mental health awareness
This essay was originally published in LENGUA LARGA, BOCA ABIERTA, edited by Isabel Quintero & Allyson Jeffredo, February 2017. I shared it on my blog soon after but took it down when I received threatening letters about the personal content.
Today, however, I’m reposting it. You see, I just finished watching the documentary LEAVING NEVERLAND and Oprah Winfrey’s AFTER NEVERLAND. I’m inspired by the bravery of Wade Robson and James Safechuck. As a psychiatrist who has treated survivors of childhood sexual abuse, this documentary does an excellent job of describing the grooming/seduction process, the immediate impact of sexual abuse, and the lifelong aftermath survivors must work through. Also, as a survivor myself, I will no longer be silent. No one in my life knows the entirety of my experiences except me. I didn’t think it was abuse. I flat out denied it or minimized it. It is still difficult to talk about it with those closest to me. But I can write about it. Writing is how I process my painful past. Writing is how I can dispel shame, secrets, and help myself move forward. I’m hope that my truth might aid someone.
The Unrecognized Impact of Sexual Violence on Survivors
by Sonia Patel
The truth of the matter is that “20 minutes of action” by men with privilege, power, and influence that “just kiss,” “grab ‘em by the p***y,” “don’t even wait,” and “can do anything,” can cause a lifetime of brain repercussions for their victims. And this is what is missing from the current discussion of sexual violence—that the effects on victims can be as biologically serious as brain injury induced by things such as concussions or crystal methamphetamine use.
As a child & adolescent psychiatrist, I’ve spent over twelve years guiding sexual violence survivors on their paths to recovery. I’m also a young adult novelist and my debut, Rani Patel In Full Effect, details the negative impact of paternal covert and overt incest and date rape on a sixteen-year-old girl. My second novel, Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story, addresses LGBTQ issues and one example of sex trafficking, including the profound damage that occurs to the development of a young girl when older men prey on her sexually from the time she’s twelve.
Sexual violence can damage a survivor’s brain at a cellular and physiological level. Time and time again medical research has shown that sexual violence can, for example, alter brain structure, change how the brain reacts to stimuli, deregulate neurophysiological interplay, and impair cognitive function. Children are particularly vulnerable to this devastation because their brains are still developing. These types of brain injuries can adversely alter everything about how children or adolescents approach and experience their life as they grow into adults. The normal development of their sense of trust, self-worth, ability to be assertive, and formation of their identity is thwarted. They are more likely to have pessimistic automatic thoughts, negative feelings, compulsive and self-destructive behaviors, and inability to maintain appropriate boundaries or form deep connections in relationships. Their brain injury might be expressed as one or more full blown psychiatric disorders.
Survivors may get lost in the cognitive and emotional manifestations of their impaired brain function. They may even accept that these symptoms are who they are instead of their brain’s unavoidable biologic response to the sexual violence.
Discussion of sexual violence is not typically encouraged and in fact society tends to at least partially blame the victim. In addition, because abusers put their own wants first and lack empathy (both of which can be hallmarks for serious psychiatric issues such as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder), their cavalier stance on the ramifications of their actions reinforces the view that the guilt rests with the victim. So survivors of sexual violence may suffer in silence. Stifled, they can’t focus on how harmful the abuse was. Rather, they are stuck in “speaking” and “living” through their troubled cognitions and emotions and end up in a vicious cycle of helplessness and shame that can lead to a lifetime of dangerous choices and various addictions, including drugs, alcohol, and sex.
