Mood, disposition and disorder

In a previous post I referred to suicide as a “mood-specific” behavior, and I feel the need to clarify this statement. I wrote that nobody suicides when they’re in a happy mood, suggesting that if people in a depressed mood can “ride out” the mood without doing something lethal, the urge to end their lives will pass when their mood changes. Moods are transient emotional states that can be prolonged by irrational thinking and by ruminating.

Thoughts such as “My life is my problem; the only way to solve my problem is to end my life” can seem logical to a person in a depressed mood. When the mood passes, the person will likely recognize the thought as irrational – or at least as one that doesn’t have to be acted on immediately. Suicide hotlines have prevented many impulsive (mood specific) suicides by helping people to not act on suicidal impulses and to ride out the depressed mood – or to sober up. This principle doesn’t apply to suicidal people who experience chronic depression.

While moods aren’t enduring emotional states, dispositions are. We each have a unique disposition or set of dispositions. For instance, we’re each disposed to be somewhere on the continuum between optimism and pessimism – glass half full vs. glass half empty. I don’t know whether one’s disposition is a result of nature or nurture, or some combination of the two. Other adjectives I’ve heard used to describe disposition include gloomy, chipper, pushy, cranky, generous, stingy, passive and aggressive. They are a component of our personality. As a psychological construct, disposition has so many variables that it’s hard to precisely define or to measure, so these are just my opinions. Dispositions tend to be enduring traits, but that’s not to say that they can’t change over the course of one’s life. For instance, I think that people who’ve tended to be distrustful of others can learn to be more trusting, given enough positive experiences with trustworthy people.

When anxiety and depression are chronic emotional states that seriously affect our functioning, they’re diagnosable as psychiatric disorders. There’s considerable scientific evidence that there’s a biological basis for such disorders, although irrational thinking patterns can exacerbate them. The key to distinguishing  pathological states of anxiety and depression is impairment. Even during the saddest times in my life, my sleep and appetite weren’t seriously affected, and I was able to function adequately. I cried but didn’t have crying spells, and have never come close to attempting suicide. (I’m  not taking credit for this; I consider myself very fortunate.) During my year-long employment in an extremely stressful job, I suffered sleep loss; but my sleep improved immediately after I quit the job.

People who suffer from chronic anxiety and depression often get blamed for their symptoms, because they’re not understood as the symptoms of a chronic mental disorder. Because of the widespread stigma attached to mental illness, many people don’t feel the empathy they might feel for someone with a debilitating physical disorder. And people who suffer from these mental illnesses often blame themselves, telling themselves they “should be” able to control their symptoms. Others self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs that might give them short-term symptom relief, but only add drug dependency to their list of problems.

It’s hard enough to have a mental illness and to have to deal with societal stigma; but in addition, mentally ill persons are increasingly neglected in this country. The mental health system is shamefully under-funded, which explains why so many people with mental illnesses are homeless, why hospital Emergency Departments all over the country are swamped with people who are experiencing a psychiatric crisis, and why jails and prisons have become major providers of mental health services.

Everybody experiences anxiety and depression, and most of us learn how to cope with these transient conditions, because they’re not overwhelming or disabling. But some people with chronic anxiety and/or depression can’t cope without help from social support systems, whether in the form of professional services or community resources – family and otherwise – that recognize mental illnesses as treatable conditions, and provide needed help.

I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, but will be back with a new post in early June. In the meantime, you can access other things I’ve written at my website: jeffkoob.com. It features links to my books, samples of my artwork, and a short story, “Demon Radio.”

What it takes to be a psychotherapist

These are just my opinions, based on my thirty-plus years as a psychotherapist. I suspect that the first thing it takes to be an effective therapist is to feel a calling to the profession, as in a religious calling, or vocation.  I may be wrong in this belief, but I don’t think many people enter the profession with the goal of becoming wealthy or famous. (I think the same is true of the best teachers.) A basic qualification is that you’re a compassionate person by nature. I grew up thinking I was going to be a career Army officer, like my father and his father; but at the end of my service obligation I resigned my commission and decided to study psychology on the GI Bill. I knew I wanted to be a healer, not a soldier.

One factor in my calling to be a therapist was the gratitude I felt for having been raised by loving parents, in a loving family. I had a happy childhood, and the older I became, the more aware I was of my good fortune. My father felt called to lead men in combat; I felt called to help people who hadn’t been blessed as I had been, to heal and grow.

That’s not to say that a happy childhood is a prerequisite for being a good therapist. Sometimes the compassionate nature that’s a basic requirement for the profession comes from painful personal experience, and empathy for others. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly effective therapy for people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, was the brainchild of Dr. Marsha Linehan. It was born from her own struggles with mental illness, and her own painful road to recovery. I’ve known a number of good therapists who were themselves in treatment for a mental illness.

Therapists are flawed human beings, like everyone else, and I’m not saying that your life has to be in anything-like-perfect order for you to be an effective therapist. But in order to be able to separate your own needs from those of your clients, you need to have the kind of self-awareness and insight that come from leading a balanced life, in which your own basic needs are being met. Any blind spots about your own personality and needs will be blind spots in your understanding of your clients’ personalities and needs. (In my opinion all therapists have blind spots; it’s a matter of how many and how big. That’s where good supervision – and an openness to being supervised – comes in.) If you  have significant unresolved conflicts in your own life, you probably need to be in therapy, yourself. Having the experience of being in therapy (some therapist training programs require it) will surely help you to be a better therapist.

You have to have the ability to be present and caring with many people who are in pain, without becoming functionally depressed. This is another reason why you’ll need to have your own psychic house in order, if you’re going to be able to help other people. In most clinical settings, being a psychotherapist carries a lot of responsibility with it. It’s a very stressful profession. If you work with clinically depressed people, you have to be prepared for the possibility that one of your clients may commit suicide. Especially if you work in the public sector, you may also have to work with violent people.

