Dr Norman Rosenthal: ‘After all, who wants to prescribe a 10-year-old with Prozac?’
Dr Norman Rosenthal is used to looking outside the box for answers to conditions including seasonal affective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. His work has sometimes put him at odds with a largely conservative medical establishment who forget that many of today’s procedures were themselves questioned in the past.
Light therapy and transcendental meditation are not something your average doctor prescribes but then Norman Rosenthal is no ordinary doctor. The world renowned psychiatrist and best-selling author is one of the leading experts on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and pioneered the use of light therapy in its treatment.
The condition, commonly known as the ‘winter blues,’ affects around one in fifty people in the UK with symptoms including prolonged bouts of depression, lethargy, loss of libido and over-eating. SAD is commonly thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain when a lack of natural light makes it produce more melatonin, a sleep hormone, and less serotonin, which enhances mood, leading to low mood.
Dr Rosenthal is all too familiar with the condition. “I wasn’t aware that I had SAD until I emigrated to the US from South Africa and noticed how apathetic and down I felt during the winter months.”
“It always makes me smile when medical experts assume their expertise in a certain field precludes the possibility of them falling ill with a condition themselves. I could set my calendar by the effects which would last up to five months before the days began to lengthen and the sun came out.”
Dr Rosenthal began experimenting with the use of light boxes at home, he discovered an hour or two of exposure to concentrated light each day led to a noticeable improvement in his mood and energy alongside established treatments. However, he admits he has his share of detractors.
Light therapy is a recognised form of treatment in the US but isn’t recognised by UK NICE guidelines, despite more than 20 years research and two meta-analysis on both sides of the Atlantic. He said: ‘I’ll be long gone before the last cynic is convinced. What these people have forgotten is that many of today’s medical treatments and procedures where once questioned and frowned upon”.
If light therapy faces an uphill struggle to meet the approval of a traditionally conservative medical establishment then Rosenthal says no-one should hold their breath over the use of transcendental meditation (TM). It is rare for a psychiatrist to take a patient’s advice but Dr Rosenthal believes wisdom is where you find it so when a patient told him about the positive effects of practising TM he decided to have a go himself with surprising results. “I’d dabbled with meditation as a student in the 70s because it was the cool thing to do but didn’t take it too seriously.”
His initial efforts met with little success until he realised that practising once every couple of weeks was as delusionary as expecting to lose weight by eating healthily once a fortnight. He refocused his efforts setting aside 20 minutes a day to meditate and was so surprised by the results that he now uses TM to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder including soldiers.
Dr Rosenthal said: “I knew there had been some previous studies of TM being used on Vietnam veterans with PTSD which showed positive results and I subsequently began using it as a complementary therapy on modern-day veterans,” and soldiers have reported a noticeable improvement in their sense of well-being and moods after being taught TM.
He added: “People do have a very stereotypical view of meditation. However, it is an easy, practical tool to use once you have received the appropriate training and has a great calming effect on the mind and body. It provides a great source of relaxation and insight and puts your day-to-day worries into perspective”.
It’s not without its critics and opinion about its validity is divided despite more than 500 research papers and the backing of practicing clinicians. Dr Rosenthal agrees more research is needed but remains sanguine about the challenge of convincing the medical profession about his marriage of conventional and complementary medical practices.
He says a willingness to remain curious and open minded is essential and one he says his ‘fossilised’ critics would do well to adopt, “old age isn’t about numbers so much as a loss of curiosity and willingness to be open to new possibilities”.
“There is a lot of deep seated antagonism within the medical establishment about anything that doesn’t neatly fit neatly into the box of conventional medical practice. That box and its attendant checks, measures and clinical standards are there with good reason but when a condition doesn’t fit inside it we have a problem.”
“I’m a psychiatrist so am well aware that drugs have their use but we should be actively looking for alternatives where possible. After all, who wants to prescribe a 10-year-old with Prozac?”
Dr Norman Rosenthal is a world renowned psychiatrist and one of the world’s leading experts on seasonal affective disorder. For more information visit normanrosenthal.comTagged in: depression, Norman Rosenthal, post-traumatic stress, SAD, seasonal affective disorder, winter, winter blues
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