Posts tagged Mental Health
When the Best Prescription is Not to Cure

The unit is separated from the outside world by two pairs of locked double doors. A blinking green light and a soft beep herald our passage through them into a no-man’s-land where a guard sits, patiently unlocking the doors as we come and go. When I enter the airlock the first morning, hang my coat and stow my backpack, it feels as though I’m in a sci-fi movie, an intergalactic explorer awaiting my first excursion into the uncharted expanses of space. The atmospheres equilibrate and, I will soon learn, norms are stripped away, decompressed. Not sure what to expect, the door chirps open and I step into my month-long rotation on the inpatient psych ward.

Each morning, residents, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, and I pile into a tiny, windowless room with chairs pushed up against the walls in two rows facing each other. I am the only medical student among them, a wide-eyed interloper squeezing into a center chair. Patients are led in one by one to sit beneath a watercolor painting of goldfish in a pond while we ask them things like, “How is your mood today?” and “Did you need your Zyprexa to sleep last night?” A pleasantly psychotic woman, untroubled by her delusions of being a powerful real estate lawyer – she is homeless but insists that her office has faxed her discharge paperwork – doesn’t seem to notice that I’m there. With fifteen or twenty minutes per patient and our elbows and knees bumping up against each other, these encounters are concentrated in time, in space, in feeling, and they leave me jelly-legged and dazed when I finally stand up hours later. Every minute I’m cycling through the full range of human emotion, from proud to sad to irate to hopeful. I fidget in my chair as tremulous patients beg for benzos. I hold back tears as a suicidal businessman crumples wet tissues in his bandaged hands. Sometimes I just stare at the goldfish and wonder if this is what it’s like to be crazy.

One day a few months prior on a surgery rotation, I stood in the OR at the end of a long case, carefully running a subcuticlar skin closure.

“You’re a natural.” The surgeon, arms crossed, looks over my shoulder. “What specialty do you want to go into?”

“Neurology.” I watched the last stich pull the skin into a taught pink line the patient would remember me by.

“Neurology?” She sounded confused. “But don’t you want to fix people?” Her jaw was tight and face serious.

This was nothing new. From the beginning of medical school we are taught to diagnose and treat. We recite mnemonics for the acute management of myocardial infarctions, and can name first, second, and third line therapies for asthma. We titrate blood pressures to evidence-based levels, and feel weirdly satisfied when our heart failure patients pee after a dose of diuretics.

We are taught to grow from the first year student who can report that something is wrong to the doctor who can do something about it.

On the psych ward, my patients’ foggy insights clouds my own. I find myself in the thick of the confusion with them, trying desperately to “fix,” to “cure,” to achieve some venerated end I had been conditioned to strive for, and driving myself insane with an inexplicable rage when I can’t. A woman with a functional tic can’t accept that her problem is not the result of medical errors and refuses psychiatric intervention. A kind man with bipolar disorder and an addiction who got high and tried to crash his yacht tinkers with his medication doses and stares silently out the window at the sailboats dotting the river below. A deeply depressed attorney can’t allow himself to just feel sad. Seeing them every day is excruciating: each carefully articulated question I ask falls flat, and simple conversations quickly turn into circular back-and-forth’s that devolve to the absurd. Every day I feel like banging my head against the wall, and each night I drag home the weight that others can’t carry.

Shelly* is 30-something, wiry, all clavicle and bony knees– breakable, almost – with thick glasses that magnify her round eyes and give her a permanently forlorn look. She wears Victoria’s Secret sweatpants with a black sweatshirt and Ugg boots, her long brown hair pulled into two braids that fall down her back.

The night before her arrival, she had lined up her anxiety pills, her mutinous artillery of serotonin and GABA, in one last attempt to create order in her chaotic life, before swallowing them one by one. However, her final act of treason was interrupted, and she ended up with us. When we first meet, she is reticent, eyes downcast, giving up only a word or two in barely a whisper. But soon, she opens up.

Two young women in a foreign land, we hit it off: she shows me the drawings she makes in the journal she guards tightly against her chest with crossed arms as she walks around the unit, and talks about seeing her dog when she gets home. She is tougher than her small frame lets on, both physically and mentally. After a week of dutiful CBT practice, she is deemed ready to go conquer her automatic negative thoughts on her own, out in the real world. On the last day of my rotation the two of us sit under the goldfish, talking about going home, about passing through the airlocked doors back to the outside world. Suddenly, her face clouds and she begins to cry for the first time since she’s been here. I hand her tissues.

“What’s wrong?” I break the silence.

