Showing 11 - 20 of 192 annotations tagged with the keyword "Psychiatry"

Xanax Rainbow

Reemtsen, Kelly

Last Updated: May-23-2017
Annotated by:
Lam, Gretl

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Sculpture

Genre: Sculpture


Five larger-than-life pills are presented in a clean white frame. They are precisely arranged in a vertical column to form a pastel rainbow. Each pill is a different color – white, pink, green, blue, and purple – and the word “Xanax” is prominently printed into each in capital letters. The mirrored background reflects the pills and the frame, just as it reflects the viewer’s face.

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Memoir


James Rhodes is a British classical concert pianist who is known for his iconoclastic, pop-inspired performing style.  He is also an outspoken survivor of childhood sexual abuse who is equally frank about his struggles with severe mental illness. Rhodes’s memoir Instrumental is a tribute to the healing power of music.  Indeed, music quite literally saves the author’s life; it is only when a friend smuggles an iPod loaded with Bach into his psych ward that Rhodes regains the will to live.   

Rhodes does not mince words.  We learn that he was violently raped by a gym teacher on a regular basis for five years from the age of five. Left with severe internal injuries that produce wracking pain, he requires multiple surgeries.  He soon also develops dissociative symptoms, drug and alcohol addiction, self-injurious behaviors, and chronic suicidal ideation. Barely able to function, he endures many tumultuous years during which he abandons the piano.  The author’s subsequent journey from physical and emotional fragmentation to wholeness through music provides the substance of his book.

The preface to Instrumental is designated “Prelude,” and the ensuing twenty chapters, labeled “tracks,” all correspond to musical works.  (All twenty tracks may be listened to, for free, on Spotify.) In addition, as if to assure the reader he is in good company, Rhodes offers psychological profiles of famous composers.  We learn, for example, that Bruckner suffered from a morbid obsession with numbers, and that Schumann, after throwing himself in the Rhine, died in an asylum.  

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play


Evan Hansen, an awkward, lonely high school senior, struggles with Social Anxiety Disorder. On the advice of his therapist, he pens supportive letters to himself: “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.  Because today all you have to do is be yourself. But also confident.”   

Connor, another loner student, picks up one of Evan’s letters and, several days later, commits suicide.  When Connor’s parents find the letter, they take it to be their son’s suicide note.  Instead of dissuading them, Evan concocts an account of a close friendship with the classmate he barely knew, creating an email trail. Connor’s family swallows the story.

As Evan gains the attention he has always craved and comes out of his shell, he finds that he cannot stop himself.   He founds the “Connor Project,” an organization dedicated to preserving his “friend’s” memory where he shares his musings on social media:  “Have you ever felt like nobody was there?  Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?  Have you ever felt like you could disappear?  Like you could fall, and no one would hear? ...Well, let that lonely feeling wash away…Lift your head and look around.  You will be found.  You will be found.”  Once Evan’s postings go viral, the Connor Project becomes a veritable industry, with a budget, and fans who look to it for inspiration.  As the stakes rise, the Project can flourish only by being fed more lies. 

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Writing for all the co-authors, Rita Charon challenges “a reductionist, fragmented medicine that holds little regard for the singular aspects of a person’s life” and protests “social injustice of the global healthcare system” (p.1). She gives a history of narrative medicine, lists its principles, and summarizes the book’s chapters, mentioning that several come as pairs that present theory then practice. The six principles are “intersubjectivity, relationality, personhood and embodiment, action toward justice, close reading (or slow looking), and creativity” (p. 4).
The basic thesis is that healthcare can be improved by narrative medicine because “narrative competence can widen the clinical gaze to include personal and social elements of patients’ lives vital to the tasks of healing” (p. 1). 
This is a dense, theory-laden book from the group at Columbia University. The summaries below touch of some of the major points.   

Ch. 1, Account of Self: Exploring Relationality Through Literature

Maura Spiegel and Danielle Spencer describe the richness of literature that allows readers to respond creatively. In clinical settings, a caregiver may similarly listen attentively and help co-construct a narrative with the patient. Literature can help us explore “the limits of rationality and positivism” (p. 29) and move from “a model of autonomy to one of relationality” (p. 34). 