Of course there are multiple factors that can alter the biological brain effects of sexual violence—chronicity of the abuse, genetic susceptibility, family and peer support, etc. But there is no doubt that sexual violence can change a victim’s brain functioning. Still, healing is possible. It takes time because it requires a survivor to essentially “retrain” their brain to think, feel, act, and connect with people in a positive way. I often tell my patients that depending on how many years they’ve lived with their dysfunctional brain wiring, it might take them that many years to fully recover. This is not to make them lose hope but rather to foster empathy for themselves about the severity of the abuse they suffered. Empathy for themselves, as it turns out, is an important part of gaining insight into their ordeal. And insight is the first step on the path to healing. As survivors gain insight into the sexual violence they suffered, they escape the muteness of their trauma and learn to find words to separate themselves and verbalize their brain’s biologically conditioned cognitions, emotions, behaviors, and connections to people. This leads to empowerment because they begin to realize they are not what their thoughts and feelings tell them. They become aware that they are worthy of being more than sexual objects for others. They figure out that they can reinvent themselves independent of the sexual violence they suffered.
And I should know. Because besides my medical training in the effects of sexual violence on patients and the years I’ve spent treating them, I’ve spent years individuating myself from my role as my father’s intimate object. I’ve thought the worst of myself. I’ve felt the depths of depression. I’ve hated myself and wanted to die. I had years of nightmares about being kidnapped and gang raped by older men. I’ve indulged in quick fix self-destructive behaviors and made impulsive, bad decisions that hurt me and those I loved.
Eventually I gained insight into my brain’s negative hardwiring and it became clear to me that I’d have to work hard to overcome the existing circuits. Many tears and years later I succeeded in creating new ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, and relating to people. My self-worth is solid and my boundaries and decision making much improved. I am my own person.
Given the recent revelations of sexual violence by many high-profile men in a wide range of industries, I am hopeful that we as a society can use this political moment and the conversation it has provoked to reshape our understanding of sexual violence. We can do this by fully supporting victims and survivors of sexual violence on their journey to recovery. We can do this by not standing for any of the excuses for unacceptable behavior thrown around by abusers. And we can do this by eliminating once and for all the disgrace surrounding victim status.
“Every year close to 800,000 people take their own life and there are many more people who attempt suicide. Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, communities and entire countries and has long-lasting effects on the people left behind. Suicide occurs throughout the lifespan and was the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds globally in 2016.
Suicide does not just occur in high-income countries, but is a global phenomenon in all regions of the world. In fact, over 79% of global suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries in 2016.
Suicide is a serious public health problem; however, suicides are preventable with timely, evidence-based and often low-cost interventions. For national responses to be effective, a comprehensive multi sectoral suicide prevention strategy is needed.”
--World Health Organization Fact Sheet on Suicide 8.24.18 https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide
Yesterday, Keith Flint, the frontman for the band Prodigy, took his own life. He was 49. His suicide hit me hard. As hard as Chester Bennington’s, lead vocalist of Linkin Park who was 41. Being a first generation Gujarati Indian American, my life experiences didn’t align with theirs, but I found solace in their powerful music. As did many other people. That and I’m also in my 40’s. And I’ve had suicidal thoughts. The shit is real.
But I haven’t taken the thoughts to the next level—the attempt level or the deadly level.
How am I lucky enough not to have taken it to the next level when so many people have?
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent years in medical school and residency training studying trauma, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts on a biologic level. Or maybe it’s because I’ve spent thousands of hours putting myself in the shoes of numerous youth and adults with suicidal thoughts and attempts and trying to help them survive. Or maybe it’s because I remind myself that I don’t want to hurt my husband and children. And I’m fortunate to not be abusing drugs or alcohol.
What I know for sure is that it isn’t easy because sometimes the suicidal thoughts are so intense, so real, so seemingly inescapable. Vivid swirls of GRAB THAT KITCHEN KNIFE AND STAB YOURSELF IN THE HEART…RUN INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC…
See that’s what happens sometimes to people with hardwired anxiety and/or depression. The suicidal thoughts are SYMPTOMS of this hardwiring. The suicidal thoughts are not a character flaw. They are not a cop-out. Suicidal thoughts can be misguided, automatic thoughts aimed at exerting the ultimate control over overwhelming chaos.
