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A discipline that has transformed the lives of millions

I wish I could ask my father what he makes of the prominence of mental health in the media these days. It’s certainly a far cry from what it was like when he graduated from medical school and started practising psychiatry. Back then, it was considered the orphan child of medicine.

I know that writing about this issue keeps me connected to my father, who died in March. A month before, on a frozen February afternoon in Toronto, we went to his office for the last time and when we left, we locked the door behind us. My father officially closed up shop. A few weeks shy of his 89th birthday, he retired.

As a memento, I took the framed New Yorker cartoon that I had given him. It has two panels; one shows a man drowning and shouting to his dog on the shore: “Lassie Get Help”. In the next panel, the pooch is lying on a couch talking to a psychiatrist. Years later, it still makes me laugh.

October 10th is World Mental Health Day, and the theme this year is mental health for all. I know for sure that’s something my father would have wished for, as that’s what he devoted his life to, and no doubt that’s true of all mental health care professionals.

No matter where we look, mental health is on the agenda. Actress and activist Glenn Close co-founded Bring Change to Mind in 2010 after her sister, Jessie Close, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her nephew, Calen Pick, with schizoaffective disorder. “Every individual who speaks out inspires another. And another. That’s how we’ll end the stigma around mental illness.”

There is no end of famous people who have written about their battles with depression, bipolar disorder and OCD. This has helped immensely to banish the stigma and shame that bizarrely surrounded mental health.

The portrayal of psychiatrists as intensely dark people in movies is as old as Hollywood. A current Netflix series, “Ratched”, is about “a young nurse at a mental institution who becomes jaded and bitter before turning into a full-fledged monster to her patients.” The psychological series is based on the character from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set in a terrifying American psychiatric institution.

Psychiatry has come a long way from the days when people considered insane were confined to asylums, where doctors administered quack treatments. As Jeffrey Lieberman writes in his 2015 book, Shrinks, the journey has been anything but smooth. Lieberman is the Lawrence C. Kolb Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and formerly the President of the American Psychiatric Association. He writes about the profession’s transformation from pseudo-science to the science-driven domain it became after World War Two. It is psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists, researchers, and a host of brilliant specialists who have brought about life-saving treatment. Like breaking a leg, mental illness can now be treated like other diseases, with effective drugs.

Like Lieberman, my father had a distinguished career in psychiatry. He held the Chairs of the Psychiatry Departments at both Sunnybrook Hospital and McMaster University. He was vice Provost of Health Sciences and Full Professor at the University of Toronto and edited the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry for 18 years. Many of his patients wrote to say how he saved their lives. This quote from one of his patients is an elegant tribute to both the man and the science:

“Dr Edward Kingstone was a very caring man of outstanding integrity and patience. As a psychiatrist, he was always available, supportive and empathetic, yet indomitable in spirit, ethics and principles. He never claimed to have a cure for his patients’ problems, but he had all the time in the world, day and night, to keep his patients healthy enough to confront the issues of tomorrow. If you felt downtrodden, he made you feel blessed. If you felt oppressed, he made you feel a sense of justice prevailed in the world. He gave so much of himself to this world and the practice of medicine that, miraculously, he had so much left for his family. God Bless you, my dear friend, and thank you for all of your help.”

On World Mental Health Day, it’s important to remember all those individuals who play key roles that have transformed the lives of millions.