Breathing health into a stone?

Are my emotions mine? That is, do they live inside me, or are they things that are shared -exist between me and others, in other words? Are they more the combination of genetic predisposition and situational features which are dependent on societal norms that we were taught from our early years at home and in the community?

It seems to me that it is an important point: where should we direct our efforts if we feel  emotions are getting out of hand? Is simply treating me sufficient, or am I the fabled canary in the coal mine? I’ve been retired from specialist medical practice for some years now, and I can feel my loyalties shifting. It’s not that I have joined the dark side, or anything -more that I can see both sides better from the border.

If we are to confront medical skepticism, it is a good idea to examine it from a historical perspective. I found a helpful essay by Bernice L. Hausman, professor and chair of the Department of Humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania: https://aeon.co/essays/what-explains-the-enduring-grip-of-medical-skepticism

Early in her explanation, she writes that ‘while medical therapeutics have advanced considerably, many current treatments are also aggressive… Consider the expansion of disease categories to include personality quirks and body types, side-effects that demand further medications, drug interactions that are deadly, and medical supervision of things left well enough alone. If 18th-century medicine lacked a scientific basis, our problem might be too many therapies for our own good. The expansion of treatment has led to a critical response – ‘medicalisation’, which describes a skeptical approach to mainstream medicine’s social role in defining health.’

Indeed, what is ‘health’? Is it merely a state of being free of injury or illness, or is there something else involved as well? Something that medicine often fails to address: who has the social authority to decide what constitutes health -not so much for society as a whole, but for the individual? And how it should best be treated, for that matter?

Take an old example: TB. The proximate cause, of course, is the tuberculum bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, but in some sense the bacterium is merely opportunistic. The ultimate, or distal cause may well be something like impaired immunity from malnutrition or poverty. So, which cause should be addressed -the proximate one, of course, but should we leave it at that? Is it enough to rub our hands and say ‘done’? For that matter, to whom should we look for a remedy?

But, the problem is still with us -for example, the current pandemic of Covid 19 with its massive social and economic upheavals. From time to time, there has been promulgated the exculpatory mantra that the virus knows no boundaries; the virus does not discriminate, unlike our political borders. But of course it does. The communities of colour -African American and Latino, in America at least- seem to be disproportionately affected. Why? Well, there are a few obvious factors at play. ‘African-Americans have higher rates of underlying conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease, that are linked to more severe cases of COVID-19′. And, ‘They also often have less access to quality health care, and are disproportionately represented in essential frontline jobs that can’t be done from home, increasing their exposure to the virus,’ according to a report (May30/2020) from NPR.

And, from the same report, ‘Latinos are [also] over-represented in essential jobs that increase their exposure to the virus… Regardless of their occupation, high rates of poverty and low wages mean that many Latinos feel compelled to leave home to seek work. Dense, multi-generational housing conditions make it easier for the virus to spread.’ Of course, by now that is old hat… isn’t it?

I suspect I saw it differently when I was in practice, but perspective is often beguiling -the old aphorism about the hammer and the nail, perhaps? ‘In Medical Nemesis (1975), Illich [the intellectual iconoclast, Ivan Illich, a Croatian-Austrian Catholic priest] made a starkly prescient argument against medicine as a dangerous example of what some call ‘the managed life’, where every aspect of normal living requires input from an institutionalised medical system. It was Illich who introduced the term ‘iatrogenesis’, from the Greek, meaning doctor-caused illness. There were three levels of physician-caused illness, as far as he was concerned: clinical, social and cultural. Clinical iatrogenesis comprises treatment side-effects that sicken people. Social iatrogenesis describes patients as individual consumers of treatment who are self-interested agents rather than actively political individuals who could work for broader social transformations to improve the health of all.

But, cultural iatrogenesis is the one that interests me the most, I must admit: that ‘people’s innate capacities to confront and experience suffering, illness, disappointment, pain, vulnerability and death are [being] displaced by medicine.’

Illich thinks that ‘medicine takes a technical approach to ordinary life events, hollowing out the rich interpersonal relations of caring that defined being human for millennia.’ But to be fair, Illich still felt that ‘Sanitation, vector control, inoculation, and general access to dental and primary medical care were hallmarks of a truly modern culture that fostered self-care and autonomy.’ He was more concerned with the impersonal bureaucracy that surrounded medicine. An interesting criticism, and one that I also share -albeit one that seems to stem from the medical system as he saw it from south of our Canadian border.

And yet I think the thrust of Hausman’s essay was more a reaction to the disillusionment that followed the initial promise of modern medicine. Things like delegating the definition of health to professionals who have a vested interest in defining it in a way that seems to mandate the continued need for them. I think this view is unfair, but, given Illich’s iatrogenesis concerns, I can see how that attitude might seem plausible.

