Archive for June, 2011


sunlit cloud

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As June draws to a close, it seems only fitting that this month of celebrating the light should round off with some spectacular displays from the sun over the hills I see from my room.






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The excellent Daran Leader, who wrote “Why Do People Get Ill?”, has written in the Guardian about the current state of Mental Health Services. Many of his points and conclusions are applicable across the board into the whole of the Health Service, not just “Mental Health”.

Mental health services become like a garage where people are fixed and put back on the road, rather than subjects to be listened to. But once we start listening we might well question our beliefs and prejudices about normality. As old psychiatry recognised, many of the phenomena that are seen to define mental illness are in fact efforts to battle against it. A delusion, for instance, may provide a meaning to one’s world, and to try to remove it may deprive the person of a crucial resource.

Listening is a crucial part of health care, which is sadly, all too frequently absent. The “restitution narrative” of quick fix, sort out the broken or troublesome part, reigns supreme. Yet illness remains an intensively personal, subjective experience, different in every circumstance, and understood only in terms of the patient’s values and beliefs.

Bhugra is right that more therapy must become available, but there must be diversity. At present therapies that mimic drugs in their aims clear the field: promising swift outcomes, localised intervention and precise targets, they use the very language of drugs. Yet they all too often buy into a discourse of normality and rehabilitation that ignores the specificity of the patient – and their ways of making sense of their situation. Mental health services need to learn more from patients, questioning the values of efficiency and autonomy fetishised by contemporary society.

Trying to fit individuals into protocols created around cohorts and averages reduces the subject to an object. We need diversity in health care, because, really, one size does not fit all.

Daran rightly highlights how the drug model is sweeping the field of alternative approaches to therapy and care, no doubt because of the vast marketing resources poured into the promotion of drugs and the manipulation of the “evidence base”. But Medicine should never have been reduced the prescribing of drugs, or to treatments which can demonstrate their drug-like abilities.

We’ve lost our way.

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Johann Hari, writing in the Independent about books, reading and the distractions of the internet, includes the following quote

Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction…. It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise

Fabulous! We all need this experience. We all need to withdraw a little, step back from the noise, gain what Iain McGilchrist refers to as a “necessary distance”, not just from other people, other activities, or the world, but from our own thoughts, habits and obsessions. Reading books can certainly create some necessary distances, but there are other ways too. Many other ways, actually.

What we need is focused, aware attention.

If we take a little time to focus, and to give our full attention to, a book, a movie, a song, a poem, our breath, this present moment……..then we’ll gain this necessary distance. Without it, we’re on autopilot – zombies not heroes!

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A pretty extensive review of research which has looked at empathy in medical students and young doctors concludes that

empathy declines during medical school and residency compromises striving toward professionalism and may threaten health care quality. Theory-based investigations of the factors that contribute to empathy decline among trainees and improvement of the validity of self-assessment methods are necessary for further research.

(How often do you read a paper by researchers which doesn’t conclude that there should be more research!). This is a sad, but also dangerous finding. Sad because there’s something desperately wrong with medical education and training if empathy declines as a result of it, and dangerous because without empathy “quality”, and I’d argue, “safety” are under threat.

Meanwhile, Vaughn Bell, across on the Mindhacks blog doesn’t only highlight this study under a title of “Is medical school an empathotoxin?”, but he has a useful collection of links to other research which shows the importance of empathy in medical practice.

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Where are the edges?
If its true that becoming, rather than being, is the core phenomenon of life (and I think it is) then the attempt to divvy up reality into pieces is misguided.
I was interested, therefore, to come across a piece of research looking into the issue of water’s boundary between liquid and gas phases. It turns out it’s just about impossible to draw the boundary.

The researchers concluded that the change between air and water happens in the space of a single water molecule.
“You recover the bulk phase of water extremely quickly,” Benderskii said.
While the transition happens in the uppermost layer of water molecules, the molecules involved change constantly. Even when they rise to the top layer, molecules for the most part are wholly submerged, spending only a quarter of their time straddling air and water.
The study raises the question of how exactly to define the air-water boundary.

Where do I end and you begin?

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…sometimes I just look at the sky and gasp….

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