I started my recent conversation with Stanford psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, with the March 24 crash of the Germanwings aircraft. The pilot, now known to have had a history of depression, was on an apparent suicide/homicide mission, killing 150 passengers when he crashed the plane in the French Alps. I wondered, could this tragedy in any way serve as a teachable moment to help de-stigmatize mental illness? Was it possible at all in the midst of a senseless horror to also have any constructive dialogue about mental illness?
I guess I already knew the answer, but Etkin confirmed it. He told me that when a horrendous event occurs like this, someone has to accept blame, and “that already colors the conversation you will have.” It’s not like when an admired public figure discloses a mental disorder and a conversation about mental illness can potentially enlighten the issue. The sheer tragedy, Etkin said, overwhelms any attempt to educate or lessen the stigma about mental illness.
We went on to talk about the plasticity of the brain and its ability to recover, and a lot about the progress in brain research and why he believes we’re well into a new area of discovery that will reap benefits. And I asked him what Freud would think about this moment in time in psychiatry. Would the father of modern psychiatry see progress in the field if he were transported to today?
Freud, as a clinician, would be disappointed that “we’re not even close to cures now compared to 100 years ago when he lived,” Etkin responded. Freud’s early work, said Etkin,”was to actually try to understand the brain basis with the very, very rudimentary science at the time, of the things he saw clinically. I think that would make him happy – that now there’s a connecting of things grounded in the brain that there wasn’t a couple of decades ago. This is really a relatively new development with brain imaging.”
Etkin does offer great hope and believes the advances in the treatment of mental disorders that are well underway will be transformative in the future:
I think we are now at the point in psychiatry and in neuroscience relative to behavior and emotion where we finally have some of the tools we need to answer the questions that we want to answer and [are] no longer as limited by not having had those tools… Asking questions with the right tools will allow very, very big questions to be answered.
Previously: Study: Major psychiatric disorders share common deficits in brain’s executive-function network, Hope for the globby thing inside our skulls, My descent into madness – a conversation with author Susannah Cahalan, Brain study offers “intriguing clues toward new therapies” for psychiatric disorders and Searching for better PTSD treatments
Related: Brain power: Psychiatry turns to neuroscience
Photograph of a Federico Carbajal Raya sculpture by Victor Vargas Villafuerte