Seeing People as People, In Their Own Worlds


On the family page recently, I posted a link to a story in The Colorado Sun describing a newly instituted program that has therapists meeting kids and parents where they are— both literally and figuratively. 

As I read the piece, I found myself choking up. 

True, I’m one of those folks whose saline production is frequent and copious. Back in my movie critic days, I’d cry buckets at the corniest of tearjerkers (which I would then tear to shreds in my reviews). But this was the opposite of corny. This was truth. This was pointing to the authentic and plainspoken humanity of both people in need and those who try to help them in the smallest and largest of ways. 

Writer Jennifer Brown focuses on one therapist in the program, Robert “Bobby” Tyman, who’s “done therapy on the floor next to someone’s bed because the person was too depressed to get up. And one mom is so overwhelmed by her life that the only time she finds for therapy with Tyman is when she’s at the park with her kids or walking through Costco. Tyman tells her she can say he’s a neighbor or a friend if they run into someone she knows. 

“‘It’s OK if we start 15 minutes late because you had to get up and make coffee and put on clothes, or whatever it is you had to do to deal,’” he said. 

This bit moved me deeply as I read it, and it moves me again now. Why? Because it’s as simple as it is kind, recognizing the everyday struggles of those in distress with an openness and awareness that doesn’t build walls between the helper and the helped. The distance between them has shrunk: There’s no almighty authority looking down at someone from some airy perch and judging them, making them feel less-than, in their struggles.

Instead, one sees the other in real world, on-the-level contexts. And one gives the other a hand.

Granted, hierarchy is always present in any form of healthcare, as institutional structures and the system at large are networks built on power. But any effort to provide mental and emotional support to families at home — or in an aisle at Costco — seems built on a more humane foundation that ought to be obvious but too often isn’t. Such approaches seem unusual, even radical, because they treat people like people. Families like families. Teens like teens, who roll out of bed with uncombed hair. 

But why is this so unusual? Why can’t it be the norm? In our daily lives we strive to help our loved ones where they are — seeing, accepting, and assisting them in granular little ways. That effort becomes more of a challenge when a family member suffers more intensely or experiences a more extreme state, but still, the striving continues. In Shelley Karpaty’s most recent caregiver interview, a husband (known by his pen name, Sam Ruck) describes his years-long quest to understand and aid his wife’s many “alters.” He meets them where they are, doing his best to bring them on board. 

But too often in the current paradigm, mental health treatment means the opposite of affirming someone’s humanity. Even for children, it means assessing, diminishing, and drugging: Look at Peter Simon’s recent report for Mad in America analyzing the ineffectiveness and outright harms of Lexapro, which the FDA approved for kids with anxiety aged 7 and older despite a clinical trial that compared the drug against placebo and found “no difference between groups in response to the drug, remission from anxiety, and overall functioning.” Especially horrifying is the drug’s sixfold increase in suicidality, with one child actually making an attempt during the trial. 

Even without that, the unhelpfulness of the drug is striking. “Overall functioning” — isn’t it what we’re after, in this life? Getting out of bed, getting through the day, making and keeping plans? That’s what’s missing for people who hurt. That’s what they need most.  And that’s why the piece about bringing therapy directly to kids and parents, letting them be where they are, is such a moving read. 

As Tyman puts it in the Colorado Sun story: “If your mental capacity isn’t super high, and you’re not functioning well, and you’re not getting out of bed on time, and you’re not able to manage your appointments, you’re never going to make it to therapy . . . . There’s so much insight by being able to walk into a house and see how you live and what your world looks like and who you are.”

Everyone wants to be seen, after all: What our world looks like. Who we are. 

Once again, it’s obvious. Or it should be. 

—Amy Biancolli, Family Editor 

[email protected]


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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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