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Consult-Liaison Nonfiction Public health psychiatry Seattle

Constraining Choice Sets.

The rains have finally returned to Seattle, though the wildfires continue to burn:

Wildfires from Google Maps as of the morning of 2022 Oct 24.

That map does not include the entirety of Washington State (there are more fires outside the boundaries of that image), or the fires burning in neighboring Idaho and Oregon.

While we did not experience the blood red skies that San Francisco experienced from the wildfires of the summer of 2020, the air was looked and smelled thick. Each whiff contained fragrant notes of Douglas Fir and perhaps Western Red Cedar, all overwhelmed by charred carbon. Landmarks disappeared into a gritty haze of grey. The evenings featured a crimson sun sinking into ashy layers of peach, pink, and coral.

By October 19th, Seattle had the worst air quality on the planet:

Conditions did not improve the next day. The Space Needle has a webcam (more precisely a “panocam”, as it provides a 360-degree view). Go take a look at it now; this is the grey pall that we embrace for much of the year. Despite this pewter drape, one can still see the surrounding buildings, lakes, and trees. Compare this to the view on October 20th:

(“Is the Mountain Out?” refers to glorious Mt. Rainier, the 14,410-foot tall stratovolcano that looms over the region.)

The rain finally arrived on October 21 and displaced the smoke:

Unfortunately, it did not extinguish the wildfires. Our neighbors to the east have yet to escape the smoke.

In addition to headaches, congestion, and watery eyes, people also experience psychological effects due to wildfires. I came across this paper in Nature Human Behavior from July 2022 that reports on one aspect of this: Exposures and behavioural responses to wildfire smoke (no paywall as of this writing). While the paper doesn’t quite answer the question I want to answer, it did report:

… during large wildfire smoke events, individuals in wealthy locations increasingly search for information about air quality and health protection, stay at home more and are unhappier. Residents of lower-income neighbourhoods exhibit similar patterns in searches for air quality information but not for health protection, spend less time at home and have more muted sentiment responses.

(For those who consider how your digital data gets used, the data for this paper came from Twitter, Google searches, and a real-time air quality monitor called PurpleAir, along with geographic income data.)

As we also have seen during the pandemic, people with lower incomes have less choices, even if they have access to similar information (emphasis mine):

Why do wealthier locations respond differently to smoke exposure? The measured differences do not appear to reflect differences in exposure information or in overall internet activity, given the consistent response of air-quality-related searches across income groups. Rather, the responses are consistent with lower incomes constraining choice sets and behaviours, including less flexibility in working from home, fewer resources with which to consider purchasing protective technology and (regarding the sentiment results) having other more pressing matters to worry about.

The Seattle Times published an article on October 20th that highlighted “constraining choice sets”. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority opened a “smoke shelter“, though few people used it. Why?

“The long-term effects of breathing in smoke is not going to be like the most highest of priority,” said an outreach worker. This is consistent with the findings from the article: While people living outside may have access to the internet, they likely are not seeking air quality monitors or information about filtration, as they do not have their own windows to close or own spaces to filter.

One of the conclusions of the article about wildfires could very well be applied to the pandemic: a “policy approach of promoting private provision of protection could be biased against disadvantaged groups”. I also suspect that the unhappiness the wealthier respondents reported as a result of wildfire smoke is not dissimilar from the ongoing unhappiness we all are seeing as a result of the pandemic and its social consequences. (It is likely that people who are poor are also experiencing unhappiness; they simply may not have the time, energy, or resources to feel it.)

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Consult-Liaison Observations

Floating and Sinking Boats.

Photo by Pixabay

I recently gave a presentation called “Difficult Interactions in Clinical Settings” and, in that talk, made a comment about how, in Western medicine, we often focus on the Physical Thing and do not attend to the Psychological Things. Physical Things often affect Psychological Things (and vice versa) and sometimes the Psychological Things cause more distress than the Physical Thing.

This is one reason why some (many?) people don’t like to take medicine, even for chronic conditions that will get worse without treatment. This is especially true when people have limited to no symptoms. If people hold the idea that they are healthy, the act of taking medicine is a direct contradiction to this idea. If you are sick, then why do you feel fine? does that mean that your illness might get worse? that you might die from this illness? This fear—this Psychological Thing—is compelling enough to chase people away from health care of any flavor: If no one tells me that there is something wrong with me, then there is nothing wrong with me. (Even this framing of “wrong” is interesting: Is illness “wrong”?)