If you have a tendency to be judgmental, you can’t be a good therapist. You’re bound to encounter clients whose values are very different from your own. You have to accept the client as he is in order to help him change. Carl Rogers called this “unconditional positive regard,” and maintaining this radical acceptance may call for frequent attitude adjustments on your part. This requires self-awareness and emotional stability. It’s okay for a therapist to be a flawed human being, as long as you have some awareness of your flaws.

You need to enter the profession with an awareness of your limitations as a helping professional. You’re not there to fix people or to solve their problems. There are people entering therapy who are looking for a rescuer, because they think they need to be rescued and nobody in their social support network has been able to rescue them. (The “rescuer” is a role played by certain people in many dysfunctional families.) All you can do as a therapist is to try your best to establish a helpful relationship with your client(s) and to work with them in good faith on goals that were mutually agreed-upon. Among the appropriate roles you may play as a therapist are teacher, facilitator, coach, and even cheerleader. But you aren’t going to rescue anyone.

Sometimes you’ll fail to be helpful, despite your best efforts. Sometimes a client you thought you had a good relationship with, and were helping, will abruptly drop out of therapy; and you’ll never discover why. Sometimes you’ll feel “in over your head” with a client, not knowing what you should say or do next in your efforts to facilitate positive change. That’s when you need to appreciate the limits of your abilities to help alleviate suffering in a person you’ve come to care about. You may find that you’re not able to help someone you really, really want to help. These are humbling experiences. These are times when you need a good supervisor.

Those are the human qualities I think you need in order to become a psychotherapist. In terms of academic requirements, generally you need to have a graduate degree in psychology, sociology/social work, nursing, counseling, or a related field. If you work in the public sector, you may be “credentialed” to deliver specified clinical services, without having to be licensed in your profession. If you want to work in the private sector or have your own private practice, you’ll have to be licensed.

Who is mentally ill?

Sometimes as the group leader in my psychoeducational groups, I’d start my standard rap on psychopathology by writing two words on the board: sad and depressed. Then I’d ask, “Do these two words mean the same thing?” After listening to responses from group members, I’d proceed in this manner: Yes and no. On the street they’re synonymous, but to a psycho-diagnostician they can be very different things. Sadness is a universal human experience. Sometimes we can identify the reason or reasons for our sadness, other times not. When a person says, “I’m depressed because my friend is moving away,” they’re likely describing “normal” sadness that will probably diminish over time.

Sadness is a mood, and moods come and go. If a sad mood becomes persistent and affects your functioning, depression may be a better description for the experience. This persistent mood may also be due to an identifiable cause, such as a romantic breakup, or it may be unrelated to life circumstances. The former is referred to by some  clinicians as “functional” (caused by some external circumstance), the latter as “endogenous” (caused by internal, biologic factors). This isn’t an absolute distinction in all cases, but it has its utility.

There’s a deeper level of depression that isn’t a universal experience. Even at the lowest points of my life, I’ve never been as sad as the clinically depressed people I’ve known personally and professionally. People living with this kind of depression may experience hopelessness, despair, and suicidal ruminations. I’ve never been there, and I have great compassion for those who have.

One way of classifying psychopathology is assigning people to distinct diagnostic categories. You either do or don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for depression, or schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or antisocial personality disorder. If you don’t have the disorder, you may have traits associated with it. Another way of classifying pathological traits is to view them along continuua: straight lines with opposite poles. Everybody can be placed somewhere on a continuum between happy to be alive and suicidal, gentle and violent, honest and dishonest, paranoid and trusting, and other traits and tendencies.

If I’m extremely unconventional but functional, some people may refer to me as “crazy,”  but to others I’m merely eccentric. If I’m unconventional to the point I can’t function in society and may endanger myself or others, I could be mentally ill. In my graduate program in humanistic psychology, we didn’t even have a course titled “Abnormal Psychology”; that was considered too pejorative. Our course was titled “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest we apply unnecessary or judgmental labels to people.

Psychopathology is characterized by impairment or disability. I have obsessive-compulsive traits, but I don’t think of them as pathological, because I’ve been able to recognize, control and channel them. I’ve had doctors and lawyers tell me that they never could have made it through medical school or law school if not for obsessive-compulsive traits. You too may have traits of a mental disorder, but not meet the diagnostic criteria, because you’re not impaired by them. For instance, you might have some symptoms of depression, but not be pathologically depressed. Or you might have paranoid traits,  but not be diagnosable as having a paranoid disorder. The hyper- vigilance characteristic of a truly paranoid person might even be desirable, if you’re a spy.

Even if you have a diagnosed mental illness or engage in crazy behavior, you can’t be involuntarily committed to a treatment facility without a Probate Court hearing. (I only refer to behaviors as “crazy,” not people.) In most states you must be interviewed before the hearing by two Designated Examiners (DEs), one of them an MD, and have court-appointed legal counsel to represent you at the hearing. In order for you to be involuntarily committed, both DEs must agree – and convince the court – that you are of danger to yourself or others, due to a diagnosable mental illness. I’ve had the privilege and responsibility of being a DE for most of my career, and in my experience the system works most of the time to prevent people from being “railroaded” onto locked wards against their will.

Mentally ill people are often shunned, and even blamed for their symptoms. With good treatment most mentally ill people can function in society, although some are too disabled to hold a steady job. All people with mental and emotional illnesses deserve good treatment, regardless of income. But unfortunately, state mental health systems all over the country are terribly under-funded, and many folks don’t get the treatment they need to remain functional. A significant portion of homeless people have mental illnesses. Hospital ERs, jails, and prisons have become major mental health service providers. I’ll describe how we got to this sorry state of affairs in a later post.