6. Prozac Monologues

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Spirituality, Mental Illness, and the Wellness Paradigm

Spirituality has a troubled place in the psychiatrist's office. A recent PsychiatricTimes.com article explores the complex reasons. The discomfort starts in "the traditional psychoanalytic view of religion being almost a culturally sanctioned form of neurosis" and continues through the modern diagnostic schema, "it is not uncommon to have delusions with religious or spiritual elements." While the DSM, the manual that guides diagnosis of psychiatric ailments takes care not to label as delusional any thought that is part of the cultural framework of the patient, this fig leaf seems to beg the question - is the patient's culture built on delusion?

Neurotic or delusional - which would you rather?

Honor the physician

The issue is made thornier by the recent development in Christianity that pits faith against science. And I cannot stress enough - this is a recent (also North American) development. Alas, what was once a minority voice within American Christianity has gained political and cultural power and, in this country at least, threatens to drown out the traditional Jewish and Christian view, as expressed in the Book of Ecclesiasticus:

Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him; for healing comes from the Most High, and he will receive a gift from the king. The skill of the physician lifts up his head, and in the presence of great men he is admired. The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.

Again alas, not a lot of sensible around these days. I don't even want to give you the link to the page that headlines, Psychiatry is a vicious enemy of Christianity and the Bible. In bold type, no less. One can hardly blame doctors for suspecting those who make them choose between religion and the gifts that God gave them.

Now there are plenty of psychiatrists who recognize this choice to be nonsense, among them one of the psychiatrists interviewed in the article above. While president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, Paul Summergrad "convened a gathering of clergy, other faith leaders, patients, and patient advocates with a group of distinguished psychiatric leaders. [Their] first goal... was to establish a dialogue and recognize common goals. [Their] work group developed a guide for faith-based leaders, which can be found and downloaded... from the APA website. "

A Guide for Faith-based Leaders

This guide has good stuff in it, and I commend it to faith leaders. But there is something about it that bugs me. It bugs me in most stuff that I have read written by people who approach spirituality from a scientific point of view. It is found in their description of wellness.

Wellness means overall well-being. For people with mental health and substance use conditions, wellness is not simply the absence of disease, illness, or stress, but the presence of purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful. relationships, a healthy body and living environment, and happiness. It incorporates the mental, emotional, physical, occupational, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of a person's life. Each aspect of wellness can affect overall quality of life.

There is a graphic that demonstrates each of these aspects as separate items, presumably of equal weight, with Wellness at the center.

Well, what's wrong with that? I am just not sure that spirituality can be turned into an item among others. I am a priest. Spirituality is my life. But I can't figure out how to use it to promote my wellness. God uses me. I have no idea how to use God. And frankly, I suspect those who do.

Wellness vs. Wholeness

What would that graphic look like if theologians created it? For one, at least for this one, Wellness would not hold central position. Wholeness would. Not exactly the same thing. Wholeness is how to describe spiritual health. It is a translation of the Hebrew shalom or Arabic salaam. It means the kind of peace that comes from completeness and includes the completeness or justice of the community. It does not depend on financial, environmental, nor physical health. How one addresses either presence or lack of financial, environmental, and physical health is a measure of spiritual health.


Doctors are about the business of maximizing wellness. That is their job and, from a spiritual perspective, their calling. That's fine, and this wellness paradigm is fine. Except for the spirituality part. Spirituality is a different paradigm.

Well, I have only stated my starting point here. Perhaps this sounds like nonsense to you? Spirituality is peddled today as something to make you feel good. Okay, let me put it out there. Feeling good, as a life goal, is the goal of a spiritual peanut.

This blogpost will just have to become a book. I would like your help. What are the questions you would like to explore about spirituality and mental illness? Like, can you be whole and mentally ill? Does prayer really work, and how? Does it make a difference what you believe? Add a comment. Thanks.

cartoon from @lectrr

photo of St. Luke (patron of doctors) window by author

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Doctors as Priests, Providers and Protectors - Part 4

In Priests, Providers, and Protectors: The Three Faces of  the PhysicianRon Pies proposes a third way to view physicians, not exalting them to the grandiose position of Priest nor demoting them to mere Provider. In the role I call the Protector, the physician's chief obligation is that of  the safeguarding of the patient's physical, emotional, and spiritual well being.

