Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Increasing anxiety in recent decades...continued

This is a sequel to a previous posting (http://garthkroeker.blogspot.com/2009/06/increasing-anxiety-in-recent-decades.html)

A visitor suggested the following July 2009 article to look at regarding this subject--here's a link to the abstract:

The author, "Ian Dowbiggin, PhD", is a history professor at the University of Prince Edward Island.

I found the article quite judgmental and poorly informed.

I thought there were some good points, exploring the interaction of social dynamics, political factors, secondary gain, etc. in the evolution of diagnostic labels; and perhaps exploring the idea that we may at times over-pathologize normal human experiences, character traits, or behaviours.

But, basically the author's message seems to be that we cling to diagnostic labels to avoid taking personal responsibility for our problems--and that therapists, the self-help movement, pharmaceutical companies, etc. are all involved in perpetuating this phenomenon.

Another implied point of view was that a hundred years ago, people might well have experienced similar symptoms, but would have accepted these symptoms as part of normal life, and carried on (presumably without complaint).

To quote the author:

"The overall environment of modern day life...bestows a kind of legitimacy on the pool of
anxiety-related symptoms"

This implies that some symptoms are "legitimate" and others are not, and that it is some kind of confusing or problematic feature of modern society that anxiety symptoms are currently considered "legitimate."

I am intensely annoyed by opinion papers which do not explore the other side of the issues--

here's another side to the issue:

1) perhaps, a hundred years ago, people suffered just as much, or worse, but lacked any sort of help for what was bothering them. They therefore lived with more pain, less productivity, less enjoyment, less of a voice, more isolation, and in most cases died at a younger age.

2) The development of a vocabulary to describe psychological distress does not necessarily cause more distress. The vocabulary helps us to identify experiences that were never right in the first place. The absence of a PTSD label does not mean that symptoms secondary to trauma did not exist before the 20th century. The author somewhat mockingly suggests that some people misuse a PTSD or similar label--that perhaps only those subject to combat trauma are entitled to use it, while those subject to verbal abuse in home life are not.

The availability of financial compensation related to PTSD has undoubtedly affected the number of people describing symptoms. But the author appears to leave readers with the impression that those seeking compensation via PTSD claims are "milking the system" (this is the subtitle of the PTSD section of this paper). There is little doubt that factitious and malingered symptoms are common, particularly when there is overt secondary gain. And the issue of how therapeutic it is to have long-term financial compensation for any sort of problem, is another matter for an evidence-based and politically charged debate. But to imply that all those who make financial claims regarding PTSD are "milking the system" seems very disrespectful to me. And to imply that a system which offers such compensation is somehow problematic again seems comparable to saying that the availability of fire or theft insurance is problematic. A constructive point of view on the matter, as far as I'm concerned, would be to consider ways to make compensation systems fair and more resistant to factitious or malingered claims.

With regard to social anxiety -- it may well be that "bashfulness" has been valued and accepted in many past--and present--cultures. But I suspect that the social alienation, social frustration, loneliness, and lack of ability to start new friendships, new conversations, or to find mates, have been phenomena similarly prevalent over the centuries. Our modern terminology suggests ways for a person who is "bashful" to choose for himself or herself, whether to stoically and silently accept this set of phenomena, or to address it as a medical problem, with a variety of techniques to change the symptoms. In this way the language can be empowering, leading to the discovery and nurturance of a voice, rather than leading to a sense of "victimhood."

Perhaps the lack of a vocabulary to articulate distress causes a spurious impression that the distress does not exist, or is not worthy of consideration. A historical analogy might be something along the lines of this: terms such as "molecule", "Uranium", or "electromagnetic field," may not have been used before 1701, 1797, or 1820, but this was merely a product of ignorance, not evidence of the non-existence of these phenomena in the 1600's and prior.

It may well be true that many individuals misuse the vocabulary, or may exploit it for secondary gain. And it may well be true that some diagnostic labels introduce an iatrogenic or factitious illness (the multiple personality disorder issue could be debated along these lines). But to imply that the vocabulary itself is harmful to society is akin to saying that fire insurance is harmful, since some people misuse it by deliberately burning their houses down.

3) Similarly, the so-called self-help movement may be part of some individuals fleeing into self-pathologizing language, while ironically neglecting a healthy engagement with their lives. But in most cases, it has actually helped people to recognize, label, and improve their problems. For a start on some evidence to look at regarding this, see the following reference to a meta-analysis on self-help for anxiety disorders: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16942965).

So, in conclusion, it is interesting to hear a different point of view. But I would expect a distinguished scholar to provide a much more balanced and insightful debate in such a paper, especially when it is published in a journal which is supposed to have high standards.

And I would certainly expect a much more thorough exploration of research evidence. The presence of 35 references in this paper may fool some readers into thinking that a reasonable survey of the research has been undertaken. Almost all of the references are themselves opinion pieces which merely support the author's point of view.

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