Vital Signs

Vital signs (body temperature, heart/pulse rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure) provide medical professionals with a broad overview of the state of a person’s physical health, offering warning signs about problems that may reside within. Obviously, those four measures barely scrape the surface of the assessments that may be required to determine a person’s level of physical health, but they almost always constitute the requisite first-level assessments.

What of a person’s mental health? Are there any agreed measures that can give mental health professionals an almost instantaneous reading  of the state of a person’s mental health? The limited reading I’ve done suggests there are no quick and dirty measures, suggesting the need for more “tests.” There are plenty of means that involve evaluating a person’s self-reported measures (e.g., self-perception of mental health, level of available external emotional support, self-assessment of coping skills) and evidence of anxiety. But in every case (at least from my perspective), these are highly subjective measures. And they take more time than taking one’s blood pressure and temperature.

Maybe the efforts to identify and measure mental health “vital signs” are more intense than I think they are, but if not, I think psychiatry and psychology are missing the boat. I believe (in all my untrained wisdom) there must be ways of quickly determining an individual’s state of mind, at least to the extent that a need for immediate and urgent intervention can be identified.  Yet, as far as I know, thus far any such measures rely on self-reporting and other highly subjective observations. Might it be possible to develop ways of determining, from physical measurements of some kind, a person’s state of mind? The technologies associated with lie-detector tests come to mind; the skin’s electrical conductivity, and so forth. Or eye movement. Or multiple observations that, taken together, provide indicators of emotional well-being (whether caused by physical issues or not).

Perhaps the state of a person’s mental/emotional health is simply too complex to measure. The spectrum of emotional responses to external stimuli is, quite obviously, extremely broad. The points along the spectrum at which we might agree that a response is “abnormal” leaves an enormous span of “normal” responses. Multiple measures, taken together, could require such sophisticated analyses that a supercomputer might be required to reach any sort of conclusion as to which pairings of responses (or multiple pairings) signal potential problems.

Unlike physical vital signs, over which most of us have little direct control (I realize, of course, that we can be trained to modify our respiration and our heart rate…), most of us can control to a great extent the subjective appearance of our emotional/mental responses to the world around us. We are practiced dissemblers, both to protect us from judgment and to shield others from pain. Maybe the idea of a readily-available, easy-to-administer, rapid-feedback measurement of mental and emotional health is a daydream. I have plenty of those. But, daydream or not, I would like to know such a measure (or a measurement package) is available, if for no other reason than to measure where I fall along the spectrum at any moment. It would be nice to know, for example, whether my responses to the world around me are “normal” or not; understandable or not. And whether they can be modified with the right treatments.

Just me, thinking, at 6:00 a.m. In three more hours, I watch and listen to a program on “Why We Want and Resist Diversity.” That makes me wonder, by the way, whether we sometimes put too much on our emotional plates. I think we need, from time to time, to let the world be ugly and unpleasant and problematic without our participation.  We need (I need) to be able to ignore the problems of humankind and simply relax and enjoy isolation, without trying to solve any problems. Just listen to birds and marvel at their ability to make noise. And to fly! They can actually fly! Just thinking about the spectacular, stunning, almost unbelievable wonders of the physical world can bring tears to my eyes. Is that normal? Is that a sign that I’m unable to cope with reality? Who knows. I don’t.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Vital Signs

  1. I think you’re right, Meg. An assessment of psychological condition is strictly an estimate. I’m with you on GA; a mixed bag, with a few rough gems among voluminous pieces of paste jewelry.

  2. kozimeg says:

    Great question, John. Someday science will create such an easy test for psychological condition. But alas, we can only make an estimation of the state the minds of other people. It’s hard to assess our own, but I think it can best be measured by how successfully we navigate day to day. As for me I’m tired, somewhat frustrated by the GA experience, and taking the evening offf.

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