This is a role that acknowledges the patient's autonomy, while recognizing the physician's expertise and the ethical imperative to use that expertise to express foundational principles of the medical field: beneficence, nonmaleficense, and justice. Do good, don't do harm, and I'm not sure what he means by justice, though I have some ideas. The examples below are mine, not his.

Protector falls on the ear a tad pretentious. Alas, us literary types on occasion choose alliteration over precision. A trip to the thesaurus gave me the word Defender. Either word reminds us that patients need physicians. We need their expertise and their access to the tools of modern medicine, because we don't know what they know, and we cannot write our own prescriptions nor do our own surgeries.

We also need their attention, dedication, and good will. Their knowledge and access give them power over. There is no getting around that. So we need them to exercise that power with beneficence and nonmaleficence. This is a fiduciary responsibility, a trust relationship. In our ever more contractual culture, the notion of an obligation to be trustworthy is a throwback, intentionally so on Pies' part.

Physicians' fiduciary responsibility puts constraints on their power over. It limits the provider role. There are things that physicians are ethically constrained from providing, for example, addictive substances to addicts and, some say, the means to those who want to die.

Fiduciary responsibility also acknowledges the limits of patient autonomy. The role of physician as protector is to step in and take over when the patient's autonomy has been compromised by his/her condition. The middle of a coronary or a mental health crisis is not a good time for the patient to research alternatives or weigh costs and benefits. The role of the physician here, as Pies sees it, is to restore the patient's autonomy.

What about justice, which Pies calls one of the foundational principles of the medical field? Those in power want to be the arbiters of what justice is, though they are poorly positioned to recognize their own violations of it. When medicine for profit came to be (really, profit, not universal health care, is the novel concept), the power of modern day physicians slipped. In this brave new world of health care as an industry, physicians have another role, that of employee, preferably non-unionized, from the industry's perspective.

As the health care industry devolves into a hostage situation, with the mounting deaths of people with type 1 diabetes as just one indicator, many physicians have taken up the cause of single payer health care, particularly psychiatrists whose patients have least access to employment and health insurance, and are least able to advocate for themselves politically.

Physicians find themselves having to weigh in when a law would controvert professional ethics and permit them to refuse care to certain groups for "religious reasons." Another incursion of government into medicine contradicts physicians' ethics by restricting the medical information they can give to patients. These are but two examples where physicians have stepped up in the political arena to protect patients' physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Pies, the ethicist calls his colleagues to their calling with its ancient responsibilities. He represents a movement that I think of as "reweaving the web," a counterrevolution against utilitarianism. Maybe profit isn't the bottom line, after all. Maybe humanity is. Best wishes to my friend who takes up this cause.

Previous posts in this series:

Doctors as Providers
Doctors as Priests
Doctors as Priests - The Look

let docs speak meme from AMA site

Friday, April 5, 2019

Doctors as Priests -- The Look

Several years ago I took Prozac for what was then thought to be Major Depression.  The hypomanic episode it precipitated gave me a book.  But before that, it gave me the runs.  Since my first doctor thought the runs would go away on their own, but I was about to leave for Costa Rica and wanted them to go away faster, I sought a second opinion.  The new patient form asked for my full history, and I told the truth about my depression, as well as the runs.

What follows is an excerpt from Prozac Monologues, the book to be published next year.  It describes that appointment.  I offer it as an example of a doctor functioning as priest.  [See last week's commentary on Ron Pies' article, Priests, Providers, and Protectors: The Three Faces of the Physician.]  Not the Father kind of priest, but the more ancient healer/witch/shaman kind.  It's tricky to handle the power of the priesthood.  But I want doctors to manage that power responsibly, not give it up on account of its ambiguity.  It is the power of relationship.  We need doctors to use every power at their disposal to heal.  Priesthood is one of those powers.

