Love connections can treat the soul – Mental Health Matters
“What’s love got to do with it?” asks the iconic Tina Turner song. Not much, according to most psychiatrists.
For the last 40 years, psychiatry has tried, with some success, to establish itself as brain science. Discoveries in brain chemistry, brain visualization technologies, and pharmacology have all pushed psychiatrists in the direction of providing medication for what is said to be mental illness.
Now, psychiatrists opine about neuronal deficiencies, chemical imbalances and brain pathology.
People are patients, or clients, with signs and symptoms of illness such as too much or little sleep, weight gain or loss, increased or decreased interest and energy, excess anxiety, elevated or depressed mood, hallucinations, delusions, or paranoid thoughts.
And if “better living through chemistry” works to elevate mood, replenish sagging spirits, diminish dysfunctional anxiety, or correct distorted perceptions, so much the better.
But, does love matter? Well, yes.
First, let me define the term for the purposes of this column. I’m not referring to carnal love, or first love, or crush love, or teenage love. I don’t mean only the intimate bonding connection between two people that develops over time, though my definition would include this type of love.
No, I’m thinking about love in a broadly expansive sense, as in brotherly love, empathic love, supportive love, loving care, emotionally intimate love, or loving affection.
Some background: Both acute and chronic illness take an emotional toll. The incidence of mental problems is much higher in people with physical ailments. For example, depression in people with chronic diseases is about three times higher than the normal population.
Mental complications due to physical illness also contribute to poorer treatment outcomes for those physical illnesses. An example: Depressed diabetics have more complications and more difficulty controlling blood sugars than diabetics who are not depressed.
Part of my earlier career was spent as a consulting psychiatrist in a large urban medical center treating patients with potentially life-threatening diseases.
In that setting, you quickly learn that care-givers make a difference, that patients with better support systems tend to fare better both physically and emotionally.
Conversely, social isolation and low levels of social support are associated with increased morbidity and mortality. For example, the well respected Alameda County Studies found that men and women without ties to others were 1.9 to 3 times more likely to die from heart disease, cerebral vascular disease, or cancer within a nine-year period.
Moreover, poor social support correlates with higher levels of depression in medical illnesses like multiple sclerosis, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Physical illness is the bodies betrayal of the soul. Human connections, but particularly love connections, treat the soul, much as physicians treat illness.
Several stories make the point: A widowed woman in her ‘90s is admitted to hospital for a minor procedure and then transferred to an understaffed convalescent facility. She quickly develops an expansive blood clot on her leg and multiple areas of severe bruising.
Her daughter, living in another state, is on the phone with her and unit staff on a daily basis and finally gets mother transferred back to hospital for appropriate care. Absent her devoted and loving daughter, she likely would have died in the convalescent facility.
A single man without any discernible social support is admitted to the hospital with cancer. He is ill, but nowhere near terminally ill. He is despondent. Psychiatric consultation reveals depressive illness secondary to his medical problems.
There is no family support. There are no friends or relatives calling or looking in on him. Hospital staff have difficulty empathizing with his plight, a frequent finding in depressive disorders. He withdraws, refuses further care, and dies.
A married woman in her ‘50s is admitted to hospital with acute paralysis from the neck down due to a nervous system disorder from which some recover, some die, and some are left with disabilities after months of care.
Her devoted husband and daughters insist on being with her in hospital around the clock to provide loving support and thoughtfully conscientious monitoring of everything that staff do. She improves and after months returns home.
In two of these stories, love nurtured the soul while the body was given a chance to heal. Sadly, in the third, there was no love, no way into the soul, and the patient gave up on life.
Medical illness, particularly severe and chronic illness, assaults the soul. Loving care, devotion, empathy, understanding, affection, encouragement, just your focused presence in the moment, can make the seemingly unbearable manageable.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.