Recent calls for screening for a range of mental health problems point to an important recognition of the need to identify and address emotional suffering. Such screening offers an opportunity to decrease the stigma and shame that often accompany emotional pain.
A powerful new documentary, The Dark Side of the Full Moon, calls attention to the under-recognition and under-treatment of postpartum depression. In one scene, a mother refers to resistance from doctors who lack resources to address positive screens as “absurd.” She is correct, if the alternative to screening is to look the other way in the face of women who are suffering.
But she is highlighting a real dilemma. For the value of screening lies in being able to listen to, and offer healing for, the diverse range of struggles of individuals and families that fall under the umbrella of postpartum depression, or other DSM defined mental illness.
This summer the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) called for universal screening of depression in teens, and also made a similar call for screening for depression in pregnant and postpartum women. Screening is an essential first step in alleviating emotional suffering. However, universal screening for mental health disorders, in the absence of opportunity to listen to the full complexity of the experience of a child and family, may lead to massive increases in prescribing of psychiatric medication. Medication may have an important role to play, and may at times be lifesaving. However, as I argue in my forthcoming book, prescribing of medication in the absence of protected space and time for listening may actually interfere in development.
In Massachusetts a new program, MCPAP for Moms, helps obstetricians to find resources for mothers with symptoms of postpartum depression. While the idea is to offer a broad range of services, often the intervention consists of a psychiatrist consulting over the phone to help a primary care clinician feel comfortable prescribing psychiatric medication to a pregnant or lactating mother.
When a teenager screens positive for depression, in a primary care practice, given our culture’s condoning of use of medication alone in this population (a recent CDC study showed that only half of teens prescribed medication have seen a therapist in the past year) medication may similarly be the primary treatment offered.
When a person feels alone and overwhelmed, whether a socially isolated sleep-deprived mom with a fussy baby, or a teen struggling to make sense of a new explosion of feelings that accompany this stage of separation and identify formation, healing starts with being heard and understood. An hour of listening, particularly with someone with whom we have a longstanding trusting relationship, can have great healing power.
Decades of longitudinal research in developmental psychology offer evidence that when people who are important to us listen for the meaning of behavior rather than responding to the behavior itself, we develop the capacity for empathy, flexible thinking, emotional regulation and resilience.
Connectedness regulates our physiology and protects against the harmful effects of stress. Charles Darwin, in a work less well known but equally significant to the Origin of Species, addresses the evolution of the capacity to express emotion. He identifies the highly intricate system of facial muscles, and similarly complex systems of muscle modulating tone and rhythm, or prosody, of voice that exist only in humans. These biologically based capacities indicate that emotional engagement is central to our evolutionary success.
These recommendations for screening can be understood as a well-intentioned effort to bring attention to the troubled state of mental health care in our society. But as we move forward to address the vast scope of problems that we will uncover, we need to think very carefully. The value of listening cannot be underestimated.