Monday, October 10, 2011

Guest Blogger Dr. Jesse Hellman: What are the Limits of Psychiatry?

Recently a colleague and I were talking about a question that had been posted on our psychiatric society's Listserv. The question had to do with the age at which a parent would tell their child he had been adopted, and who the birth parents were. This question is quite complex, depending on a multitude of factors. Child psychiatrists responded, as did adult psychiatrists. Is this a question, though, for Psychiatry? One might argue that the question has nothing to do with mental illness. But does our field define itself only as addressing mental illness?

A few days ago in the NY Times there was an OP-ED piece in which the author touted brain studies as showing that we do not just "like our iPhones" but "love our iPhones." When I read it I was surprised, as the idea of whether one might "love" an iPhone (or, for me, my camera or sports car) never occurred to me: Of course I do. What was surprising was the apparent sense of discovery by the author of a phenomenon that Freud had clearly described well over eighty years ago. He invented the word "cathected" to describe that we can "cathect" or imbue any particular thing, or even idea, with erotic energy and so love it with the intensity we have for living things. He explained that that cathected energy can be withdrawn from these things as well as from people, and the formerly loved object discarded instantly.

So psychiatry, to me, includes psychology in its broadest sense as well as the complexities of human interaction. In my own practice the most difficult and important issues are not usually the questions of medication but those that have to deal with all the issues that  beset the patient that are then brought up in their sessions: getting promoted at work, the problems of a marriage, the competitive strivings within a family or its workday substitutes, the losses one faces inevitably in life, and so on. Almost infinite variety.

So how do others address this question? Just what is Psychiatry?