Have we doctors been -are we still- sometimes too aggressive in our treatments, too arrogant in our knowledge, too certain of our advice, and too resistant to alternative approaches? I’m not suggesting that we cave to pseudoscience, or acquiesce to theories just because they are currently fashionable; Science is never perfect, and is open to change. But still, primum non nocere is a good aphorism to guide us: First of all, do no harm. I seem to remember promising something like that in my medical oath…

Whether ’tis Nobler in the Mind

I may have inadvertently stumbled upon something important. I may have found a boundary marker that potentially distinguishes New Age from Old Age. Of course, definitionally I could be way out of my league –New Age being construed as anything that happened after I left university- but considered as a panoply, I think it works, if only conceptually.

I happened upon an article in the CBC news app while scrolling through my phone, that struck me as interesting: http://www.cbc.ca/1.4302866 -perhaps because I had never thought about technology in those terms, and perhaps because I felt embarrassed that I had been caught doing just that.

The premise was that we seem to turn to various apps on our devices for problem solving of many sorts. Everything from comparing shopping prices to trends in fashion to the latest news. And, as we are increasingly discovering, these digital peregrinations revisit us in the form of directed advertisements hoping to cash in on our whimsical journeys. Nothing is thrown away in the digital world –even our whims are stored, categorized, and pragmatically redistributed. And if notions, then it seems a small step to include moods. Emotions –positive, or otherwise- should be equally trackable.

In fact, I learned that ‘Google announced it now offers mental-health screenings when users in the U.S. search for “depression” or “clinical depression” on their smartphones. Depending on what you type, the search engine will actually offer you a test. […] And Facebook is working on an artificial intelligence that could help detect people who are posting or talking about suicide or self-harm.’

Perhaps this is where I feel the shadow of a boundary issue. There seems little question that mood disorders transcend age and gender; what is more problematic, however, is whether there may be a generational divide in confiding those emotions digitally, or even believing that solace could lie therein. The problem is not so much in putting these issues in writing –diaries, and correspondence, after all, have long been a rich retrospective source for biographers. The difference, it seems to me though, is the intent of the disclosure –diaries have traditionally been personal, and usually, not meant as a way of communication, but rather a way of sorting out thoughts. Private thoughts. Letters, as well, were directed to particular individuals –often trusted confidants- and not meant for publication outside that circle. Have the older generation –Generation R, for example (Retirement, to attach a label)- been sufficiently swept up in the digital river, to feel comfortable in clinging to its flotsam like their children?

I’m certainly not gainsaying the efforts of the internet giants to expand into the mental health realm –it seems a natural progression, so perhaps this is a start… and yet it’s one thing to key in on various words like ‘depression’ and have the algorithm kick in with a screening test, but another to sift through the context to determine the appropriateness of offering the test. I suppose random screening like that may be helpful for some, but as Dr. John Torous, the co-director of the digital psychiatry program at Harvard Medical School and chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s workgroup on smartphone apps, observes, ‘”One of the trickiest things is that language is complex … and there’s a lot of different ways that people can phrase that they’re in distress or need help.”’ Amen to that.

Quite apart from translational difficulties and the more abstract and culturally-fraught issues with their changing metaphors and societal expectations, there are other language problems –even in the dominant language of whatever country: changing vocabularies, local argot, and misspellings, to name only a few.

To state that human culture is complex, is a trope, and to believe that artificial intelligence will be able to keep up with its multifaceted, ever-changing face, anytime soon is probably naïve. And, as the article points out, privacy –no matter the promises of the internet provider, or the app-producer- is another weak link in the chain. Quite apart from malicious hacking, or innocent and trusting confidence in the potential for help, ‘Our phones already collect a tremendous amount of personal data. They know where we are and who we’re speaking and texting with, as well as our voice, passwords, and internet browsing activities. “If on top of that, we’re using mental-health services through the phone, we may actually be giving up a lot more data than people realize,” Torous says. He also cautions that many of the mental-health services currently available in app stores aren’t protected under federal privacy laws [at least in the United States], so you’re not afforded the same privacy protections as when you talk to a doctor.’

In a very real –if mainly age-related- sense, I am relieved I did not grow up in the digital age. I am fortunate that Orwell’s prescient ‘1984’ was available, not as a quaint attempt at predicting the future, but as a warning about a creeping surveillance that seemed so malevolently unrealistic when it was written –it was first published in 1949, remember. And when I read it, the date was still sufficiently far in the future that it seemed more science fiction than predictive. Yet, as the years wore on, and society changed in unexpected ways, the horrors of the theme, for me at least, became more and more uncomfortable. More and more possible, despite the reassuring smoke blown in our eyes by those eager for progress, and mesmerized by the possibilities.

I mention this, not to suggest that I was unique in this discomfort –I was obviously not- nor to imply that what we are now experiencing is evil, or even threatening, but merely to explain the hesitation of many of those my age in accepting, unreservedly, the digitally-wrapped gifts so readily proffered. It is not a venue to which I would likely turn for health issues, or emotional sustenance.

For me, there is something more reassuring about an eye-to-eye encounter with another member of the same species, able to understand the vagaries of language, and compare the nuanced phrasing of my words with the expression on my face. Perhaps, I’ll change -perhaps I’ll have to- and yet… and yet I’d still feel better dealing with an entity –a person– able to experience the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And yes, someone who has read and understood what Shakespeare meant.