24 August 2014

Help Shape the Mental Health Conversation at Medicine X

Mental health too seldom is discussed. There remains a stigma associated with with conditions that impact the brain. Why? The brain has no better protection from illness than the heart or the lungs or the skin, yet we hold it to an entirely different standard. This antiquated philosophy must change—and only will change when we bring conversations about mental health to the forefront.

I am an advisor to Medicine X, a healthcare and emerging technology conference held at Stanford University each September. During and after Medicine X 2013, attendees and those engaging in the conference via the livestream and Twitter feed called for greater inclusion of mental health issues—and we listened. At Medicine X 2014, mental health and psychology weave their way in and out of various presentations. Daniel Siegel, MD will give a keynote speech and lead a 90-minute Master Class on "Compassion, Connection and Engagement: How Health Arises from our Mind, Body, and Relationships." Dustin DiTommaso of MadPow will take a look at the psychology of motivation and how to close the gap between people's intentions and their actions. Allison Darcy presents her work to develop and pilot a smartphone app for patients with eating disorders. Four CEO's will talk about building companies to bring emerging technology to mental health; and psychologist Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte leads a panel discussion about mental health as a turning point for whole person health.

It would be remiss of me to talk about bringing mental health into the light without being open about my own. As a freshman in college, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Changes in environment and my support network brought the diagnosis about—I am an only child, and frankly, I always got along better with adults than I did my peers. I went to a relatively large university where 200 to 300 students filled giant lecture halls for introductory classes. My professors didn't know I existed. I became withdrawn and my grades suffered (taking 17 hours of classes didn't help). I did best in the two classes I had registered for without my advisor's approval—junior/senior level classics and political science courses in which I was one of 20 students. I made it through the school year, went home for the summer, and took stock of my situation. I made changes, and I made it out of there three years later. 

My depression and anxiety didn't resolve with graduation. My first job as a reporter meant always being on call, covering murders and deadly accidents, never knowing a holiday, and hardly seeing my parents. Perhaps I should have taken it as a sign that the newspaper had a group discount rate with a local counselor. At my first appointment, I spent the full hour talking to her but looking at her two dogs whose soft, soothing ears and warm brown eyes invited me to be honest with myself. 

My second counselor came into my life after I had triple bypass surgery that resolved a host of problems but created a new relationship with my body that I did not know how to negotiate. My third counselor and I stuck together for years, and he created an environment in which I was safe enough to explore my teenage traumas and tackle issues that prevented me from being as emotionally present as I wanted to be for my husband. 

I could not and would not have successfully navigated the past 15 years to get where I am now without help from mental health professionals. Their training in turn trained me how to help myself. Like any expert, they had knowledge that I did not. If I had wanted to rebuild an engine, I would have gone to learn from a mechanic. If I had wanted to learn how to fly, I would have gone to learn from a pilot. If I had wanted to learn how to paint, I would have gone to learn from an art instructor. I wanted to learn how to best care for my mental, emotional, and physical self, so I went to learn from a counselor. 

And there's not a single day that I regret doing so. 

Does my diagnosis mean that there's a mark in my medical file? Yes. Does that mean that I'll never be hired to become part of the CIA's spy network? Yes. Are those things more important than the fact that I am happier and healthier than I ever would have been without addressing my mental health needs? No. Is it fair that some people will and do judge me for taking this action to advocate for myself? No. Do I particularly care that they do? No because it is clear that they missed the anatomy lesson explaining that the brain is an organ—an extremely complex organ, the mysteries of which we are so very far from understanding. 

At Medicine X, I will be moderating a panel: "Depression in Chronic Illness and Coping Through Online Communities." In order to open the conversation to as many who wish to participate and address questions may not find answers elsewhere, I am asking you—yes YOU—to pose your questions to the panel. 

All questions submitted as a comment to this post between Sunday, Aug. 24 and Wednesday, Sept. 3 will be considered. Panelists will choose one question from those submitted to answer from the Medicine X main stage. Anyone interested in the conversation may tune in to Medicine X's through the Global Access Program, which will feature this main stage panel discussion from 5:25 to 6:10 p.m. Pacific Time on Saturday, Sept. 6. Real time commentary will be happening on Twitter via #MedX

After the conference, panelists will have the option to respond to additional questions in writing through a series of blog posts. 

Help us shape this important discussion about depression, chronic illness, and online resources. What do you want to know? Leave a comment to submit your question, and if you're on Twitter, connect with panelists at: @AfternoonNapper, @bacigalupe, @DrBeckerShutte, @ekeeleymoore, @Hugo_OC, @Strangely_TI

3 comments:

  1. I'm glad to see this issue is starting to get exposure at larger conferences outside of the mental health realm. I'm sure Medicine X will give the subject the treatment it deserves.

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  2. I read today that the World Economic Forum says 38 percent of illness in rich countries is mental illness, and yet (in Canada) only 6 percent of health funding goes to treating all mental illness. Among those who die by suicide each year depression is the most common illness of all. That's a shocking lack of funding.
    I wonder how we could increase that percentage of money allocated to mental health, and how do we make sure that being treated for a mental health problem does not act like a signal to other doctors when you go to see them, that may blind them to organic disease you may have.

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  3. Glad that you are focusing on mental health issues at MedX. This might be too narrow a focus but here is my question.
    How can medical oncologists and oncology nurses better recognize mental health issues experienced by cancer patients during and after treatment so that proper treatment and referrals can be made. Recognizing these issues is important especially in rural and community cancer centers where access to an oncology social worker may be limited.

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"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world." — Buddha