Psychological Things often drive behavior, though the engine might seem like a tangible, Physical Thing, like money or power. We also rarely escape our own Psychological Things, even if we are able to name it, greet it warmly, and understand how it makes things difficult for us. (“Insight alone does not result in behavior change.”)

Sometimes, when we cannot escape our own Psychological Things, our inability to face and embrace these Things spills out for the rest of the world to see. Sometimes this makes us write 14-page letters.

Relationships, specifically those involving platonic or romantic love, while meaningful and rewarding, can also be challenging. It requires spending time and energy considering what floats your boat, as well as what floats the other person’s boat. It is hard to think about what floats someone else’s boat when your boat feels like it is constantly sinking.

Sometimes things will happen, though, that bring buoyancy to your boat, things that are immediate, measurable, and seemingly indisputable. Thousands of people chanting in a national park? Millions of ballots with notations next to your name? A chart with ratings from a television program? These are concrete, Physical Things.

Consider the fuzzy factors in Psychological Things: How amorphous they are! How much do you love your children? Is your spouse actually devoted to you? How do you know that your friends actually care about you? None of these are iron anchors that will bring you confidence in who or where you are; they are unreliable, invisible winds that you cannot control. The winds might help you, but they might also strand you.

The boat seems to sink faster when you lack esteem and respect for yourself. When you are uncertain about who you are and your status among people, how are you supposed to trust and respect uncertain forces like the wind?

Power and authority confer Physical Things, but these Physical Things cannot fill the gaping wound(s) left behind from the Psychological Things.

Who are you if you don’t have a title? Do you exist if no one is paying attention to you? What is your identity if no one tells you who you are?

How do you tolerate silence? What are your thoughts when you are by yourself? What if you can’t tolerate your own thoughts about yourself?

(Who are you between your thoughts?)

Maybe write a letter. Letters and words and sentences on paper are Physical Things. Letters are immediate, measurable, and seemingly indisputable. Make them see and respect you when you can’t see and respect yourself. When they react, you might know that you still exist, that your boat is still afloat.

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Consult-Liaison Education Observations

Racial Slurs and Psychiatric Illness.

Photo by Mary Jane Duford

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen: People have directed racial or misogynist slurs at me. (I’m an equal opportunity target!) When they announce their perspectives, they are almost always shouting and their tones of voice suggest anger and disgust.

Rarely do people with psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, express displeasure with my race or sex. I can only think of three examples when this occurred (though, to be fair, I just don’t remember the other times when this has happened):

  • A woman in a crisis center who insisted that I was Bruce Lee’s sister, then proceeded to scream, “Chink!“, when I told her I was not;
  • A man with dementia in a hospital who felt compelled to tell me (and only me) in a loud voice about the “gooks” he killed during war; and
  • A man in a jail cell in psychiatric housing who, upon seeing me walk onto the unit, made loud comments about “fucking dykes with short hair“.

It is far more common for people out in the community to shout racial and misogynistic slurs to me in passing. Sometimes their apparel is shabby and soiled; more often, their clothes are clean and their cars are shiny.

My data comes from an N of 1, but this is how I think about it: Yes, it is possible for someone with a psychiatric condition to use speech brimming with prejudice only when they are experiencing acute symptoms. However, most people with psychiatric conditions, in my anecdotal experience, do not, regardless of acute or chronic psychiatric symptoms. If they do have prejudices, they are able to keep them to themselves, even when they are unable to contain any delusions. If they are expressing ideas about people, they tend to be specific to how an individual relates to them (e.g., that person is trying to kill me; that person knows I don’t have internal organs; those people can hear my thoughts; etc.).

Could it be that the use of racial slurs in of itself reflects mental illness? I don’t think so. Humans are adept at creating and using categories. We have all created and applied useless categories. For example, I am on Team Candy Corn. This team serves no purpose and it should not be a point of pride, but here we are. There is, of course, a difference between Team Candy Corn and Team Nazis, though the underlying principle of creating categories and then putting people into them is the same. (On Team Candy Corn, we do not hate and dehumanize.)

People with psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, like most other people, can feel hate. People with psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, like most other people, are not hateful.

Categories
Blogosphere Policy Public health psychiatry Systems

Prevention and Early Intervention in Psychiatry.

Two shops on a street, one a cafe and the other selling vintage goods. The building is made of brick and it's sunny outside.
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

The inimitable Dr. Ryan McCormick recently wrote a piece that summarized research findings that he, as a primary care physician, can apply in clinical practice. In the section describing outcomes related to antidepressant dose, he notes:

As an aside, it may be shocking to note that psychiatrists prescribe only 21% of the antidepressants in the U.S., with the other 79% of prescriptions usually coming from primary care providers!

