Coping with Chronic Pain and Illness: Whole Health includes Psychological Health

An interview with Ann Becker Schutte, Ph.D

Last year, for the first time, I attended Stanford University’s uniquely inspired health conference, Stanford Medicine X (#MedX) I am grateful, to say the least, for the opportunity to attend again this year.

Among many memorable interactions at last year’s conference, my time spent with fellow attendee and counseling psychologist, Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte (pronounced as “Shoo-tee,”) was one of the more impactful conversations I enjoyed. Her well-honed intuition as a private practitioner opened a door of transition, from the intensity of the conference into a peaceful stroll, dappled with perceptive conversation and mutual encouragement. It came as no surprise, then, when I learned her private practice in Kansas City is centered upon the truth that whole health is “at the intersection of physical and mental health,” as her website states.

As an active and often primary caregiver for my mother, severely injured by transvaginal mesh, I resonate deeply with Dr. Becker-Schutte’s approach. One of her primary goals in practice is “to create a space for those coping with serious or chronic health issues to receive support and gain understanding of how the mind and body affect one another.”

I caught up with Dr. Becker-Schutte in a recent phone conversation.

As a practitioner who specializes in treating patients suffering through chronic illness and chronic pain, she offered her insights and strategies for coping. She serves clients diagnosed with a variety of chronic medical conditions including Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, cancer, medical infertility, or “any health condition that requires a reassessment of how you expect to live your life.” Her definition certainly includes the significant injuries that arise from mesh implant failure.

Dr. Becker-Schutte was quick to add that, “Caregivers almost always suffer from the same challenging psychological symptoms as their loved one, particularly: exhaustion, frustration, isolation and guilt.” As the daughter of someone in chronic pain from transvaginal mesh complication, I along with each member of my family, have had to alter my expectations for life too.

She expounds, “In contrast to a diagnosis in which a full recovery is expected; patients with a chronic condition frequently begin to feel misunderstood and isolated because they don’t want to be that person who is perceived to ‘whine’ all the time.” Dr. Becker-Schutte also notes: “Managing chronic pain adds complexity to the treatment of patients and their caregivers,” and isolation is a significant contributing factor to the sense of loneliness and exclusion experienced by patients and family members alike.

I offered my observation that chronic illness and pain in women, like those who suffer from the life altering, permanent adverse effects of transvaginal mesh implant, seems to cause greater damage, dysfunction and disunion to the entire family. She agrees, “The social foundation of the family is most often the matriarch or mother, and when she is no longer able to participate in family life as she once was, there is a breakdown in the family unit at its most fundamental level.”

I asked Dr. Becker-Schutte to help mesh-injured patients and families to understand that they are not alone. She offers this: “I realized in seeing patients in private practice that many chronic illnesses share the same human emotional response, and the coping response remains consistent.”

If there is a silver lining here, it’s that mesh-injured women aren’t alone. Millions of Americans live with chronic illness and can and do improve with the will to adapt and shift expectations. Acceptance that the “old life” is no longer possible paves the way to developing new habits with kindred women and families who may suffer in different ways with different diagnoses, but who understand our common challenges nonetheless. They can become new friends, validate our suffering, and rekindle a sense of belonging. Dr. Becker-Schutte shares some common psychological challenges that patients and families face. We’re more alike than we may think.

Common challenges to overcome:

  1. A sense of grief at changes & losses caused by illness
  2. Frustration and anger over the limitations caused by illness
  3. Changes in social relationships/ability to participate in relationships (energy, physical ability, etc.)
  4. Isolation and loneliness
  5. Depression and anxiety

There is no question that receiving a diagnosis of chronic illness is devastating. Mastering new coping skills takes time and is easier said than done, but Dr. Becker-Schutte offers these suggestions for participating in healing strategies and learning to cope more effectively.

Coping strategies:

  1. Make appropriate space for tough feelings (in a journal, in a support group, in therapy, in faith community, etc.).
  2. Discuss limitations and losses frankly and openly.
  3. Make a “wish list” of desired responses and needs (Many friends and family members wish to help, but don’t know how to do so.)
  4. Be open with your physicians and other health care team members about your emotional and social health needs.
  5. Seek help as often as needed.

Thank you, Dr. Becker-Schutte, for giving us a good place to start the journey toward emotional wellbeing.

Stanford’s #MedX conference, now in its fourth year, is a masterful compilation led by the forward-thinking, jovial dynamism of Dr. Larry Chu, Associate Professor of Anesthesia at Stanford and Executive Director for the conference. During my brief conversation with Dr. Chu, I was greatly influenced by his infectious optimism and almost child-like exuberance for “the possible” epitomized by the cognitive diversity of speakers and attendees. #MedX exemplifies the power of possibility. Its convergence of innovative, solution-oriented, and open-minded individuals supports a change in healthcare towards a “patient-centered” system of care. With significant focus on the influence of healthcare technologies in modern medicine, the MedicineX website explains:

“Medicine X is a catalyst for new ideas about the future of medicine and health care. The initiative explores how emerging technologies will advance the practice of medicine, improve health, and empower patients to be active participants in their own care. The “X” is meant to encourage thinking beyond numbers and trends—it represents the infinite possibilities for current and future information technologies to improve health.”

I hope to learn even more this year and put my education to good use in advocating for the mesh injured and their families in the coming year.

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