Normal and Bored

There are six million young Canadians starting school this week. From busy, excited little kindergartners to oh, so bored almost adults in their finally final year, yellow buses and slower streets will signal the end of summer as nothing else does.
At the psychiatric hospital where I work, we have four classrooms, all part of the M. F. McHugh Education Centre, and the young people who are receiving treatment for their mental health conditions will continue to have access to education, even though they are not all well enough to benefit from that educational experience as much as we would like or hope.
As a clinician, one of the elements I value most about the McHugh classrooms is that they are a constant reminder to my young patients that there is a normal life waiting for them once they are feeling well. The very presence of these classrooms and their teachers is a reminder that everyone working with these patients has every intention of helping them get back into an academic life, a normal life.
Whatever age you are, becoming mentally ill turns your life upside down as no other life circumstance can. Often you cannot manage the very basics of getting up in the morning, or washing your face, or putting breakfast into your mouth. The idea that, on top of this, you’re expected to read Hamlet or learn about cell structure or get from classroom to classroom can be overwhelming. Imagine a classroom that supports you to manage exactly those studies while, fifty yards away, in another part of the same building, on an inpatient psychiatry unit, you are learning to cope with the voices telling you to kill yourself. It’s a lot to put together.
For a young person who is struggling with mental illness, or other difficulties, school can often be the most stabilizing influence in their life. If your dad left home on Tuesday, on Wednesday your class will still be reading Hamlet. If your grandmother passes away on Friday, and you saw your grandfather crying for the first time in your life, it really can help that cell structure does not shift in one week. If, all of a sudden, your mind is just not making sense, it helps to have a classroom where the teacher knows that this has not always been the case and that you will not feel this way forever. I think it especially helps to have a person who can bridge you back to the world where Hamlet and cell structure are important, and you can be a normal person again.When I was younger, I had wanted to be a teacher. The normality of life is one of the things I most miss about my life as a doctor. Like every physician, even when I focus on the person with me, I am often still focused on how well they are. Can they concentrate? Are they enjoying soccer once again? Is their mother back to nagging them about their room being a mess?
When you see a psychiatrist, and you’re sixteen years old, you know you don’t have a normal life. But, if every weekday morning you can sit in Mrs. Scott’s English class, listen to Mary Jo Jones be Ophelia and Sam Smith try to be Polonius, you can feel as though your life is as blessedly normal as everyone else’s. You can go back to being bored and everyone who knows you will think it’s a good thing to be normal and bored.

(Note: As a new school year starts, I will be hoping for the best year for students and teachers and especially for those students and teachers in the McHugh classrooms around Ottawa.)

Bleak Midwinter

The holiday season has officially started. I have begun to make a list of the families in my practice that should receive grocery vouchers so that they can afford food for the holidays. I also make a list for the teenagers who are living on their own. I confirm addresses and watch young people’s faces closely so that I can discern whether they are, in fact, housed. I ask them if their housing is safe, looking them right in the eye. I have a list of numbers on the corner of my desk for families or youth to call if they need housing. I have lists of where free holiday dinners are provided and where one can sign up to receive gifts. I am not trained for any of this. In fact, few doctors are trained for this work, but we all do it.  The hardest part of this work is finding a balance between the fear I have about how precarious my patients’ living situations can be and the realization that I have a responsibility to make that situation more secure.

I know there are many who will say that this is not a doctor’s job, but I cannot escape the knowledge that I have that says otherwise. Every doctor I know works for the best for their patients even when the best has nothing to do with pathology, physiology or medicines. Every doctor I know asks their patients questions about their income and work and family life.

The sharp contrast between the glittery mall displays and the realities of many lives is especially evident at this time of year.  While so many are focused on what they want the holiday to be, others are thinking of what they need so that the holiday is bearable. The impact of this contrast on mental health is significant.

At a time of year when family is glorified, the difficulties in one’s own family become highlighted. The support of family members is known to be a factor in good health, but how many people do you know who dread the “family” events that come with the holidays? How many of those events end much differently than sitcoms would have us think? Many of the youth I see live in care. Some will be preparing for a visit with family of one kind or another. Some will have days or even a week with their family. Helping youth stay realistic about these visits and the holidays is very difficult for those of us who care for these youth.

I am always most concerned about the youth who do not have a family to visit. Most people around them will be planning a visit and excitedly buying and wrapping gifts and planning travel. The youth without a family will be sharing their Christmas lists with a youth worker or social worker. You will receive gifts, often thoughtful gifts of things you want, but you will not have what you really want which is love, true affection from someone who has known you all your life and is happy for just being able to hang out with you. As a psychiatrist, I could point out the link between “hanging out” and endorphins but I think this just serves to distance us from the feelings. If you can understand what a young person with no family is feeling, you know that this feeling is not good for someone’s mental health.

As a physician, I always take some time off in November or early December to prepare emotionally for the holiday season, whose starkness is so evident in psychiatry. Then I come back to work ready to spend the next month social determinants of health.

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