Therapy

I know many people have enormous difficulty accessing therapy for depression- but as someone who has benefited for it, provided it, and supervised others, I realize how fortunate I’ve been, and how important it has been personally for me. Antidepressants have helped me with many of the symptoms of depression, but I still needed to sort out the conflicts and problems in my life that had contributed to the emotional mess in which I found myself. We keep hearing how there will be medication tailored to suit each individual some day, but I don’t think there will ever be a tablet labeled ‘take two a day to come to terms with how you feel about your mother.’

Over a period of about 12 years, during my twenties and thirties I underwent psychodynamic therapy, something in which I had also had some training – with 3 different therapists. Two of them helped me but there was one with whom I simply could not ‘gel’. Finding a therapist with whom you can make some kind of emotional connection is essential. I was able to learn how the problems in my childhood and the dysfunctional relationships I had with both of my parents were still affecting my adult life. I’m quite sure that, at the time, that was the best type of therapy for me. There were some major unresolved issues from my childhood and adolescence that  interfered with my ability to make stable, trusting relationships. I had also spectacularly failed to grieve for my father, who died when I had just qualified as a doctor. There was a period of a few years in my late twenties when my emotional life can only be described as chaotic. With therapy I was able to access the parts of my personality that I had been desperately trying to keep under control, but sometimes the new and more assertive me who emerged from the chrysalis of therapy was more of  an abrupt and outspoken moth still seeking the light of day, than a perfectly finished social butterfly. Nevertheless talking therapy helped me to address some of the difficulties that I had in the major relationships in my life and embark on what has been a successful second marriage.

Later, when undertaking a course of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), I found ways to begin to manage the way I ruminate about being me in this world and to cope more effectively with people in day-to-day life. Therapy was anchored in the present, not the past and I began to learn much more about how my mind actually worked. I could identify my previously unspoken, but very difficult to live up to,‘Rules for Living’ from David Burn’s book the ‘Feeling Good Handbook’, and I began to understand how attempting to live up to my internal very high but often conflicting standards, led to experiencing anxiety in everyday life. It is six years now since I completed that last course of therapy and I am beginning to realize just how long it can take for it to work. I still continue to have new insights into why I am the way I am, and what triggers and sustains those periods of anxiety and low mood, as life goes by. Life is a ‘work in progress’, or at least that is how it has seemed for me.

What most people get offered now in the first instance now is brief therapy, mostly based on CBT principles. For many people that will be very helpful- and when I was supervising a primary care based team of therapists, I saw how effective it could be- particularly if the behavioural aspect of CBT – behavioural activation- was employed first. CBT is very much about ‘doing’ things to feel better. Like setting goals for activities that you may have stopped doing. Or actively trying to address the depressive automatic thoughts that can both trigger and maintain depressed mood- both with the aim of getting you out of the shadow of depression to which you retreated when you lost the energy to fight anymore. In some ways the conceptual basis of brief CBT based therapy isn’t all that different from medication- in that both seek to ‘activate’ either your mind or your body. You get going and take up your life again. You are ‘fixed’ at least for the present as your deficit, of either serotonin or self-esteem ,has been addressed, as Alain Ehrenberg in his book on the sociology of depression, ‘The Weariness of the Self’, clearly describes. And in today’s climate you must of course take responsibility for helping yourself to get fixed- through self-help or presenting yourself at the doctor’s office.

CBT helped me when I was struggling with  my depressive ruminations and it was the right therapy at the right time. But when I was younger, and I couldn’t make sense of who I was or wanted to be, I needed time to build up trust in a therapist, and work on the complex problems from my past that actually interfered with me engaging in therapy in the first place. As I wrote recently, the simple ‘fix’ doesn’t work for a significant number of people who are depressed- particularly those dealing with painful conflicts and the impact of trauma- and we realistically should not expect it to. They need what I was fortunate enough to receive, but it is less available than ever- not only because of cuts, but the prevailing view that depression in primary care is something that can be ‘fixed’. Some people need time to engage, to trust and to work out how to discover who they are and learn how to forgive themselves for even being alive. Some who don’t respond to the simple fix are labeled as having borderline personality disorder- and their anguish is downgraded to ‘distress’ but they too are experiencing something that is only one aspect of the many faceted but hard to define experience that we call ‘depression’. I can assure you that it is real and those who suffer from it kill themselves.