Ch. 2, This is What We Do, and These Things Happen:  Literature, Experience, Emotion, and Relationality in the Classroom.

Spiegal and Spencer write that current medical education does a poor job of helping future physicians with their emotions.  Clinicians profit from a more integrated self and will listen better to patients and respond to them.      

Ch. 3, Dualism and Its Discontents I:  Philosophy, Literature, and Medicine

Craig Irvine and Spencer start with three literary examples that illustrate separation of mind and body. This dualism has pervaded modern medicine, causing losses for patients and caregivers, especially when there are power imbalances between them.  The “clinical attitude” (p. 81) dehumanizes both caregivers and patients.           

Ch. 4, Dualism and Its Discontents II:  Philosophical Tinctures
Irvine and Spencer argue that both phenomenology (appreciative of embodied experience) and narrative hermeneutics (privileging reciprocal exchange of persons) help us move beyond dualism.  Theorists Edmund Pellegrino (also a physician), Richard Zaner, and Fredrik Svenaeus help us understand how caregivers and patients should relate. 

Ch. 5, Deliver Us from Certainty: Training for Narrative Ethics

Craig Irvine and Charon write that various humanistic disciplines “recognize the central role narrative plays in our lives” (p.111). There is, however, “indeterminacy” in stories that “cannot be reduced by analyzable data” (p. 113). Narrative ethics urges us to consider issues of power, access, and marginalization for both the teller and the listener. The authors review recent ethical traditions of principalism, common morality, casuistry, and virtue-based ethics. They believe that narrative ethics, emerging from clinical experience and now allied with feminist and structural justice frameworks, will provide a better approach for many reasons. “Narrative ethics is poised to integrate the literary narrative ethics and the clinical narrative ethics” (p. 125).  

Ch. 6, The Politics of the Pedagogy: Cripping, Queering and Un-homing Health Humanities

Sayantani DasGupta urges attention to issues of power and privilege in classrooms, lest they “replicate the selfsame hierarchical, oppressive power dynamics of traditional medicine” (p. 137). “Cripping” and “queering” provide new perspectives on knowledge, for example the untested binaries of physician/patient, sick/well, elite/marginalized, teacher/student. Drawing on disability studies, health humanities, and queer politics, DasGupta challenges “medicalization” and the “restitution narrative” (p. 141).  

Ch. 7, Close Reading: The Signature Method of Narrative Medicine

Charon stresses “the accounts of self that are told and heard in the contexts of healthcare” (p. 157). Close reading, traced from I. A. Richards through reader response theorists, is “a central method” for narrative medicine (p. 164). Close reading enhances attentive listening, and both of these deepen relationality and intersubjectivity, allowing for affiliation between caregiver and patient (pp. 175-76). Such linkages aid healthy bodies and minds, even the world itself (p. 176).             

Ch. 8, A Framework for Teaching Close Reading

Charon describes how she chooses texts and provides prompts for responsive creative writing. She illustrates “the cardinal narrative features—time, space, metaphor, and voice” (p. 182) in literary works by Lucille Clifton, Henry James, Galway Kinnell, and Manual Puig.  

PART V, CREATIVITY            
Ch. 9,  Creativity: What, Why, and Where?

Nellie Hermann writes that “healthcare in particular has a vexed relationship to the notion of creativity,” in part because of issues of control (pp. 211-12); values of “evidence based” and “numbers-driven” medicine are also factors. Narrative medicine, however, “is about reawakening the creativity that lives in all of us” (p. 214).            

Ch. 10, Can Creativity Be Taught?

Hermann reports on techniques used in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia, including prompts and a Portfolio program. A “Reading Guide” helps clinical faculty (and others) respond to student writing. Responses to writing can nourish the “creative spark.”  

Ch. 11, From Fire Escapes to Qualitative Data: Pedagogical Urging, Embodied Research, and Narrative Medicine’s Ear of the Heart

Edgar Rivera Colón suggests that “we are all lay social scientists of one kind or another,” seeing people in action in various contexts. He affirms an “assets-based approach to public health challenges, as opposed to a deficits-based and pathology-replicating paradigm” (p. 259). We are all embodied actors in relationship to power, privilege, and social penalty. Research through interviews and participant observation show “meaning worlds” in tension with “systemic inequality and structural violence” (p. 263). 