A person with well-treated asthma isn’t in a constant state of an asthma attack, but can have symptoms such as wheezing when triggered by weather changes or exercise. In this type of case, breakthrough asthma symptoms can be treated quickly, allowing the person to return to normal functioning. Similarly, a person with well-treated anxiety and/or depression can have suicidal thoughts when triggered by tremendous stress, conflict, loss, reminders of painful pasts, etc. That’s how it is for me. I’m not in clinical depression or anxiety. But things can trigger symptoms. I’ve learned to manage these breakthrough symptoms immediately so that I can return to my normal, healthy baseline in no time. If the breakthrough symptoms include suicidal thoughts, I remind myself that my brain is playing tricks on me because I’m overwhelmed. I tell myself to listen to music instead, it will pass. Or I tell myself to write, it will pass. Or maybe take a nap, it will pass. Cry if needed, it will pass. Go for a hard run, it will pass. Ask for a hug and reassurance, it will pass. Now is not the right time for the glass of cabernet, it will pass. I repeat the mantra IT WILL PASS.
And it does.
But the breakthrough symptoms, including suicidal thoughts, may come back because that’s how my brain is wired to automatically handle massive stress and I understand that. But I’ve got an arsenal of coping strategies at the ready to help me pull through no matter how many times symptoms such as suicidal thoughts breakthrough.
If you are depressed or have suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
For me, writing young adult novels and providing child & adolescent psychiatric treatment are deeds of love. When I write, I offer my heart and soul in the form of flawed characters and their mistake-filled journeys over the seas of negative life experiences. When I treat youth and their families, I offer honest recommendations that can be hard to hear in the context of chronic family dysfunction. I write and treat in this way because it is how I can, in my own small, sometimes imperfect way, contribute to making the world a more loving place.
There are people who like, even love, my novels. There are people who dislike, even hate, my novels.
There are people who are open, or open to becoming open, to my psychiatric treatment recommendations. There are people who are closed, dismissive, or even hostile to my psychiatric treatment recommendations.
But in the end, I don’t equate my self-worth with how people rate my novels or me as a physician. What matters to me is that I endeavor to be my true, vulnerable self in my writing and my psychiatric work. I write and treat out of love and sometimes the best love is tough love wrapped up in brutal honesty.
People typically seek therapy for themselves or their children to find relief for emotional distress or improve behavior or habits. Therapy can be useful for personal and family insight, growth, and empowerment. However if therapy becomes a place for a person or family to simply confide and vent without any actual relief or improvement, then it may not be helpful.
In my work with patients, I advocate that one of the goals of therapy can and should be to not need it anymore. And this means that the therapeutic work by nature should involve understanding of thoughts and feelings as well as behavior change. One of my jobs is to listen to patients in a non-judgemental way, but if I do not use therapeutic techniques to point out how patients may be perpetuating patterns or not allowing themselves to make emotional gains, than I would be allowing them to stay in the sick role. This is called enabling. It is something I will not do. And by being aware of this potential therapeutic hazard and drawing firm boundaries against it, I can give patients and families opportunities to seek true improvement though it is difficult.
Enabling is toxic. The enabler (the person—a health professional, partner, family, or friend—trying to help) usually has good intentions but without expectations for the enabled (the person in need of help who is likely stuck in a cycle of poor decisions and distress) to make behavior change, he or she is only allowing or fostering the dysfunction to continue. The enabler thinks they are helping but the truth is they are scared and trying to control the situation that the enabled is not yet willing to fully address.
As long as the enabler keeps enabling, the enabled will never get a chance to make positive change. And this is what differentiates enabling from healthy, appropriate help. The healthy, appropriate helping approach allows for the control and decision making to be put in the correct, albeit unpracticed, hands.
Check out this informative article in Honolulu Civil Beat- Hawaii’s Mental Health Care Crisis: The lack of psychiatrists is a particular problem for people who rely on the state’s public health insurance for low-income residents.
I am grateful to have my thoughts included.