What a week!
It began on Sunday when I read a fascinating and provocative critique of the global influences of Western psychiatry by Ethan Watters titled The Americanization of Mental Illness in the Sunday New York Times Magazine,. Great title.
I went through that piece initially on Saturday night online, when my friend Susan, a New Jersey-based bipolar blogger emailed me about it thinking it might be a good story to write about here.
Her email arrived while I was madly preparing for my first classes at Seneca College that began this week, so I decided I'd read this lengthy feature more carefully in print with my hard-copy of The Sunday Times the next morning, which I did.
Still, it started percolating at the back of mind. Though I expected the blogosphere to light up with comments, it didn't, as far as I could tell. Only Gianna Kali at Beyond Meds mentioned it and linked to it.
Reading it on Sunday morning in print, I penciled it up like a student preparing for a class. I found myself feeling comfortable and at ease, repeatedly nodding in agreement. After all, many of the points Watters makes, I've made here numerous times.
Then at 5:11 a.m. Monday morning, as I was getting ready to leave for my class, my niece who teaches philosophy at a northeastern university sent me a link to it.
"hi sandy," she wrote. She never capitalizes in her missives to me. "did you see this? i haven't finished it yet but it is very interesting and i think i'm going to include it in my emotions class..."
Interesting. Then, a red light went on in my mind.
I started asking myself questions. I was beginning to wonder if there was something missing in Watters approach to a series of highly complex issues. He's a San Francisco-based published author and journalist with interests in cross-cultural psychiatry, anthropology, globalization and psychology, according to his blog.
Does he have a psychiatric diagnosis, I wondered? I couldn't find any evidence of it, but to be honest, I didn't spend a great deal of time looking. I didn't have the time. I was racing against the clock trying to finish my course prepping.
Since Watters was so critical of American psychiatry, I decided to ask an American psychiatrist what he thought of this essay and I whipped off a series of questions to my friend and muse, my font of knowledge and wisdom, Dr. Ron Pies, Tufts University clinical psychiatrist and researcher and Editor-in-Chief of Psychiatric Times, the largest international online psychiatric magazine on the planet.
I've devoted a number of posts to him here, too.
Then, at 6:45 a.m., nervously, I drove off to school for my first class of the term – an 8 a.m. Monday class – a students' favourite.
This is the first of my two Seneca classes. Twenty-two out of 35 students showed up and they were jittery. Not only because of today's Ontario Community College OPSEU province-wide faculty strike vote (I'm not in the union as a part-time teacher, so I'm not voting, by the way) but because of my course and what its demands will mean for them.
It was a good class. When I got home, I continued my correspondence with Ron. What a wild few days.
Yesterday at another Seneca campus at 1:30 p.m. I went through the same nerve-wracking experience with another 35 students.
Why nerve-wracking, you ask?
Because I teach an elective course, required of all Seneca students who wish to graduate, no matter what program they are in, and I have a very diverse groups of students. Lots of business students of every stripe from administration and financial management to marketing and accounting, plus fire protection technology, early childhood education, library technology, fashion and any other of the dozens of programs Seneca offers.
My classrooms look like a mini-United Nations. It's extraordinary. Teaching is learning, and I swear, teaching an elective at Seneca is a post-graduate degree in itself.
My course is called Leadership in Society and it is for college students who want to make a difference – more than money. It's what I do here. It defines my life today.
This course has become a life-changing experience for many of my students. It combines leadership training and Community Service-based learning, a growing movement in North American colleges and universities. In my course, 30% of their final mark is based on a major Community Service Project requiring each student to do a minimum of 20-hours of community service over a period of three to five consecutive weeks with a non-profit organization – in addition to their full academic load.
They learn to write reflectively, keeping weekly journals. They must go out and find and interview a community leader. I teach them how to conduct an interview.
It's a major commitment. The subtextual prerequisite is that they care about making changes for the greater good of the community or society. Many students do. Others don't but learn to care, and often they continue their community service long after the course ends.
This is my course. I was asked to develop it in the Fall of 2007 while teaching Women Studies and I've been teaching two classes every Fall and Winter term since. It's a work in progress. In constant development. I've made a lot of mistakes but I've learned more than I could ever imagine.
I love teaching this course. It's my passion because, like creating and writing Coming Out Crazy here at HealthZone and exchanging ideas and community-building with you, teaching and learning are what I love to do most. I'm happier with these two part-time jobs, than I ever was in my full-time journalistic career. I make less money. I have no benefits. My life is rich, rewarding, meaningful and endlessly challenging and exciting.
Proof that making a difference and having true meaning in your life is more rewarding than a huge bank balance. All you need is enough. Thank you, Daniel H. Pink! He happens to be one of my resources for my course.
Yet this course is often a very tough sell to the students. Yesterday, in one of my classes, I had 35 students registered. They arrived late. They didn't want to do Community Service and were very vocal about it. They were also so disruptive during that class, I came home with a backache, a headache and a stomachache. Thoroughly spent. No energy to write this post.
I've learned that disruption in a classroom is contagious. A few can destroy the class culture for everyone. I was so stressed out, I had a snack and went to sleep at 5:30 p.m. worrying about how I would be able to manage this group for the next three months.
I felt awful, even though Ron Pies had blogged about the Watters piece himself and cited me and another doctor as having inspired it.
"Thanks for providing the 'spark'! --- Best, Ron," he wrote in an email at 4:45 p.m. yesterday.
I was a mess.
Sometimes I think the ongoing stresses of everyday life are insidious and potentially dangerous. Their relentless pressures hammer away at you, again and again, week-in and week-out. They're cumulative and more difficult to live with and manage that annual stresses like Christmas or peak stresses like having to move to a new home or the shock of losing your job or even experiencing the death of someone dear to you.
Their repetitive onslaught on our minds, spirits and bodies is doggedly destructive and distressing.
Yesterday night, I was devastated. Then, just before I went to sleep, I checked my class lists. All those disruptive students had dropped my course. My class list was down to 29.
So, on Friday, I will share with you my concerns and what I've learned about "The Americanization of Mental Illness..." I promise. I'll share some of the correspondence I had with Ron Pies, with whom I do not always agree, by the way. How could we? I have a 49-year psychiatric history. I'm Canadian. He was a toddler when I went to see my first psychiatrist in 1960. He's also a polymath with interests in philosophy, Talmudic studies, poetry and ethics. He's published widely and not just psychiatric texts but a wonderful book I give as a gift called Everything Has Two Handles – The Stoic Guide to the Art of Living (Hamilton Books, 2008). He's one of the wisest people I know, but we come from very different places. Yet we respect each other. I adore him.
So, today, I'm decompressing and planning my classes for tomorrow. I teach at two campuses every Thursday. I have 100 minutes to get from one campus to another. It's tough, when your students need you and want talk to you!
I pray that it does not snow on Thursdays this winter.
Be well. Stay warm. Speak soon.