Healer Heal Thyself: Why Health Care Professionals Are Becoming Stressed, Depressed, and Suicidal, Part 3

Healer Heal Thyself: Why Health Care Professionals Are Becoming Stressed, Depressed, and Suicidal, Part 3

What We Can Do

There is a worldwide contagious disease that most of us have experienced, but very few understand. According to the man who first identified this disease, Alvin Toffler, “It will not be found in Index Medicus or in any listing of psychological abnormalities. Yet, unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it, millions of human beings will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments. The malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality, and free-floating violence already apparent in contemporary life are merely a foretaste of what may lie ahead unless we come to understand and treat this disease.”

Most healthcare professionals see the effects of this disease in their practices. Most are suffering from it themselves but aren’t even aware that they have been infected. It is called “Future Shock” and the human species has been impacted for a long time. Here’s how Toffler described this disease when he first wrote about it in 1965 in an article in Horizon magazine:

“I coined the term ‘future shock’ to describe the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” Toffler goes on to say in his book, Future Shock. “It became clear that future shock is no longer a distantly potential danger, but a real sickness from which increasingly large numbers of already suffer. This psycho-biological condition can be described in medical and psychiatric terms. It is the disease of change.”

I think we can all agree that change of all kinds has continued to accelerate since 1970, but we have not taken the “intelligent steps to combat it” that Toffler called on us to address fifty-four years ago. Since then, there is another disease we have failed to address. In addition to the disease of change, we are experiencing a disease of complexity.

The latter problem was described by Rebecca Costa in her book, The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse that was published in 2010. She examined complex cultures throughout the world and described what happens when our human brains are unable to handle the complexity of society.

Costa examined past civilizations that had collapsed from the Mayans to the Roman Empire to see what we could learn that would help us address our current culture and predict whether we are heading for collapse. She found a numerous early warning signs including the following:

1. Gridlock.

Like a major traffic jam, major parts of the system fail to function. “A civilization insists on deploying methods once used to resolve smaller, simpler problems to solve larger, more complex issues. Although these methods repeatedly fail, like a swimmer caught in an undertow, we stubbornly pursue variations of the same failed solutions decade after decade.”

2. Irrational Opposition.

“Irrational opposition occurs when the act of rejecting, criticizing, suppressing, ignoring, misrepresenting, marginalizing, and resisting rational solutions becomes the accepted norm.”

3. The Personalization of Blame.

“Throughout history civilizations have had a clear pattern of foisting the responsibility for complex problems onto the shoulders of individuals whenever complex problems persist.”

4. Silo Thinking.

Silo thinking,” says Costa, “is the compartmentalized thinking and behavior that prohibits the collaboration needed to address complex problems. Instead of encouraging cooperation between individuals and groups that share a common objective, silo thinking causes undermining, competition, and divisiveness.”

5. Extreme Economics.

“When simple principles in business, such as risk/reward and profit/loss, become the litmus test for determining the value of people and priorities, initiatives and institutions.”

While many have hoped, and continue to hope, that with enough education and insight we can avoid the collapse that so many previous civilizations have experienced, there is increasing recognition that we have passed the point of no return. Humans have so disrupted many of our human life-support systems that collapse is inevitable.

The world-renowned biologist E.O. Wilson summarizes the human dilemma. “The real problem of humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technology. We’re a mixed-up, and in many ways, an archaic species in transition.”

Although healthcare professionals and the general public may not be aware of future shock and diseases of change and complexity, we are all aware of problems of anxiety. In his book, Anxious: Using The Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, Joseph LeDoux says, “Collectively fear and anxiety disorders are the most prevalent of all psychiatric problems in the United States, affecting about twenty percent of the population with an associated economic cost estimated to exceed $40 billion annually.”

Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, author of Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind, says, “Anxiety is everywhere. It always has been. But in the last several years, it has come to dominate our lives in a way that it perhaps never has.”

Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a professor of neural science and psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University and is a celebrated international authority on neuroplasticity. In her book, Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, she says, “We live in an age of anxiety. Like an omnipresent, noxious odor we’ve grown used to, anxiety has become a constant condition, a fact of life on this planet. From global pandemics to crashing economies, to intense, daily family challenges, we have plenty of justifiable reasons to feel anxious.”

Clearly healthcare professionals are not only not immune to these problems, but we may actually be at higher risk because of who we are, where and how we work, and are feelings of professional responsibility to help those in need. We may need special support communities to help to keep ourselves sane so that we can help others.

In her powerful and hopeful book, Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, and Restoring Sanity, cultural pathfinder and author Margaret Wheatley, says, “My aspiration is for you to see clearly so that you may act wisely. If we don’t know where we are, if we don’t know what to prepare for, then any path we choose will keep us wandering in the wilderness, increasingly desperate, increasingly lost.”

As someone who has been working as a healthcare professional for more than fifty years, I have come to realize that we will continue to undermine our own health if we act like “lone rangers” fighting to change things on our own. We either become as dysfunctional as the systems we are trying to change or our own mental, emotional, and relational health is compromised.

Margaret Wheately has an answer that I have found to be workable and effective. “As leaders dedicated to serving the causes and people we treasure, confronted by this unrelenting tsunami, what are we to do?, says Wheatley. My answer to this is also stated with full confidence: We need to restore sanity by awakening the human spirit. We can only achieve this if we undertake the most challenging and meaningful work of our leader lives: creating Islands of Sanity.”

She goes on to say, “An Island of Sanity is a gift of possibility and refuge created by people’s commitment to form healthy community to do meaningful work. It requires sane leaders with unshakable faith in people’s innate generosity, creativity, and kindness.”

In her new book, Restoring Sanity: Practices to Awaken Generosity, Creativity & Kindness in Ourselves and Our Organizations, she offers guidance and practical wisdom for creating and sustaining Islands of Sanity. I created my own Island of Sanity in 1979 when I joined a men’s group. We began as seven guys who made a commitment to support each other so we could do the work we knew was important in the world while staying sane. I wrote about our experiences in an article “’Til Death Do Us Part: The Life and Times of My 45-Year-Old Men’s Group.”

We need more male health care professionals and we need more men who are trained in understanding gender-specific medicine and health care. I will be offering a series of courses later this year to address these needs. In a recent article “Calling All Men: Are You Ready to Get Healthy in Body, Mind, and Spirit in 2024?,” I describe what I will be offering.

If you’re interested in learning more, drop me an email to Jed@Menalive.com. Put “Men’s Courses” in the subject line.

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