“I feel like a failure,” she says through tears. “I’ve worked so hard, what if I’m not actually better? What if I go home and it all starts again?”

I pause.

“Well, at least you’re trying, right? That’s pretty good.” I watch her think about this for a moment, brow furrowed, tiny fists balled in her lap.

“Yeah,” she smiles a little to herself, eyes looking thoughtfully at the floor. “I guess that’s something.”

Back between the doors, I wait for the green light one last time. Four weeks, ten discharged patients, dozens of prescriptions, and countless long silences later, I don’t think I fixed anyone. I sat with them, though, through all the tears and all the tic-ing, and heard what they had to say. Maybe this is how we help: we shelter, we stabilize, we listen, and we together we take steps, however small. We may not always be able to fix. We may not know what happens when our patients leave the quiet of the pond for the rough ocean waves. But we try. Well, I reassure myself, I guess that’s something.

* Name has been changed

Emma Meyers is a third year medical student at Harvard Medical School. She grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in neurobiology. She plans to do a residency in neurology. Outside of medicine, Emma enjoys art, reading fiction, hiking, cycling, and traveling.

Behind Locked Doors

When people look at my poster, their most frequent response is, “Wow! How can I get my own records? I have always wanted to have mine!” I tell them, “Just do it! And be persistent. Even if the contents turn out to be upsetting, I doubt you will ever be sorry.”

This is the story behind how I finally received mine and what I did with them.

I had been wishing to get my hospital records for a very long time. I felt deeply that they belonged to me as they were words written about me during a hellish three-year period in my adolescence. I was certain that they would be filled with outrageous statements, and I desperately wanted to read and respond to them someday.

I was finally released from the last hospital in 1963, and it wasn't until 1978 that I began my search in earnest. During the intervening years, I had been finishing college, marrying, and raising four young children. Although I managed to keep all of those hospital experiences safely compartmentalized away so I could raise my children with warmth and kindness, believe me, the retrieval of my records was never far from the surface.

In early 1978, shortly after meeting my fantastic fellow comrades (Judi Chamberlin, Dan Fisher and David Oaks), I was inspired to start by politely writing to the directors of each of the four different hospitals where I had been locked up: Baldpate Hospital in MA, The Menninger Clinic in KS, Massachusetts Mental Health Center in MA, and Westborough State Hospital in MA. Weeks went by, and I heard nothing. I wrote again. I waited. Again, I got no response. I even considered flying to Topeka, Kansas, to storm that psychiatric barricade and demand my records in person.

Since I was then a single parent with four young children and dwindling finances, I calmed myself and talked it all over with my trusted and dear therapist, Lee. He had saved my life back in 1963 when, by chance, I first met him the night before I was sent to Westborough. He was a young resident and the only person during those three years who had looked me in the eye and smiled and was genuinely kind. He gave me hope. He told me there was nothing the matter with me that had not been caused by the abuses in the hospitals: combined insulin/ECT without anesthesia, seclusion, restraints, molestation, masses of Thorazine, etc.

After meeting with Lee from time to time over the years, in 1978, after my failed letter-writing campaign, we planned a new record-seeking strategy. He wrote to all four hospital directors. It was difficult for me to give the power over to him, but he seemed to be my last, best hope. In 1975, he had become the Commissioner of Mental Health in MA so he clearly had the power, which I was sadly lacking, and he generously used it to help me. Because of his status and powerful stationery, he heard back from everyone except Baldpate. Some of them were only a few pages of summaries, which was annoying, but when he received them he gave them to me.

Finally, during the spring of 1978, since Baldpate had ignored him, Lee made an appointment for us to drive out there.  He told them he wanted us to read the records together, and, since he had been the commissioner, I am sure they felt forced to let us come. I had been talking for months about wanting to steal my records so, on the drive out, I showed Lee that I had brought a briefcase and explained that I had every intention of stealing the pages. I wasn't sure how I would manage it, but I knew I could figure it out once there.

I still remember the day as if it were yesterday. It was a bright blue, sunny day, the trees and flowers were in full bloom, and I was feeling full of hope and confidence. When we arrived at this desolate location in the country an hour outside of Boston, it was a time-travel experience for me. I had not been there since 1961, and the big red "farmhouse" still remained, looming over the grounds. We were ushered into a small office, far from the desolate cinder-block unit where I had been subjected to the combined insulin/ECT. There were two chairs and a little table between us where the thick folder with my records sat—my huge and seemingly glowing hidden treasure! We were at first left alone together to read them, and we decided that I should start reading and then pass each page to Lee. Soon, however, every few minutes an official would nervously interrupt us by opening the door and asking if we wanted more coffee. The records were filled with atrocious, labeling and demeaning words about me, even more disgusting than I had ever anticipated. And, with growing intensity, I wanted to steal every single page from that house of horrors and report the atrocities all over the world.