(Similarly, primary care providers write about half the prescriptions for benzodiazepines.)

Much of the burden of psychiatric services falls to primary care and emergency medicine. Some data suggest that nearly 60% of US counties do not have a single psychiatrist. While primary care and emergency medicine physicians can and do provide psychiatric services, they can be put into positions where they are addressing psychological issues beyond their scope of expertise. I mean no disrespect in writing that. Just as it is a terrible idea for me, a psychiatrist, to manage complex diabetes, it is unideal for non-psychiatrists to manage complex psychiatric conditions.

Sometimes people end up developing complex psychiatric symptoms and conditions because they are unable to access support, care, and services earlier. As a result, larger numbers of people end up accessing services in urgent or emergent ways (e.g., emergency departments and criminal-legal systems). Local jurisdictions then receive increasing demands to build crisis response systems. For example, Seattle-King County recently announced a future ballot measure to build five mental health crisis centers in the region.

There will always be a role for crisis centers, as life is unpredictable and collisions of fate and bad luck can result in crises. However, if the crisis system has the most open doors and is the most robust part of the system, then this will only increase the number of people who will use that system.

We can pick any point in a theoretical journey through the crisis system, but let’s start with the crisis center. Let’s say that all five centers have been established and that these centers receive the most dedicated funding and attention. Maybe John Doe is able to access the crisis center directly, which is a boon to first responders and emergency departments—it’s one less person they need to provide care for (and they’re often are not the best suited to give support, anyway). Once John Doe is not as overwhelmed, what are the next steps?

If the crisis centers have received the most dedicated funding and resources (staffing, advertising, etc.), that probably means that other resources—like step-down units or outpatient clinics—will not have the same level of support. Thus, it might be weeks or maybe even a few months before John can get into a clinic.

John can do the best that he can to make it until that appointment, but what if something else happens and he need urgent care? His choices might be limited to an emergency department (which, no offense to my ED colleagues, are not therapeutic places to be) or to return to a crisis center. He might call a first responder, but that might entail an encounter with law enforcement (which is often not people’s first preference). Unless other resources are made available—unless there are other pathways he can take—he will continue riding the merry-go-round that is the crisis response system.

This is why it is essential to build and sustain prevention and early intervention system while also building crisis response structures. The tired phrase is “moving upstream”, but that is the most stable way to get people out of the crisis system.

I agree (to a point) with the New York Times’s editorial board: The Solution to America’s Mental Health Crisis Already Exists. This article provides an accurate history of how a vision of community-based care for some of the most psychiatrically ill and vulnerable people in our communities got degraded. Do I think it is the solution? Only when I feel particularly optimistic. Do I think it is a solution that could yield great rewards? Yes, though ideally this would be paired with other non-medical, community-driven prevention and early intervention efforts.

Prevention and early intervention systems don’t need to formally reside with medical or legal structures. In fact, it is better for the whole community if they don’t. (Let’s not kid ourselves: The vast majority of people don’t want to spend time in the health care system, particularly with psychiatrists. The health care system can do amazing things, but it is also rigid, expensive, and requires people to jump through a lot of hoops.)

Nathan Allebach recently created a TikTok video that describes the decline of “third places” (and I am relieved that he recognizes that car-dependent suburban sprawl isn’t the sole cause community erosion). I’m not saying that community erosion is the primary cause of psychiatric symptoms and distress. However, the presence of social bonds and community could not only alleviate symptoms, but could also prevent some psychological problems. What if interpersonal social networks were robust and included both more and different kinds of people and perspectives? What if fewer people felt lonely and “Good Neighbor Day” didn’t have to be a thing? (Full disclosure: I have a professional crush on Dr. Vivek Murthy.)

If it is true that at least some psychiatric conditions are “medicalized” sociological problems, then this is an arena where non-medical (though not necessarily political!) interventions could be invaluable. Fewer people would believe that their only option is to ask Dr. McCormick for antidepressant medication for anxiety and depression. Non-medical, community-based activities might be sufficient. Fewer people would need to go to emergency departments or crisis centers because resources and options in the community would be inviting and easily accessible. Maybe two crisis centers, instead of five, would suffice. And people would spend less time with (and money on) health care professionals and services, and more with people they want to spend time with… people in their chosen communities.

Categories
Policy Public health psychiatry Reading Systems

Is Mental Health Political?