Those who need more than the quick fix are  just as deserving of our attention- and our help.

 

The morals of medication

Is taking medication for depression the ‘easy option?’ I come across this viewpoint regularly on social media. Usually there is a suggestion alongside that therapy, which I completely agree is hard work, is somehow a purer way to recover. The right way.

The history of psychiatry is rich in references to morality. Is a person ‘mad’ or ‘bad’? Is there really something wrong in the brains of those society labels as bad? Is addiction an illness or simply a behaviour choice? Are we excusing bad behaviour by medicalising it?

Many people who consider medication for depression will find themselves wondering whether it is a ‘good’ thing to take it. When you are depressed it can be very difficult to decide what is the best thing to do, and decisions are taken not only on the basis of discussion with health professionals- moral judgments also play an important part.

  • How does taking antidepressants affect how I feel about me? Does it mean that I am weak?
  • Is it the easy option?
  • Shouldn’t I be able to sort myself out without them?
  • What will other people think- my family- my friends…will it change how they see me?

Alice Malpass and her colleagues identified two parallel journeys that the depressed person embarks on. The ‘medical’ journey goes something like this:

  • I have a duty to be well. Other people need me to be well.
  • If I recover then there won’t be any risk of being seen as ‘mentally ill’.
  • I can get back to my old self and be in charge of my life again.

I’m sure I’ve used some of these arguments in conversation with patients. Any doctor who says they haven’t is not telling the truth- but to consider these are the only things of concern about medication is inherently simplistic and paternal, and reminds me of the cartoon of a couple walking along a beach, smiling and carefree, who say they feel so good they must be in a pharma advert.

In parallel the person is perhaps also on another journey- the ‘moral’ one.

  • I feel awful because I have to ask for help.
  • I feel even worse because I need to take tablets.
  • Is this person the real, authentic me? Am I now my old self or someone else? Or am I only this person because I am on tablets?
  • Am I hooked on these now?

Damien Ridge, who has analysed many interviews with people who are depressed talks not only about the lack of legitimacy for tablets, but also for what they are being prescribed for.

  • Is ‘depression’ real?
  • Shouldn’t I just ‘pull myself together’? Isn’t that what everyone else thinks?

There is a great deal of literature on whether ‘depression’ is ‘real’ or simply no more than unhappiness. And if it isn’t real, then the treatment for it cannot be legitimate either, little better than using street drugs- as one person in Ridge’s paper calls his tablets: ‘My dirty little habit’. I’ve spent my career arguing that to use the term depression is not simply medicalising misery but giving a name to a particular experience and quality of suffering which is not just unhappiness but a deep, dark, hopeless, despair. It has many causes, and it isn’t a single ‘phenomenon’ whatever DSM tells us. But it’s a state of mind that many people with different stories share in common. I experience it too. I have asked all of these questions of myself. I have watched colleagues who work in mental health look a little embarrassed when I get out the tablets at breakfast. Perhaps I do that simply to show I am not ashamed- but I do wish I could have lived my life without them.

All of the above supposes that antidepressants do actually work. Many people think they don’t, and others think they can do harm. You can find my views on these points elsewhere on this blog. I take them myself and they keep me reasonably well, but I have friends and colleagues for whom they have not worked- the medical journey is inherently optimistic- just like the pharma ads, but in reality life is far more complicated. And they are never sufficient on their own.

If doctors, and sometimes friends and family, try and influence you to focus on the ‘medical journey’ then others will try to steer your moral journey. It is really hard to focus on what is right for you when you cannot think clearly. When you are depressed, you are already struggling with guilt and shame and sometimes that can tragically end with the decision that the world is better off without you- that this is the right thing to do.

So I would only ask those who make even subtle comparisons between the easy way to ‘block out the pain’ with meds and the hard way of suffering through therapy to think before they write. It is only human to want to alleviate pain, and sometimes the tablets are the only thing that will do it. To infer that a person needs to suffer in order to be blessed is one of the ultimate moral judgments- and can be found in most religions.

Depressed or not, clinician or service user, expert or lay person-none of us have the right to sit in judgment over others.

My memoir: The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression is available now.