Ch. 12, A Narrative Transformation of Health and Healthcare

Charon presents and analyzes a case study of patient Ms. N. as treated by internist Charon. They’ve been working together for decades. Charon writes up her perceptions and shares them with Ms. N. Speaking together, they “became mirrors for one another” (p. 274). Psychiatrist Marcus discusses transference and transitional space in that experience. A caregiver as witness can shift healthcare from “instrumental custodianship to intersubjective contact” (p. 288).            

Ch. 13, Clinical Contributions of Narrative Medicine

Charon describes applications of narrative medicine, all with the aim of improving healthcare. She describes techniques for interviews of patients, writing methods, and ways to improve the effectiveness of healthcare teams, as well as changes in clinical charts and other narrative descriptions of patients.

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Rothenstein, Julian

Last Updated: Nov-30-2016
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Literature — Secondary Category: Visual Arts /

Genre: Photographs with Commentary


The subject of Psychobook is psychological tests, both classic tests and newly created ones. Oversized, with more pictures than text, it is truly an art book.    

Psychobook begins with an introduction by Lionel Shriver, a journalist and novelist, which proves to be a very personal indictment of psychological testing.  There follows a more even-handed historical essay by Oisin Wall, a curator at the Science Museum in London.    

The bulk of Psychobook is comprised of photographs of tests and archival material related to tests.  For example, along with intelligence tests designed to screen potential immigrants, we find images of new arrivals being tested at Ellis Island.  Likewise, we see beautifully reproduced Rorshach inkblots along with pictures of Rorshach and older inkblots that may have inspired him.
 The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a projective test in which subjects respond to images with their fantasies.  Here we see the 1930s originals cut out of magazines alongside updated images especially commissioned for this volume. Each is provocative in its own way.  As an added bonus, a series of photographs of psychotherapists in their offices from the 1930s to the present is interspersed with the content on psychological testing.     

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The Kraken

Tennyson, Alfred

Last Updated: Oct-31-2016
Annotated by:
Clark, Mark

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry


This Petrarchan sonnet of 15 lines begins as a lyric contemplation of the Norwegian sea-beast of Scandinavian mythology; but it evolves into an association of the beast with other mythological representations of invisible yet vast, destructive forces that would devour from below or swallow sojourners on the seas of everyday life.  In a broader sense, then, and by means of the mythological representation, the poem may be understood as a contemplation of ideology and blind allegiances to the status quo—which lose their destructive powers only when they are recognized for what they are.

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Samuel Shem's (Stephen Bergman) The House of God, first published in 1978, has sold over two million copies in over 50 countries (see annotation).  Its 30th anniversary was marked by publication of Return to The House of God: Medical Resident Education 1978-2008, a collection of essays offering historical perspectives of residency education, philosophical perspectives, literary criticism, and women's perspectives, among others. Contributors include such well-known scholars as Kenneth Ludmerer, Howard Brody, and Anne Hudson Jones, as well as physician-writers Perri Klass, Abigal Zuger, Susan Onthank Mates, and Jack Coulehan.  The closing section, "Comments from the House of Shem," includes an essay by psychologist and scholar Janet Surrey (Bergman's wife) and one by "both" Samuel Shem and Stephen Bergman. 

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Annotated by:
Lerner, Barron

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography


Perhaps no topic in the history of medicine has been explored as much as the lobotomy.  Psychiatrists, historians and journalists have weighed in on this controversial topic, and the procedure has been featured in a number of Hollywood films.

Yet there is nothing like a narrative of a specific lobotomy patient to draw us into the subject anew.  And that is why Kate Clifford Larson’s new book, Rosemary: The Forgotten Kennedy Daughter, is so compelling—even if we already know the sad outcome of Rosemary Kennedy’s life.

Originally devised in 1935 by the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, the lobotomy involved drilling holes in the skull and using a blade to sever nerve fibers running from the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain.  Moniz believed that psychiatric symptoms were caused by longstanding faulty nerve connections.  Severing them, and allowing new connections to form, he postulated, would help treat patients with intractable mental illness, such as schizophrenia and its paranoid delusions.

