May 17, 2013
Mental Health Month: A Q&A with David Brendel
What sparked your interest in synthesizing scientific and humanistic approaches to mental health care?
I have always been interested in how to explain complex human behavior and fascinated by the endless variety of scientific, psychological, religious, and other forms of explanation. Throughout my years in college, medical training, and graduate school, I tried to integrate my interests in neuroscience, psychiatry, philosophy of mind, and ethics. As I became familiar with the tradition of American pragmatism, I realized that it provides a great model for how mental health professionals can organize their thinking about how to provide practical help and solutions to patients. I was excited by the idea that "truth" can be viewed as a function of what works for real people in the real world. Practical results trump theory. When psychiatry and the "helping professions" fully absorb this idea, patients and families stand to benefit greatly. People seeking help for mental health problems want personalized care, which is rooted in science but adapted to their own particular needs.
What has changed since the book came out in 2006?
Neuroscience continues to march forward with exciting new findings, but fundamentally not very much has changed conceptually in the field of psychiatry. It's just as important as ever for clinicians to offer their patients practical solutions that combine an understanding of empirical science with a nuanced understanding of the individual in his or her unique psychosocial setting. This is really a timeless value for psychiatry which needs ongoing emphasis in an era marked by preoccupation with science, as well as financial pressures to develop "cookie cutter" treatment models. I am particularly excited about the development of certain digital mental health technologies, which allow patients to use internet technologies on their computers and smart phones to develop their own individualized treatment strategies.
How have your research topics and/or methods changed over the course of your career?
I have become increasingly engaged in my work as an executive coach. The coaching model empowers people to strive toward their own individualized goals and solutions, rather than receiving standardized psychiatric diagnoses and potentially toxic overmedication with prescribed drugs. Coaching draws on positive psychology (which focuses on developing strengths rather than "treating" deficits) and on pragmatism (which is results-oriented rather than theory-laden). Pragmatism provides a nice conceptual bridge between psychiatry and coaching. Whether we are helping people cope with mental health problems or develop toward their peak potential, a client-centered and outcomes-driven approach is usually what people benefit from the most. There is a growing body of literature demonstrating that positive psychology and "solutions based" (rather than "problems based") approaches are most effective strategies in executive coaching and other forms of coaching.
What kinds of changes do you think we need to make in raising mental health awareness?
This is a very important question in light of the continuing stigmatization and misunderstanding of mental health problems. The stakes have never been higher, as American society continues to see shocking violent acts committed by people who have not received appropriate treatment for their conditions. Government investment in mental health education and awareness is key, but only part of the solution. The for-profit sector also has an opportunity in this area. The development of effective and inexpensive internet-based treatments of mental health conditions is a step in the right direction. Good treatment delivered over computers and smart phones is more convenient, private, and cost-effective. The emergence of these technologies provides renewed hope that people can learn about mental health and receive good treatment on a broad scale. Government should support the growth (and also regulation) of these technologies, which hold amazing promise for promoting mental health awareness in the years to come.