April 24, 2012
I survived— and thrived at—TEDMED at the beautiful Kennedy Center in Washington, DC two weeks ago. Survived being with 1500 people I didn’t know and who didn’t come with an interest in mental health, diagnosis or the politics of psychology and psychiatry. Thrived on hearing 70 or more passionate and smart people speak of their (mostly amazing) work in medical and pubic health research. Right now the bios of the speakers are available and I’ve heard the talks will soon be there too. Some of them were spectacular and all of them had something worthwhile, so look for them.
I and 50 others were guests at the conference, invited to participate as audience and to advocate during the breaks for Great Challenge topics that they came up with and assigned us. Mine was “Deciding What’s Normal.” Others ranged from “Inventing Wellness Programs” (the top vote getter), “The Caregiver Crisis” (came in second), “Choosing Better Foods,” “Preparing for Dementia,” and “Eliminating Medical Errors.” We weren’t set up particularly well, given that the main activity was listening to the speakers (and we weren’t among them). Our Challenges were printed online and an hour over the three days was set aside to meet us.
You won’t be surprised that my great challenge was to interest people in an abstract, essentially philosophical, topic amidst clear and concrete competition. I played around with how to do this, trying a variety of opening lines. When people asked me, “What’s #44?” (that’s all it said on my badge), I told them and then asked them a few questions from a survey I prepared to introduce the DSM-5 topic:
If you’re mourning the loss of a loved one three months after he or she passed away, are you normal?
Not according to the newly revised DSM-5. You have Major Depression Disorder.
If you’re having “senior moments” or occasional forgetfulness, are you normal?
Not according to the newly revised DSM-5. You have Minor Neurocognitive Disorder.
If you’ve stopped drinking coffee and have a headache the next day, are you normal?
Not according to the newly revised DSM-%. You have Caffeine Withdrawal Syndrome.
If you’re a member of the DSM-5 Task Force and have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, are you normal?
Yes! 70% of the Task Force are psychiatrists who get money from pharmaceutical companies.
Nearly everyone I spoke to was disturbed by this, most thoughtfully so but some in the “ho hum, so what” way people can be when they decide not to engage in thinking or talking about something that seems too big to tackle. When we got into conversation people invariably told me of their experience (mostly bad) with therapeutic diagnosis. I also played with not being normal and praising them for not being normal either (getting smiles) and giving out a passage from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on being proud to be maladjusted. I met some interesting and interested people and made a baby step toward getting the TEDMED community to pay attention to mental health.