribe medications not for what are obviously (to me) clear-cut cases of significant and disabling mental illness, but, rather, the accumulated effects of stress and trauma.  (I’ll write more about this fascinating interface of society and biology in the future.)   True, sometimes the diagnoses do “fit,” and indeed sometimes the medications work.  But I am doing nothing to prevent the initial trauma, nor do I feel that I am helping people cope with their stress by telling them to take a pill once or twice a day.

We as a society need to make sure we don’t perpetuate the false promises of biological determinism.  I applaud Nadine Burke and I’m glad epidemiologists (and the New Yorker) are asking serious questions about precursors of disease.  But let’s think about what really helps, rather than looking solely to biology as our savior.

(Thanks to Michael at The Trusting Heart for leading me to the New Yorker article.)

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