Mind and Body

Psychiatry and Spirituality

Over the last several decades, psychiatry has prided itself on becoming a true medical specialty. Hundreds of medications for anxiety and insomnia and depression were added to our therapeutic armamentarium. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disordersswelled with conditions defined by increasingly specific lists of signs and symptoms. Technological innovations like Positron Emission Tomography offered the promise of meaningful testing to confirm or refute a psychiatrist's particular diagnosis. The excitement of making psychiatry conform to the medical model, just like internal medicine or surgery, led to turning out a generation of psychiatrists many of whom have never been in psychotherapy themselves and are mostly comfortable prescribing medicine and much less comfortable exploring the life stories and stresses and hopes and dreams of their patients. The idea that problems of meaning, problems of the soul, were the roots of our patients' suffering, not just problems of brain chemistry, seemed to fall out of fashion. However, it took more than a tide of technology to nearly sweep away the most powerful way psychiatrists can heal patients-namely by using human empathy to find and change their self-defeating patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior. I believe it took an underlying fear of the immeasurable power of the human spirit. The truth is that healing patients suffering with anxiety and depression and psychosis and attention deficit problems requires bringing oneself to the task of intuiting when in life their self-confidence or self-esteem or sense of safety was shaken. It requires listening with one's heart to find those moments in childhood or youth or young adulthood that disheartenedone's patients. It requires taking down the interpersonal walls that leave so many of us strangers to one another and becoming intimate with the conscious and unconsciousemotions of those who seek comfort and compassion and, yes, curative therapies from us. If none of that sounds like something that can be found on a CT scan, that's because it can't. No brain scan or blood test will ever show the way the human spirit, properly harnessed, can heal. No EEG will explain the power of a moment of epiphany to change the course of a person's life, nor the potential for a sustained increase in mood or decrease in anxiety or disappearance of psychosis brought about by one human being understanding another's suffering at the deepest level. The most powerful healing in psychiatry might be accepted as mystical and immeasurable were it not for a relatively recent historical prejudice in favor of tiny molecules rather than small miracles. I have no such prejudice left. From my perspective as a doctor, I worry not at all whether the medicines I sometimes prescribe or the moments of connection I always attempt to achieve with my patients are the more powerful remedy. I want only to wrestle their suffering to the ground and I welcome the help of every force I can bring to the battle-whether I can understand it as a scientist or not.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be emailed at info@keithablow.com.

Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.