Digging Deep

Sir Richard Thompson, President of the Royal College of Physicians in Britain claims that ‘time spent planting, pruning and propagating can be more powerful than a dose of expensive anti-depressant drugs”. Not surprisingly, the NHS is advising GPs to prescribe gardening rather than pills as a way to help individuals to beat depression. No doubt this shift from medication to horticulture is largely motivated by economics – much cheaper and, whilst not everybody is a horticulturist, most people can engage in some gardening activities – hedge-clipping, mowing the lawn, weeding, planting, watering plants and just the enjoyment of being outdoors. The shift is also due to the ever-increasing tide of evidence that the chemical properties of anti-depressants don’t have any therapeutic effects and that what works is the hope provided – known as the placebo effect (see Irving Kirsch’s book ‘The Emperor’ s New Drugs’ and Joanna Moncrieff’s ‘The Myth of the Chemical Cure’ which was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year 2009).

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Suffering is a Path, not a Pathology

Recently I gave a keynote presentation on Finding Compassionate Care at the 19th International Conference on Palliative Care in Dublin.  A key message I wished to communicate was that a clear distinction needs to be made between pain and suffering.  A second message was that in order to truly and fully understand human suffering we need to respond to it symbolically, rather than literally.  Literal interpretations do little to resolve human suffering and typically block the emergence of more creative possibilities to resolving it.

Pain is physiological and, most often, though not always, pathological, whereas suffering is psycho-spiritual, for it inevitably attempts to draw attention to a life unlived, to buried hurts and hidden vulnerabilities and to the presence of powerful protective forces against further emotional and social lessening of one’s presence.  Suffering can also be spiritual because it invites us to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are.  In my seven years in an enclosed Catholic monastery and several times over my lifetime to date I frequently endured “the dark night of the soul” where a deeper meaning to our human existence eluded me.  At this moment in time I feel much closer to the mystery of who we really are.

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The Poisoned Chalice

At a recent mental health forum on ‘Depression in Rural Ireland’ held in Ennistymon, Co. Clare, Dr. Bhamjee, a psychiatrist, said that ‘there is growing scientific evidence that adding trace amounts of the drug lithium to a water supply can lower rates of depression and suicide. I’m not sure what research the psychiatrist was relying upon, because very up-to-date research goes quite contrary to the above quoted assertion. There is also Dr. Bhamjee’s unsubstantiated assumption that depression is a neuro-biological condition rather than an emotion that arises to draw attention to struggles within the individual who is distressed. Surely, the fact that the suicide rate increases by 25 per cent during times of international economic recessions points to and supports that depression is due to problems in living and not some theoretical chemical imbalance!

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Depression in Children – Myth or Reality?

I have always believed that the sources of human distress lie in an individual’s story and the research facts presented in my recent article ‘A Crazy Idea’ spoke for themselves regarding there being no evidence for a biochemical basis to human misery. Whilst I have no doubt that those professionals who subscribe to the notion of mental illness are well-intentioned, there is the conundrum that they do not appear to have kept abreast of research findings. The position that needs addressing is that physicians either don’t read the research literature or they do read it and ignore it – in both situations there is a case to be answered. It seems that it has taken over two hundred years for psychiatrists to begin to realise that the causes and cures for human desperation be in relationship, not in biochemistry.

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The Power of the Placebo

Depression is an extremely distressing experience.  Individuals can feel unbearably miserable and chronically anxious and sometimes suicidal.  They endure deep feelings of worthlessness, despair and either suffer from not sleeping enough or sleeping too much.  Getting out of bed in the morning is tortuous for they feel they have nothing to get up for.  What is often not appreciated by health care professionals that depression is unconsciously created by the person to draw attention to repressions that occurred in childhood in response to painful violations of one’s person and a hypercriticism of one’s behaviour.

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