The Meaning of Illness (Jan/Feb 2006)Friday, 01 April 2011 07:56
Openmind January/February 2006
It is extraordinary that, at a time when there is less disease and people live longer than at any other time in our history, amongst those who seek medical help, up to forty per cent of them have illnesses which may be given names like irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia (niggling pains and tender areas in the large muscles of the back, neck and shoulders) but for which there is no identifiable cause. ‘Literally millions of people are racked by back pain, tormented by abdominal gripes, alarmed by ringing in the ears, tortured by headaches, exhausted by sleep deprivation, frustrated with constipation, debilitated with nausea or faintness or anorexia, overwhelmed by the burden of obesity, terrified by shortness of breath or palpitations or just too sick and too tired to cope.’
This is how the consultant physician and psychoanalytical psychotherapist
Early in his work as a physician Dr Read found that many of the patients sent to him not only had a functional illness but that they seemed to suffer more distress in their lives than patients with organic illnesses. Now surveys have confirmed this impression. These surveys ‘have shown clearly that patients with functional syndromes score more highly for anxiety and depression than healthy people or people with organic illnesses. They also tend to have experienced more threatening life events. For example, psychological distress is more prevalent in fibromyalgia than rheumatoid arthritis, and in irritable bowel syndrome compared with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.’
In his examination of how the world has changed since the end of the
In his book Dr Read went to great pains to emphasise that ‘in the whole of my medical career, I have yet to meet anybody I thought was imagining their symptoms, or making them up, but I have met thousands upon thousands of ill people who are struggling desperately to protect themselves from the potentially mind-shattering effects of unbearable life situations. These people don’t deserve to be dismissed with a diagnosis that cannot be treated. Their illness needs to be understood as a state of disharmony involving the whole person – mind, body, spirit – within their particular social environment. And they need to be helped to uncover its meaning and to find an appropriate resolution for what caused it.’
It’s been known for some time that loss, grief and depression often precede the organic illnesses of cancer and heart disease. Perhaps what is extraordinary is that many people, including doctors, still don’t understand that mind and body are indivisible.