America’s chief proponent of lobotomy was Washington, D.C. neurologist Walter J. Freeman who, working with neurosurgeon James W. Watts, reported in 1937 that 13 of 20 patients undergoing the operation had improved.  Freeman would later devise his own procedure, the transorbital lobotomy, in which he actually used a mallet to pound an ice pick through the patient’s eye socket into the brain, then moved the pick around blindly to cut the nerve fibers.

Among the first histories of lobotomy was psychologist Elliot S. Valenstein’s  Great and Desperate Cures (1986), which strongly criticized Freeman and his contemporaries as overzealous physicians who did far more harm than good, creating docile and apathetic individuals no longer capable of caring for themselves.  Physician-historian Joel Braslow’s Mental Ills and Bodily Cures (1997) argued convincingly that a main motivation for the popularity of lobotomies—roughly 40,000 would be performed in the United States by the 1960s—was to enable staff members to maintain order in crowded, understaffed institutions.   In Last Resort (1998), historian Jack D. Pressman made the provocative claim that lobotomy represented the best science of the day and that, at least in some cases, it allowed patients to return home with fewer psychiatric symptoms.

Rosemary Kennedy was born in 1918, the third of what would eventually be nine children of Joseph and Rose Kennedy.  Joe was a successful businessman and investor who later entered politics, first as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1932 to 1935 and then as U.S. Ambassador to Britain from 1938 to 1940.  At an early age, it was clear that Rosemary was not as mentally sharp as her two older brothers, Joe Jr. and John.  Larson hypothesizes that Rosemary’s “intellectual disability” occurred at birth, when a nurse forcibly kept her in her mother’s womb—perhaps without adequate oxygenation—while waiting for the doctor to arrive.

It was Rosemary’s blessing and curse to be born into the high-powered and prominent Kennedy family.  Her parents left no stone unturned in trying to help their daughter, sending her to special schools and programs around the world.  But they simply could not tolerate her lack of improvement.  Rosemary was a terrible speller and writer, socially awkward and at times unruly.  Joe Sr., in particular, worried about the negative ramifications to his sons’ possible political careers if word got out about their “retarded” sister.

Reading about Rosemary’s first two decades, and knowing that her lobotomy is approaching, is truly heartbreaking.  Writing letters home from her various placements, she was so eager to please.  “I would do anything to make you happy,” she told her father in 1934 at the age of 16.  “I hate to Disppoint [sic] you in anyway.”

When the Kennedys first arrived in England in 1938, Rosemary, her mother Rose and her younger sister Kathleen were presented to the king and queen.  For once, the circumstances tilted in Rosemary’s favor.  The event was smashing.  Photographs show Rosemary, who had become a very attractive young woman, resplendent in a “picture dress of white tulle.”  She felt, she said, like Cinderella.

But when the family returned to the United States in 1940, with war approaching in Europe, the situation was no different than it had always been.  Plus, now in her early twenties, Rosemary’s moodiness and emotional outbursts were becoming more frequent.

Lobotomy had gotten a lot of press in 1941, particularly in a May article in the Saturday Evening Post that highlighted the work of Freeman and Watts.  And while this piece warned about the dangers of the procedure, it mostly praised its ability to make people with mental illness into “useful members of society.”  At some point, Joe Kennedy met with Freeman and decided that Rosemary should undergo the operation.  Larson does not unearth exactly how the decision was reached—or what Rosemary was told.  But it seems to mostly have been Joe’s doing.

The problem, of course, was that lobotomy was not meant for what Rosemary had—essentially a low IQ.  But Joseph Kennedy, in conjunction with her doctors, had convinced himself she had an “agitated depression,” and thus was a candidate.  That Freeman was a zealot for the operation, as is well documented in journalist Jack El-Hai’s The Lobotomist (2005), did not help.  Most tragically, when Rosemary underwent her lobotomy some time in November 1941, something went “horribly awry.”  Patients were kept awake during the procedure and asked to talk or sing to help guide the surgeon’s scalpel.  But in Rosemary’s case, when Watts made his final cut of brain tissue, she became incoherent.  “The operation,” Larson writes, “destroyed a crucial part of Rosemary’s brain and erased years of emotional, physical and intellectual development, leaving her completely incapable of taking care of herself.”