Finally, after more than two hours of reading, Lee and I had a conversation about how hard they were making it for me to actually commit my theft. He said he wanted to go to the bathroom and told me to feel completely free to do whatever I wished with the papers while he was out of the room. What an advocate he was! But, at that moment I was overcome by his genuine generosity and kindness and fully aware that he might get into serious trouble if I were to steal the entire record. I simply didn't feel I could put him at risk, so when he returned from the bathroom I explained that I had slipped every other page into my briefcase. I paid special attention to picking the most egregious ones, making sure to leave enough bulk so they would not notice, and they didn’t.  We drove back to Boston. I was elated, and Lee was the good sport and true advocate that he had been for so long.

I spent many hours and weeks and months reading the pages over and over, trying to make sense of every notation, every diagnosis. Finally, I bought a box, decorated it with flowered paper, arranged the pages neatly inside, and tied it up with a pale blue satin ribbon.  I kept it on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, where it stayed for years—until October 11, 1991!

That was the date that Anita Hill was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in reference to the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. She claimed he had made unwelcome sexually provocative comments to her when they worked together at the Department of Education and the EEOC.  I believed her! Anita was treated dismissively and poorly by the senators, and her treatment put me into high action. I went to my closet, took down my hospital records and proceeded to go through every single page with a fine-tooth comb. The next day, I took the pages and copied them all several times. I then cut out the pertinent, disgusting and demeaning comments and assembled them all on a huge poster board, which I had laid out on my bed.  I designed it using the typed comments, photos from my childhood, and several small sections from op-ed stories I had written which had been published in newspapers.  It took several days of moving the pieces around until I felt completely satisfied. I then shopped around and found a great radical union press, which was willing to print 1,000 copies, way back before digital. The folks at Red Sun Press in Jamaica Plain, MA, were wonderful! I felt respected, they took my poster seriously, and I was thrilled!

I then began showing, selling and giving it away at conferences.  A dear and close fellow comrade bought the first twenty copies in a true gesture of solidarity and generosity.  It was finally registered with the U.S. Copyright Office on April 25, 2007.  I mailed one to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City as someone had once told me that they keep all art which is given to them. I sent a letter of explanation, asking them to consider having a show of art by people who had been locked up in mental institutions, and they acknowledged receiving it.  A framed copy hangs in the history exhibit at SAMHSA.  I gave one to my internal medicine doctor who just recently told me that it hangs on the back of her office door. She is now a dean at Harvard Medical School so perhaps it is having a positive influence on future doctors there. Two years ago, I had three large fabric, plastic-laminated copies made for using at marches and demonstrations. One of them now hangs in the office of Digital Eyes Film.

In the end, this poster has given me a great deal of satisfaction. I feel it is my personal megaphone from the top of the Empire State Building, shouting out to the world: THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED TO ME and THIS MUST STOP!!!

Dorothy Dundas was institutionalized for three years as an adolescent in the 1960s and was labeled a “schizophrenic” and forced to undergo 40 combined insulin coma/electroshock “treatments.” She experienced and witnessed many atrocities. She believes that luck, determination, her own anger and one compassionate advocate were her best friends on the road to her ultimate survival and freedom. Through a number of op-ed pieces in The Boston Globe, Miami Herald and Detroit Free Press, she has voiced her opposition to abusive psychiatric practices. This poster, Behind Locked Doors, which she created from her hospital records, has been  used in training programs. Dorothy lives in the Boston area where she has raised four wonderful children. She has recently retired from The Crystal Lake Express - her own safe, friendly and reliable car service in which she was the sole driver for 30 years. Dorothy is also a blogger on Mad in America: Finding Resilience and Hope in the Face of Despair.

Dear Andy: A Letter to a Lost Friend

Dear Andy,

Wow, it’s been a while since we last spoke. I’m about to start my junior year—can you believe that? It still seems like yesterday that you and I met through South Boston Afterschool. On the T-ride to South Boston, we talked in Chinese (I had just started; you helped me with my tones). We talked about girls (we talked a lot about girls). And sometimes we talked about more serious things. About how we were so afraid to fail, about how we constantly felt pulled in all directions. About how hopeless we felt.

