Can an 'Unheard of' Approach Up Adherence to Public Health Advice?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

November 04, 2020

Using principles of psychoanalysis to craft public health messaging may be a novel and effective way of increasing adherence to public health advice during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say.

In a letter published online October 19 in The Lancet, coauthors Austin Ratner, MD, and Nisarg Gandhi, believe that as expert communicators, psychoanalysts should be part of the public health care team to help battle the pandemic.      

"The idea of using psychoanalysis in a public health setting is relatively unheard of," Ratner, the author of a book titled The Psychoanalyst's Aversion to Proof, told Medscape Medical News. Ratner earned his MD at John Hopkins School of Medicine but left medicine to become an author. Gandhi is a clinical research intern at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey.

Psychoanalysis postulates that defense mechanisms, such as denial, may play an important role in nonadherence to public health guidance regarding the pandemic, Ratner said.

"Denial is a Freudian concept and we can see how it is rearing its ugly head in a number of prominent ways all around us, including nonadherence to medical advice regarding COVID-19, as well as climate change and politics.

"By understanding that fear and anxiety underpin a lot of denial, the psychoanalytic viewpoint can help influence public health officials in recognizing the fear and anxiety, how to talk about the threat [of the pandemic], and what can be done about it," he added.

"A New Partnership"

"Psychoanalysts have historically resisted collaboration with disciplines such as social and experimental psychology," Ratner said. This "insularity" results in "lost opportunities on the path for psychoanalysis to become part of the conversation regarding mass denial and mass nonadherence to medical advice."

He noted that change is afoot in the psychoanalytic community. The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) has begun to "empower constituents" who seek greater "integration with experimental science and greater involvement with public health."

To that end, Ratner suggests a "new partnership" between three fields that have until now been disparate: experimental psychology, public health, and psychoanalysis.

Cognitive scientists have studied and documented denial, attributing it to "anxiety's power to compromise rational thought," but their approach has not focused on the psychoanalytic model of denial as a defense mechanism, Ratner observed.

Mark Smaller, PhD, past president of APsaA and board member of the International Psychoanalytical Association, elaborated.

"From a psychoanalytic perspective, I am interested in how a defense mechanism functions for individuals and groups," Smaller told Medscape Medical News.

Denial as a defense mechanism often arises, whether in individuals or groups, from a sense of helplessness, explained Smaller, who is also the chair of the department of public advocacy at APsaA.

"People can only tolerate a certain amount of helplessness — in fact, I would suggest as an analyst that helplessness is the most difficult feeling for humans to come to terms with," he said.

Helplessness can contribute to trauma and "I think we have a mass case of traumatic helplessness in our country right now because of the pandemic."

Some people respond to a sense of helplessness with depression or hopelessness, while others "try to integrate the impact of the pandemic by focusing on things over which they have control, like wearing a mask, social distancing, and avoiding places with large numbers of people where the virus can be easily transmitted," said Smaller.

However, "what seems to have occurred in our country is that, although many people have focused on what we do have control of, a large segment of our population are acting as if COVID-19 doesn't exist, and we have leadership supporting this denial," he added.

Is "Denial" Evidence-Based?

Commenting for Medscape Medical News, Richard McAnulty, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte expressed skepticism about the psychoanalytic view of denial, and its potential role in addressing the pandemic.

"A key criticism of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic viewpoints is that many — including the concept of a subconscious mind — are theoretical, not open to empirical research, and not measurable; and one of the most fundamental requirements in science is that all your constructs are measurable."

For this reason, this approach is "limited in usefulness, although it might be an interesting source of speculation," said McAnulty.

Ratner disagreed, noting that there is research corroborating the existence of an unconscious mind. Noted analyst Carl Jung, Ratner pointed out, conducted "some great experiments to prove some of the central tenets of psychoanalysis using word associations."

Jung found that if individuals were challenged with words that evoked painful associations, it took them longer to arrive at the answer to the test. They also made more mistakes.

Jung's research "goes back to a core idea of psychoanalysis, which is that painful or difficult thoughts and feelings get distorted, pushed out of consciousness, forgotten, delayed, or suppressed," Ratner said. These responses might account for "what we're seeing the US that people are resorting to irrational thinking without being aware of it."

McAnulty suggested that the psychodynamic idea of denial as a defense mechanism is not relevant to mass nonadherence to pandemic-related medical advice.

Rather, the denial stems from "schemas and belief systems about the world, how people should operate and behave, and the role of government and the medical establishment," he said.

"When certain recommendations are discrepant with the worldview, it creates dissonance or a mismatch and the person will try to reconcile the mismatch," McAnulty continued. "One way to do that is to say that these recommendations are invalid because they violate the individual's political beliefs, worldview, or religious ideas."

Ultimately, "it depends on how we define denial," said McAnulty. "If it means dismissing information that doesn't fit an existing belief system, that's denial, but the psychodynamic meaning of 'denial' is much deeper than that."

Smaller, the past president of APsaA, emphasized the importance of empathy when addressing the public. "Psychoanalysts bring empathy to irrationality. Having a psychoanalyst as a team member can help public health officials to communicate better and craft the understanding of anxiety and fear into their message."

Ratner said he is "not proposing a simplistic silver bullet as an answer to a very complex, multifaceted problem of nonadherence to medical advice."

Instead, he is "proposing something that hasn't happened yet, which is more research and more conversation, with psychoanalysis as part of the conversation, because the notion of denial is so relevant, despite how many other factors are involved."

Ratner, Gandhi, Smaller, and McAnulty have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Ratner is the author of The Psychoanalyst's Aversion to Proof and the medical textbook Concepts in Medical Physiology.

The Lancet. Published online October 19, 2020. Correspondence

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