The Look

...When the doctor looked at the piece of paper with all those words circled on it, she didn't smile at my weak attempt at humor.  Oh well.  What she was most concerned about for my trip to Costa Rica was how I would manage my depression as the Prozac was leaving my system -- which I could tell it was, because the dark suffocating cloud was coming back.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Doctors as Priests, Providers, and Protectors - Part 2

Ron Pies and I ask similar questions.  Well, I never asked Is Suicide Immoral?  But maybe I should let that one go...  In addition to being Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY and Tufts, Pies is a bioethicist and Editor in Chief Emeritus at Psychiatrictimes.com.  So while he writes books like Clinical Manual of Psychiatric Diagnosis and Treatment: A Biopsychosocial Approach, his philosopher, poet, and novelist vocations are expressed in other works, including The Myeloma Year: And Essays on Mind and Spirit.

The kind of guy I'd love to meet for coffee and conversation, Pies added to my fascination an article reflecting on his role as a doctor, Priests, Providers, and Protectors: The Three Faces of the Physician.  See, my senior thesis reflected on my own future role as priest, the ordained kind, Is the Holy Spirit an Equal Opportunity Employer?  Both of us take on the notion of priest as Father.

"Yes, Father, I've been taking my medicine."  A patient's slip of the tongue led Pies to recall the ancient connection between the roles of healer and holy person.  It's a natural connection, if you consider the divine will to be for healing.  It doesn't matter what faith tradition you examine.  The two roles were originally one.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Doctors as Priests, Providers, and Protectors - Part 1

The Three Faces of the Physician is the subtitle of a recent article in Psychiatric Times by Ronald L. Pies, MD, Professor in Psychiatry at SUNY and Tufts, Editor in Chief Emeritus at said e-zine, bioethicist, and aspiring mensch.  Dr. Pies and I have been allies on a certain DSM revision.  We once butted heads over the nature of suicide.  And he has provided valuable assistance in the science chapters of my soon to be published book Prozac Monologues: Are You Sure It's Just Depression?  His (typically) thoughtful examination of the shifting role of physician calls for a response from the side of the relationship, the confessant, consumer, and cared for, aka patient.  My (typically) thoughtful response will be in three parts, starting in the middle of this alliterative stew.

Pies has many problems with the title provider.  It blurs the distinctions among the various health care team members, their roles, responsibilities, and contributions.  It obscures the dignity of a highly educated, hard working and dedicated profession.  It compromises the relationship with its counterpart, the consumer who comes to the exchange overvaluing what she has learned from her internet searches and trying to tell the doctor what to prescribe.

Consumer Movement

Pies traces the origins of the provider usage to two things, the consumer movement in medicine and the encouragement of the insurance industry.  There are good things to be said about the consumer movement, he acknowledges.  I will list a couple of them here.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Loony Saints - Margaret of Cortona Edition

Every once in a while, Prozac Monologues reaches into my Roman Catholic childhood's fascination with saints, especially the ones who today might be assigned a diagnostic code in the DSM.  Twice, Lent Madness has introduced me to new ones that I share with you.

Lent Madness 2012


A few years ago it was Christina the Astonishing.










Today it's Margaret of Cortona.  If you're a Lent Madness regular, you'd expect Margaret to be a shoe in for the first round of voting, where her competition is a stuffy old bishop/theologian, because Margaret became a Franciscan and, more significantly, her story features a dog.  Lent Madness voters are suckers for dogs.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Bipolar and Wonky Wiring -- The Football Version

The brain is like a football team.  Go Ducks!


There are several parts, each playing its own position and fulfilling a particular function.  Together they run plays that have been rehearsed and repeated over and over, many until nearly automatic.  The behavior of the other team/environment requires adaptation of these plays, often in mid-play.  And communication among the members is essential.


Here is how they line up on the brain field.  Analysis is at the front, near the forehead.  Memory and emotion hang out together.  Coordination is at the back.  Basic life functions are at the base of the skull.  Communication runs through the middle, connecting them all to one another.