When you quit South Boston Afterschool, I just figured it was a sophomore slump. Maybe your economics tutorial was taking up too much of your time, or maybe you were working on a new start-up, trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. You were stressed out the last time I saw you. I wasn’t too worried, though. I thought what everyone else here thinks: Junior year will be better than sophomore year. Senior year might be a bit tougher because of job searching, but you’ll be set after that. You’ll be a Harvard grad the rest of your life.

But then you jumped off a tower in downtown Boston. I thought wrong.

Andy, I spent a long time trying to figure out how to write this letter. It’s been on my mind every single day now for months. I almost gave up, because the words just wouldn’t come to me. It was too painful to express.

Then, in May, my best friend since we were babies ended his own life. He had just gotten into Georgia Tech. He had so much talent. He had such an incredible life ahead of him. His mom found his body. They couldn’t show it at the service.

His death inspired me to write this to you. Because it’s not just him, and it’s not just you. Writing this next part terrifies me, Andy. I’m scared because we live in a world where I can’t even write this letter without knowing in my heart that no matter what people will say, they will look at me differently. I want to make a big impact after I graduate, but I know that publicly discussing my complicated history with mental health—a conversation that should not be any more damning than talking about asthma or a heart condition—might prevent me from doing this. But that is exactly why I have to write this letter. It is time for us to reconcile with the reality of the world that we live in. It is time for me to say now what I should have told you before: You are not alone.

I should have told you about fifth grade, when I would stay up every single night thinking terrible thoughts. I had to make sure once, twice, three, four, five times that our doors and windows were locked, because I had to be sure. I had to know that no one would come in and slit my parents’ throats, and then beat my head in with a baseball bat.

I should have told you about sixth grade, when I touched flowers, and leaves, and people’s hair. My classmates did not understand, so they signed a petition asking me to stop. They gave it to the teacher, who presented it to me. Even today I remember the hurt and shame I felt when I saw the names of so many friends written on that piece of paper. They didn’t know that I could not help it; they did not know that it was outside of my control.

I should have told you about seventh grade, when germs consumed me. Bacteria crawled all over my body and inside my mouth. I would go to the bathroom repeatedly in the middle of class to frantically rinse my mouth and scrub my hands. When my best friend sneezed on me to see my reaction, and another spat in my juice and forced me to drink it, and another threw meat at me because she knew I was a vegetarian. I wondered if I had any friends at all. Maybe they were just pretending to like me because I was so funny to watch. I felt worthless; I felt hopeless; I felt powerless. I felt like I didn’t deserve to live.

But more important than any of that, Andy, I should have told you about how finally enough was enough. My mom got me help. She got me help, even when my teacher asked, “Why does he need therapy? He makes all A’s—he’ll be fine.” My mom replied, “I will be sure to write on his tombstone that he had all A’s after he kills himself because he hates his brain.” She knew what too few understand, that objective achievement means very little when life is nothing but shame and darkness.

Because of her intervention, I acquired tools to deal with my compulsions, to say “It Don’t Matter” until it really did not matter. Overcoming my compulsions was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it. I’m here today Andy, writing this letter to you, because my mom got me help.

Andy, I am sorry that I never told you about my middle school self. And I am sorry that I never told you how therapy empowered me to reclaim the beauty in life.

But I hope this letter to you will help change things for others. I hope it will convince someone who is like me all those years ago to find the support that they need. I hope it will encourage someone like me now—too busy with their midterms, their finals, and their papers—to check in on a friend. I hope it will encourage us as a community to fight against the stigma surrounding mental health issues both in our college and in our nation. And most of all, I am sorry that we live in a society where we could not talk openly to each other.

I miss you more than you can know, Andy. By relating this story—of what I did wrong with you, and what my mom did right with me—I want us to make a difference in the world. Then I will know that I am doing your memory proud.


Originally published in the Harvard Crimson, September 2, 2015


In Reflection: Will’s thoughts on the process of writing and publishing this letter

At first, writing Dear Andy was pure catharsis. It was also extremely difficult. For years I had not been able to even talk about my history with mental health and the tragedies of my friends' suicides. To put my feelings into words for thousands of people to see would have been unthinkable to me. But after receiving support from my friends and my fraternity brothers, I found the voice to write my article. As a result of the attention that my article received, I am now working with a number of organizations on and off campus as well as Harvard administrators to improve mental health services. The feedback I have received since writing Dear Andy has inspired me to fight for mental health reform, both on campus and beyond. This has become my passion, and I am not going to give up until I have done everything in my power to change things.

William F. Morris IV is a member of the Harvard College Class of 2017 and is a joint concentrator in history and East Asian Studies.