Are you aware of these 5 problems with our cure-focused mindset in mental illness?

I wrote a post once, in which I talked the danger of thinking about long-term illnesses in terms of cure (instead of recovery) and how asking if something "can be cured" actually hurts more than it helps. A lot of people connected with that article, which was good, but I thought maybe I should explain a bit more about the difference between cure and recovery.

What does "cure" mean?

Here's what the Merriam-Webster dictionary has to say:

Something (such as a drug or medical treatment) that stops a disease and makes someone healthy again

Something that ends a problem or improves a bad situation

The act of making someone healthy again after an illness

And here is how the Oxford dictionary puts it:

Relieve (a person or animal) of the symptoms of a disease or condition (he was cured of the disease)

1.1 Eliminate (a disease or condition) with medical treatment (this technology could be used to cure diabetes)

1.2 Solve (a problem) (a bid to trace and cure the gearbox problem)

The parts I have put in bold represent what I believe most of us have in mind when we use the word, "cure." We are usually thinking of something that will take the problem away. And while that is a great thing to aim for, it overlooks one simple reality:

There are many things in life that don't really go away.

That might seem like a depressing thing to say, but it's true. Here's the thing, though: it actually doesn't have to be depressing. But before I get to that, let me describe the 5 things I think are wrong with our fixation on cures.

 

The 5 problems with our cure-focused mindset

  1. Fixating on cures is like constantly asking, "Are we there yet?" when you're on a long trip. You're letting yourself miss out on actually enjoying the ride while you're focused solely on the end. Worse, you'll probably hate the journey even more.
  2. A cure-focused mindset is discouraging to the many people who are trying to make the best of their lives while living with conditions that are incurable. I mean, just look at the word: "incurable." It sounds depressing. Like that sound that tells you when a phone call doesn't connect, it has the ring of failure.
  3. It's discouraging to health workers, too. I personally know colleagues who decided against psychiatry because they felt like they would be dealing with incurable illnesses. And there are others who honestly don't understand why anyone would go into palliative medicine (the branch of medicine that cares for those with terminal illnesses); why, they wonder, would anyone want to care for the "incurable"?
  4. A cure-focused mindset puts people at risk of quacks who will happily promise them cures for all these kinds of conditions. People want to be cured so bad, they'll try anything. And I mean anything. Believe me, it's not even funny how far people will go for a solution.
  5. Perhaps worst of all, there's a sense in which this mindset can be dehumanising. Most medical students will be familiar with Hutchison's prayer, a part of which goes thus: "…From treating patients as cases and from making the cure of the disease more grievous than the endurance of the same, good Lord deliver us." In the end we are humans, not conditions. And wonderful as cures can be, they don't always take all of our humanity into account: a simple (and pretty common) example is leg gangrene being cured by amputation. It's a cure, but it creates its own problems, and those still have to be taken into account.

You know what, though? One of the most amazing things about being human is we can rise above things. We don't need problems to go away before we can live our lives to the full.

And that's a truly wonderful thing.

It's what this blog is about: the knowledge you need to rise above (and help others rise above) mental illness and other kinds of long-term medical conditions. Because as wonderful as it is when problems go away, in the end, who are the people we make heroes of? Isn't it often those who rise above their limitations to achieve greatness?

 

What RISING Above It isn't—and what it is…

Rising above illness isn't a consolation prize. It's not about trying to make the best of a bad situation. I'm not trying to pretend cures aren't a great thing, so those who have conditions that can't be cured (yet) can feel better. No, it's more than that.

Rising above illness is about expanding the options, showing that they are more than we've imagined. It's about saying we don't have to get to the end of the journey to be happy. We can be happy right here, on the way. For too long, too many people have thought of success in healthcare as getting rid of health problems. Rising above it is about another way. Yes, we can eliminate medical conditions. Or we can overcome them. And while we can't always eliminate, we can often overcome.

Why wait for science to catch up with diseases, when we can use what science already knows to rise above it? (Tweet that!) How could anyone imagine that to be a consolation prize?

And you know the only thing better than that? Helping someone else rise above it.

Have I succeeded in persuading you? If I have, let me know! And if not, tell me what you still can't accept. Over to you!

P.P.S. And if you're interested, here's the full version of the beautiful prayer by Sir Robert Hutchison (1871-1960—yup, he died the year Nigeria gained independence!):

From inability to let well alone, from too much zeal for the new and contempt for what is old, from putting knowledge before wisdom, science before art and cleverness before common sense, from treating patients as cases and from making the cure of the disease more grievous than the endurance of the same, good Lord deliver us.