What if the World Embraced the Mysteries of the Mind?
Event Date: 2/12/2019
The United States has a complicated history of and relationship with mental health and awareness. Dr. Christine Montross helps illuminate some of these attitudes as she explores her work as a psychiatrist and the challenges she sees in her patients through her writing.
Montross was the keynote speaker Tuesday, Feb. 12, as part of the Medical Humanities Collective and its theme of “Coming Out of the Fire: Mental Health and Wellbeing.”
In a talk before a packed Fowler Hall in Stewart Center, Montross spoke on a variety of themes, illustrating each with her writing. She raised the question of how she could reconcile these two different parts of herself: her work as a physician with her need to write and to be creative.
“Could I bring the mind of a poet to the practice of medicine?” she asked herself. For so long, she said, writing had been a tool she could use for helping her process her own thoughts.
“I always, as long as I can remember, have used writing to make sense of my life. Was I betraying my commitment to writing by entering medical school?”
Montross uses her writing as advocacy for her patients, many of whom do not have a voice. As a practicing psychiatrist, she sees first-hand their suffering. On a day-to-day basis she sees her patients, struggling to cope with the burdens of life. Finding and paying for their health care is one of those struggles. And if they can’t take care of their mental health — such a fundamental piece of one’s well-being — all the other pieces of their lives cannot possibly fall into place.
And at the same time, she says she overhears conversations on the train, or on the sidelines of her children’s soccer games, talking about how the Affordable Care Act will be detrimental to small businesses.
“There’s an enormous disconnect between my patients and the discussions on the train,” she said. “Maybe if the people on the soccer sidelines or on the train could see what I’ve seen, they’d change their minds.”
Her second book, “Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis,” helps shed light on the struggles and challenges these people face. It’s easy for those who are not afflicted in this way to ignore those very real struggles.
“We all live as if we will live forever, as if the cruelty that is death is hidden from us, somehow behind a veil,” she said. “Mental illness pierces that veil, allowing those afflicted to live with more terror, more unease than those who do not suffer its wrath.”
Montross sees her job as aiding her patients, to “help them heal so they suffer less, so they can have hope.”
But, she said, she finds herself wondering what it would be like to deal with her patients misery day in and day out. Again, this is where her writing helps her, helps her to cope just as she helps her patients cope.
She spoke finally on the connection between the criminal justice system and the mentally ill, an issue that forms a backdrop for Montross’ current project and the focus of her third book. Mentally ill patients face radically different outcomes depending on whether they are offered time in the hospital or time in jail.
So often, punishment in the United States is meted out as sort of revenge, as a way to exact more suffering. “Are we being honest about what we want?” she asked.
“We obtain satisfaction in hurting those who hurt us,” she said. “We do everything in our power to minimize harm to ourselves and our families.” Thus we err on the side of locking people up rather than setting them free, merely as an attempt to protect ourselves. And often those punishments are irrational — sentences of 300 years in prison, three consecutive life terms — sentences, punishments that are not even logical, she said.
Montross spoke of visiting a facility for youthful offenders — teenagers as young as 14, who had been sentenced to four years. The disparities in income and race were forefront. Plus, she wondered, what could a 14-year-old have done that would warrant a four-year sentence?
She noted that the youthful offenders are often given solitary confinement as a punishment, which is only compounding the problems for these youths: their still-developing brains, a child who already lacked the guidance to learn good decision-making skills, or a child who may have already suffered trauma.
We know the answers, she said, given Harry Harlow’s studies on primate isolation. Prolonged solitary confinement increases the chances of anxiety, depression and psychosis, along with an increased risk of suicide.
We say we are punishing offenders or are attempting to deter these young people from becoming youthful offenders, but at what cost? she asked.
Montross’s talk was sponsored by the Medical Humanities Program in the Purdue College of Liberal Arts, which makes connections between health and the humanities.