I’m not a doctor. I’m not a mental health professional. I’m one of 14.8 million (NIMH) people suffering from a major depressive disorder in the United States and one of 1.5 billion (American Academy of Pain Medicine) people suffering from chronic pain in the world.
As of this very moment, scientists don’t understand exactly why depression and chronic pain are linked, but the comorbidity of these conditions cannot be denied. Because these conditions are often both present in patients, one treatment strategy alone is often ineffective. To deny the mind and spirit when the body aches is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm and telling us to walk it off. However, many medical professionals are just learning that it is important to pay attention to the psychological effects of their patient’s conditions, and the reverse.
Therefore, I think it is important to have a conversation about what we, as patients, must do to advocate for ourselves. I discuss my doctors an therapists frequently and candidly because there is nothing shameful about being ill or mentally unhealthy. I also discuss them because removing the stigma will hopefully encourage others to seek much needed treatment even when it is not suggested by their general practitioners.
We tend to think of general practitioners as mechanics. They keep the body running and send us out to specialists to have our engines rebuilt when they themselves are not qualified to do so. What is lacking from general practitioners is a total-body approach to our healthcare. It is unfortunate that vision, dental, and mental health have been divided into separate fields. In fact, it is detrimental to those of us who suffer from chronic anything.
Think about the diagnostic process when something goes wrong with our bodies. General practitioners run through the check-lists of tests an procedures with which they are familiar and only then do they begin referring to specialists, eye doctors, and dental practitioners. Notice that I did not say mental healthcare providers in that sentence. They keep the body running, with little consideration for the mind. This is not to say that doctors don’t send their patients to psychiatrists and psychologists. However, when patients are sent, it is rare that the patient will then undergo in-depth counseling to determine root-cause issues. Typically, patients are sent with a list of symptoms they have discussed with their general practitioner, and the mental healthcare professional will prescribe something and manage psychoactive medication from that point.
This is extremely problematic. Although the chemical causes of depression may be treated, it is unlikely the patient will learn much needed coping skills to battle depression. Face it. We’re a society of instant-gratification loving people. We want pills to fix things. We want treatment to fix things. We don’t necessarily want to spend years in counseling learning how to be more functional emotional beings.
Which brings me to pain and depression. The road to diagnosis with chronic pain is a long, long, long, long road full of bumps and monsters and disaster. This process is harmful to the psyche. Between doctors who don’t know, doctors who don’t care, and doctors who mistreat chronic sufferers… patients develop an adverse reaction to the medical profession as a whole. We don’t trust that doctors know what they are doing. We feel like lab rats. And we feel jerked around. To feel pain and to not feel heard is dehumanizing.
Sure, it’s pretty obvious that hurting all the time would lead to depression. But it’s more than just feeling down about limitations. It’s a chemical process that begins to form a feedback loop in the body from which we cannot escape. When doctors don’t identify that this feedback loops is occurring, the only result is a worsening of symptoms.
As chronic pain and chronic depression persist untreated, they worsen. It’s inevitable. So what can we as patients and we as sufferers do for ourselves?
It’s simple… talk and take action.
Research symptoms. Prepare for your appointments. Consider mood as well as physical symptoms. Think of yourself as one whole being and force your doctor to see you as such. Ask questions about side-effects of medications. Talk about sadness, anxiety, crying, feeling alone or trapped with your doctors. Seek out mental healthcare and make sure that all of your healthcare providers are talking to one another. Treat your body and mind as two parts of one machine and get total-body care. Don’t wait for your doctor to tell you what to do. Do it and tell your doctor.
You are one body, mind, and spirit. These three things work in harmony to keep you going every day. I charge you with the care and maintenance of your total body. Demand that your doctor treat you the same way, and if they won’t, find a doctor who will. It is okay to seek proper treatment and it is okay to take your healthcare into your own hands. You are not at the mercy of the medical community. You are completely in charge of your treatment and you deserve the best they can offer.
But they don’t always offer, and you need to be aware of that.