The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

UTRGV School of Medicine

“Don't give up - You've got a reason to live..." New Radicals Lyrics for 'You Get What You Give' (1998)

May is Mental Health Month and I am late with my newsletter – my apologies to all.  This year’s theme is key: “B4Stage4: Changing the Way We Think about Mental Health.” 

We think about mental health differently. We don’t want to wait to treat or prevent diabetes, heart disease, cancer, HIV or even the flu. Why not the same with mental disorders, especially when the consequences are so dire? 

My thoughts about this issue – changing the way we think – began forming early on with a cousin who committed suicide in New York City in the 1960s. Later, in college, several of my peers attempted and two completed suicides. In medical school, imagine my surprise to find that doctors-to-be were not immune. 

Since then I have noted that, in medicine, we are not always good about taking care of our own needs or that of our colleagues. The same is true for Hispanics – especially Hispanic men with depression. 

In April, I participated in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services’ MoreHealth@UTPA event and spoke on depression. Here are a few pertinent facts: 
  • 1 in 5 American adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year.
  • 50 percent of Americans will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life, and half of those people will develop conditions by the age of 14.
  • Of those diagnosed with depression, only half are receiving adequate treatment.
  • If untreated, 20 percent will complete a suicide.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America.

Some people are surprised when I say that depression is the most painful human experience. You can challenge me if you wish, but if you visit even those in extreme pain, or people who are terminally ill, many are surprised to find they still have a “fighting spirit.” 

People with depression have no such fighting spirit. In fact, the disease itself robs you of all – including our most powerful drive, the survival instinct. 

Our survival instinct stems from the so-called “fight-flight” response. But for those suffering from mental illness, it may not do right by them. In clinical practice, all too often I would say, “When you cannot flee, and you cannot fight … you gotta flow.”  

That is one of the points made by the alternative rock band, the New Radicals: “If you feel your dream is dying – hold tight; You've got the music in you – don't let go; You've got the music in you – one dance left; This world is gonna pull through – don't give up, you've got a reason to live …” 

I love that line: “You’ve got the music in you.” I am amazed at how much pain, both emotional and physical, those with mental illness endure. I can’t think of a worse adversity. I have to ask those in such pain, “Who have you known in your life who would not be surprised to see you hopeful amidst adversity?” And then naturally one would want to know, “What did this person see and know about you that other people may not have seen or known?” In other words … the music in you! That is one of the factors that matters in continuing to live through adversity. 

While I have focused on mental illness and depression, suffering is part of life, suffering is part of illness, and suffering is often associated with medical and surgical treatments. Understanding human suffering and its relief is key to medicine. Each person’s “music,” or uniqueness in life, is defined by many dimensions including family, culture, mores, geography, ethnicity, faith, values, role models, education, social and economic status, work … the cumulative experience of their life. 

Maintaining their “music” is to maintain the integrity of their life. And that is what the month of May is all about.  

One of my favorite passages from Tales of Hasidism by Martin Buber follows: 

When a man is singing,
And cannot lift his voice,
And another comes and sings with him,
Another who can lift his voice,
Then the first will be able to lift his voice, too.
That is the secret of the bond between spirit and spirit.

Isn’t that what “the music in you” is all about? Buber and the New Radicals got it right!

To learn more about mental illness and what you can do for others who are suffering from mental disorders, see: 

Dr. Francisco Fernandez 
Inaugural Dean, School of Medicine and Vice President for Medical Affairs