Items neatly arranged on a desk, including a clipboard with a blank white sheet of paper and a magnet board with separate letters spelling "politics".
Photo by Tara Winstead

Here’s another piece in the New York Times’s series on mental health and society: Mental Health is Political. (Forgive the generous quoting and quotation marks that follow.) Dr. Carr says:

In medicine, examples of reification [the process by which the effects of a political arrangement of power and resources start to seem like objective, inevitable facts about the world] are so abundant that sociologists have a special term for it: “medicalization,” or the process by which something gets framed as primarily a medical problem. Medicalization shifts the terms in which we try to figure out what caused a problem, and what can be done to fix it. Often, it puts the focus on the individual as a biological body, at the expense of factoring in systemic and infrastructural conditions.

She goes on to say:

When it comes to mental health, the best treatment for the biological conditions underlying many symptoms might be ensuring that more people can live less stressful lives.

… after clarifying that she is

not arguing that mental illnesses are fake, or somehow nonbiological. Pointing out the medicalization of social and political problems does not mean denying that such problems produce real biological conditions; it means asking serious questions about what is causing those conditions.

The crux of her argument is this (emphasis mine):

This principle is what some health researchers mean by the idea that there are social determinants of health — that effective long-term solutions for many medicalized problems require nonmedical — this is to say, political — means.

I think I understand what she is arguing here: There are systems in our culture that contribute to mental distress and illnesses. I generally agree with this. If entry level jobs consistently paid wages that allowed people to rent apartments in cities where they work, that would reduce psychological pressure. The stress of long commutes, public transportation, and car and gasoline costs would disappear. People would have more time to enjoy healthful activities instead of commuting. If people are spending more on housing than they can afford, this leads to the tension of living paycheck to paycheck. Insecurities related to eviction and homelessness grow. None of this contributes to psychological wellness.

However, I also wonder how she defines “political” throughout this piece. Is all psychological distress really “political” in nature? For people who experience auditory hallucinations and delusions, is their psychological distress “political”? (Recall that there are people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia who are not indigent: They sustain employment, pay their rent on time, and lavish their pets with treats.)

Are all nonmedical interventions for mental illnesses—whether “medicalized” or not—“political” interventions? At various times and places, there has been alignment between the political beliefs of the community and those in political power. Did rates of mental distress and illnesses significantly decline? (I don’t know the answer to this; if you do, let me know.) If alcohol use disorders are mental illnesses, does this mean that Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups are “political” interventions? If people who have lost loved ones to suicide and convene as a group to express grief and support, is this a “political” act?

Should we still describe our psychological distress as “political” when life is inherently stressful? Is the act of commiserating with other medical professionals for support during the pandemic a political act? Maybe it is; maybe we must turn to each other because we recognize that health authorities apparently cannot and will not provide more support to us. But maybe it’s not; maybe this is a community of care we intentionally cultivated over time.

I found some validation for my reactions in this Gawker piece: Failure to Cope “Under Capitalism”. Clare Coffey describes

an application of “the personal is political” so expanded in scope that, for a certain kind of person, personal problems, anxieties, and dissatisfactions are illegible or illegitimate unless described as political problems.

She further notes that

[the] invocation [of capitalism] immediately establishes a phenomenon in the realm of the political, without any further work required.

… if only political problems are legitimate, only political solutions are admissible. This has the odd effect of filtering all attempts at self-integration through a political lens.

By describing problems (like capitalism) and solutions as political, perhaps this absolves us of the work we can (and sometimes need) to do. How can one person’s action have any meaningful impact on a political problem like capitalism? Aren’t systems, by definition, much larger than individual people? She then points out:

But in fact there is no one to adjudicate between you and capital, no one to say yes, that really is too much, let’s reassign this project. …

There is no political program that will release you from the necessity of doing more than you should have to or feel capable of doing, in politics as in every other part of life.

I appreciate her exhortation:

This is your life. You do not have time to wait for the revolution to begin living it. You will always be able to find someone to give you permission not to live it. But no one is coming along to live it for you.

To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that we can eradicate mental distress and illnesses by simply yanking on those bootstraps. The statement that “mental health is political”—to me, at least—removes any agency we have as individuals. Yes, political interventions and actions can improve population (mental) health. However, some political interventions will have little to no impact on individual psychological health. There are choices we all can make, on our own, that can help improve our own psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, we each can make choices everyday that can improve the psychological health of the people within our six-foot radius. Our actions don’t have to be political statements.

Given the work that I do, I don’t need much persuasion to believe that systems have many direct and indirect adverse effects on people’s health. It also seems unreasonable, though, that politics will always provide solutions for mental distress and illness.