Breaking Health Definitions: A Medical Student’s Perspective on the Matter of Minds in Medicine
Q: How’s your health, normally?
A: Yeah, normally quite good.
Q: Ok. And how’s your physical health?
If you’ve ever had that conversation, it almost certainly wasn’t in a hospital. However, if you were to replace the “physical” with “mental” in the above exchange, it’s something that I as a medical student would standardly ask any new patient the first time I met them. Something about that doesn’t quite add up with what we’re taught about “health”.
I suffered with Anorexia Nervosa during my late teens, and in writing this article I know there will be many other sufferers who may read this looking for a way out of their misery. I also know that there are many people recovered from eating disorders who may read this and re-live their own past problems and struggles with food. However, I have chosen to adopt a lighter, slightly less personal tone whilst dealing with the subject. Why? I have two main reasons for not wanting to write this article purely as a history of my own past dealings with the devils inside my head.
A Poem about Annie
I wrote this poem a few months into treatment at a mental health clinic, when I was sixteen years old. I was constantly feeling confused and emotional, and at the time one way of relieving my frustration was to write. I kept a diary, wrote a blog and then started to attempt some poetry. Instead of thinking of it as a literary piece, I used it as a way to vent the mix of emotions conflicting inside of me. Just the practice of taking the thoughts and jotting them down, admitting to myself how I was feeling and making it a physical piece of writing rather than just keeping my worries to myself was therapeutic. In troubled times we all create our own coping mechanisms, and writing became a constructive one for me, in some ways an attempt to counteract the destructive behaviours onset by my eating disorder. It’s a comforting thought that despite going through an extremely troubled time, I was still able to create my own little piece of art.
How to Listen
When I trained to be a peer counsellor, I thought I’d spend all my time learning how to talk to people. Instead, we spent the time learning how not to talk – how to carry on a conversation while saying as little as possible. This seemed wrong to me. If people were coming to me for help, surely they would want me to respond with advice? What’s the point of a counsellor that doesn’t offer any counsel?
It makes sense to me now. The best way a peer counsellor can help someone is by listening. Not by offering solutions, opinions, or any of the other contributions we instinctively want to make.