A psychology lecture through the eyes of a former mental health patient

Though I´m actually a philosophy student, in my current semester I am attending two lectures unrelated to my subject. Both of them deal with mental illnesses. It´s a topic I´m interested in, but I also aim to find out how the mentally ill are seen by professionals, and if my own experiences with psychotherapists were unfortunate exceptions or the rule.  One of these lectures is held by a psychiatrist, the other one is held by a psychotherapist. (The general difference between the two professions is that in order to become a psychiatrist you have to earn a medical degree, whereas you can become a psychotherapist by earning a degree in psychology and later train as a therapist. There are some other ways of becoming a psychotherapist that don´t involve studying psychology, but I won´t go into that now.) For future reference, I will call the psychiatrist Dr. Psych, and the psychologist Dr. Bla. You will soon see why.

Dr. Bla´s lecture, which I attended yesterday, deals with clinical psychology. That means he introduces several kinds of mental illnesses, like depression, personality disorders, PTSD and so on, and then he tells us how they can be treated. At least that is the plan. Trouble is, his plan doesn´t seem to work out. Yesterday was the third session and already we are behind schedule. There are several reasons for this.

1.) The students. The lecture is attended by at least 500 students, mostly girls, and unfortunately they have zero discipline. They keep on babbling among themselves throughout the lecture. If I didn´t sit in one of the first five rows I probably wouldn´t understand a word Dr. Bla says. I find it quite ironic that these students, the precise people who might become psychotherapists and get paid for listening to people all day long – are unable to even listen to a professor for merely 90 minutes! Maybe he should offer them a fee? Admittedly, I´m having trouble listening to him either, but at least I just scribble strange faces onto the sides of my notebook and keep my mouth shut. Being a loner has benefits.

2.) The second problem is Dr. Bla himself. He does not sound like a teacher giving a lecture, he sounds like a student giving a presentation. And a student who is not well prepared, mind you. He appears to be improvising most of the time. It is difficult to listen to someone who constantly skips parts of his lecture because “we are running out of time”, but, despite running out of time, answers each and every question, even if they are totally out of context. And I don´t understand his priorities!  He bothers us for ages with useless statistics about how frequent which type of depression is among the male and the female population, but he skips large parts of what depression is actually like for the person who suffers from it! But isn´t that much more important to know for someone who wants to help people with depression? I feel strange sitting in that classroom at times. Dr. Bla talks about all these subjects as if they had nothing to do with us. He assumes that we are all normal, healthy, sane people who never experienced firsthand anything he talks about. Well, I did, and quite often I feel like an alien from outer space in his lectures.

Anyway, yesterday´s lecture dealt with depression, and how to heal it. Dr. Bla said several things that astonished me quite a bit. First of all, he spend a lot of time on talking about possible causes. Other than one might have expected, he dealt with biological causes a lot more than with psychological causes. According to him, there were certain physiological changes visible in depressive persons. He emphasized, of course, that these changes merely correlated with the depression, they could not be pinned down as the cause. He also explained that these physiological changes could be influenced not just by medication, but also by psychotherapy. Instead of “psychotherapy” he frequently used that term “that useless babbling” – and at some point it really started to annoy me. Yes, we all know that you poor psychotherapists are constantly being bullied by those evil psychiatrists and their Frankenstein methods! Really, like psychotherapists were persecuted outcasts!!! The way things are, you are more likely to become an outcast when you are skeptical towards psychotherapy.  Psychotherapy has an almost immaculate public image (though your average bloke on the street might call it bullshit), and as long as psychotherapists can become college professors and their lectures are crowded there is no reason for them to present themselves as martyrs!

Another thing I noticed is that he mentioned certain “protective elements”, that is, things that might protect you from developing depression or any other mental illness. He said that one of the protective elements was intelligence. I felt a bit taken aback by that one. So is that to say that if I become depressive it´s just because I´m dumb?! Nooooo, of course not! That´s just “dysfunctional thinking” if you´re depressive, or “black-and-white-thinking” if you are borderline, or “being ego-centric” if you are a narcissist. All he did was stating a scientific fact, and if I cannot deal with it, then something is wrong with me, right? Nope. Not right. First of all I want to know how psychologists came to that conclusion. The way I know them, they did an IQ test on mental health patients and compared the results to results of people who are not diagnosed with any mental illness. Uh huh. First question: How do they know that those not diagnosed with any illness are really all that healthy? Maybe they are insane geniuses who are clever enough to stay the fuck away from psychotherapists (pardon my embitterment). Second question: Did it ever occur to them that being mentally ill might have adverse effects on a person´s performance in IQ tests – and not the other way round? I remember my performance at school deteriorating severely when I was depressed. When you think about suicide, you just can´t be bothered to solve equations. Third question: What type of intelligence did they test? Fourth question: How about people with Asperger syndrome? There is a possibility, of course, that they found a more useful approach and that I am just too dumb to recognize it.

Another thing I wanted to highlight was some stuff he said about therapy. He emphasized how important it is to not tell a depressed person to “get her act together”, or that she is not all that miserable after all. I second that. He also said how important it was to structure therapy sessions because depressed people tend to lose the plot. I found that quite ironic, given how well structured his own lectures are. And then he said something I found both funny and sad. He told us to tell a depressed person that depression is very well treatable, and that it is a common illness. Dear Dr. Bla – maybe you should spend more time learning about what it is like to be depressive. Because when you are depressive, you might just not care about the possibility of happiness. Being happy seems just as void, meaningless and empty as not being happy. You might not even believe that what you have is an illness. It feels as if you are seeing the truth; life and humanity and yourself in all its ugliness. You might be suspecting that happy people are just harboring illusions, and that they are trying to infect you with them. At the time I was depressive, I refused to accept that what I had was an illness – and at the same time I dreaded the idea that how I felt might be normal. I was distrustful towards anyone who told me to have a more positive outlook, or to be kinder to myself; but the idea that feeling low and never being really happy might be normal, and that, as for example my mum suggested, I was “just expecting too much” from life, drove me towards wanting to kill myself. I think what I would have needed most would have been someone to truly empathize with me – but that never happened. Being told that I was ill was invalidating, and being told that I was just spoiled was equally invalidating. And somehow those seemed to be the only two perspectives out there. I wonder if I will one day manage to create a third one.


Related Posts:

The Nutjob among the Neurotics – a psychology lecture through the eyes of a former mental health patient, part II

Feeling like scum – a psychology lecture through the eyes of a former mental health patient, part III 



2 Responses to “A psychology lecture through the eyes of a former mental health patient”

  1. trusscommunicate Says:

    Thanks for the post. It’s too bad some professionals can’t talk the talk. Very illuminating.

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