The rest of Rosemary discusses her life after the lobotomy until her death in 2005.  She spent most of these years at a Catholic residential institution in Wisconsin.  Most cruelly, family members rarely visited, trying to render invisible what had happened.  To the Kennedys’ credit, in later years they corrected this error and brought Rosemary for visits to Hyannis Post and other family outposts.  There are only a few photographs in the book from this later era, but they help to humanize the woman who suffered for so long.

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4:48 Psychosis

Kane, Sarah

Last Updated: Dec-15-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play


4:48 Psychosis was the last work of controversial British playwright Sarah Kane.  In 1999, soon after her twenty-eighth birthday, having completed the play, she took her own life.  

Naturally, these tragic circumstances can never be far from the reader’s mind. But to dismiss 4:48 Psychosis as a suicide note is to negate Kane’s achievement.  The play was, in fact, meticulously researched and carefully written. Kane’s first play, Blasted, had considerable shock value, and throughout her short career she pushed the boundaries of what might be considered stageworthy. 4:48 Psychosis is both the final product of a life marked by recurrent episodes of depression (the play gets its name from the time she found herself waking up every day during the last episode) and the final chapter in her writing’s progression towards disintegration. It represents her deteriorating mental state, but is also a conscious stylistic decision. 

The text of 4:48 Psychosis is unrecognizable as a conventional play.  The author has left neither stage directions nor an indication of the number or gender of performers. Words and numbers appear to be arranged ornamentally on the page. However, meaning that is not apparent emerges from the chaos, as in the way that sense may be made from a psychotic mind.  The numbers are not random, but “serial 7’s” from the mental status exam.  Quotations from the Book of Revelations appear side by side with excerpts from a medical chart, and extracts from self-help books are interspersed with dialogue between a patient and her psychiatrist.  The latter provides an illustration of the patient’s attempt to reconcile her anger with her neediness: “I cannot believe that I can feel this for you and you feel nothing” (p. 214). We learn too of her struggle with self-mutilation and her suicidal impulses, and follow her moods from dark humor to despair to hopefulness.  Indeed, the last line of the play, “Please open the curtains” (p. 245) appears to leave open the possibility that she will pull through.  That option was unfortunately not the one the author chose for herself. 

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Next To Normal

Kitt, Tom; Yorkey, Brian

Last Updated: Nov-18-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play


Next to Normal is a musical, composed in a rock idiom.  

Meet the Goodmans, (father Dan, mother Diana, daughter Natalie) who on the surface resemble a “perfect loving family” like any one of millions.  However, from the outset we see that they are, in fact, a hair’s breadth from collapse:  Diana’s long-term struggle with bipolar disorder leaves her suffering uncontrollable mood swings.  Her illness fuels the chronic tension in her relationships with husband and daughter.  In addition, we learn that a son (Gabe), whom we initially believe to be an active family member, actually died years ago and his appearances represent Diana’s hallucination. 

As the show begins, Diana is undergoing a hypomanic episode that is resistant to treatment by her psychopharmacologist.  Discouraged by side effects and egged on by her phantom son, Diana flushes her pills down the toilet.  As she deteriorates, she visits a new psychiatrist who agrees at first to treat her without medication.  As she begins in psychotherapy, for the first time, to accept the loss of her son, she descends to a new clinical low.  At the close of the first act, after making a suicide attempt, she is hospitalized and agrees to be treated with ECT.   

By Act II, the ECT has effected great clinical improvement, with stabilization of Diana’s mood and no further hallucinations.  All this, however, has come at the expense of her memory.  As it returns, she becomes aware that what she most needs to remember, and process, are her feelings about losing a child.  In fact, we learn that she was kept from expressing them at the time because of concerns she might decompensate.  She struggles to make sense of all of this while remaining stable.  When she confronts Dan about Gabe, it is he who appears unable to discuss their loss.  She suddenly becomes aware that Dan has been enabling her in an unhealthy way.  She reconciles with her daughter, but realizes that in order to move forward she needs to get out of her dysfunctional marriage.  However, the door is left open on this relationship, for at the recommendation of her psychiatrist Dan enters psychotherapy.

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