Sometimes, on a summer Sunday, I sit outside on my covered porch and contemplate my shade garden. During that time, I also think about my patients, and the lessons that my garden has taught me about them. It may sound strange to compare patients to plants—so let me explain.
Before we became physicians, and even before we started medical school, we were premeds, studying basic biology as well as botany. In Biology 101, we learned about animal habitats and which animals thrive in which habitats, and which would not survive in those same circumstances. Some settings are suitable for some creatures, whereas others are not. Polar bears, for instance, do well in the cold and the snow, whereas tropical birds and butterflies require the opposite conditions. Move those polar bears into the Amazon, and those polar bears will be no more. Many of us learned similar basic biology lessons much sooner, simply from visiting zoos.
Since most of us do not keep polar bears in our backyards, I will not belabor the point and will not pontificate about animals and ecology. Better to talk about gardens, which are more common.
What Makes My Gardens Grow?
In the popular imagination, gardens need sunshine, as well as good soil, and the right amount of rain, so that roses and so many other beautiful sun-loving flowers can grow. Yet I can look out on my shade garden and see many other lovely flowers which were planted or potted. To my right, are stairsteps covered with caladiums, of many different varieties. I wish I could list each species by name, but I can say with certainty that all their leaves come in a magnificent array of colors, with each leaf shaped like an elongated heart. Some are a dusty red, with green borders, and some are green with red trim. Some have green veins running though reds, whereas others are white, with green stripes, and so on. There are so many permutations to these shade flowers, and so many variations—but they share one thing—they need shade and may wither and die in full sun.
A few feet above those stair steps sits a balcony, surrounded by white fencing, some of which remains in the shade, and some of which continues into the sun. From those railings that rest above the caladiums hang scrolled wire baskets, filled with begonias. Some begonias are off-white, while others are pale pink, and yet more are coral or a deeper red that many might call vermillion. The colors and textures of the begonias play off the translucent shades of the caladiums below, although the shapes and sizes of the begonias are dramatically different from the large, elongated leaves of the caladium. But begonias and caladium have something in common: both prefer shade and cannot tolerate the sun.
While I applaud many advances in our field that help patients lead more productive and more pleasant lives, I sometimes think that we can help some even more by helping them find their own natural habitat.
If you will bear with me just a little bit more, let me mention one more garden, straight ahead of me, in full frontal view, shaded by towering pine trees that drop sticky pinecones each fall. By this time of the summer, the hostas are in full bloom, having grown wider and taller each year. They, too, come in many different hues, and many different varieties, even though each of them is some shade of green. A true horticulturist could name each and every one, but I am content to call each of them beautiful, with no need to know more for now. In the sweltering heat of summer, they sprout long stems with pale lilac flowers. In the early spring, those same rows are occupied by pink daffodils that also thrive in the shade, in contrast to their better-known cousins that demand full sun. I adore those sun-loving narcissi also, with their yellow and orange and gold trumpet-shaped crowns, and which proclaim the start of spring.
I could go on and on about each plant, shrub, and flower in my gardens, but let me explain why I am comparing plants to patients.
Patients Who Found Their Place in the Shade
As humans, we have the hubris to believe that we can change nature and impose our wills on biology (hurricanes, wildfires, and floods notwithstanding). Sometimes we can succeed at altering the course of nature, and often, we should—but not always. For sure, human-made irrigation systems made Israel’s deserts bloom, replacing sand with fruit trees to feed the population. Without surgical interventions, children born with club feet could be left with lifelong limps, unable to ambulate fully. And so on and so forth. Yes, modern medicine has worked miracles for many, often offering longer and healthier lives. But how does psychiatry fit into this picture and how does that impact psychopharmacology in particular?
While I applaud many advances in our field that help patients lead more productive and more pleasant lives, I sometimes think that we can help some even more by helping them find their own natural habitat—even if it is not an environment that is envied by others.
Let me provide 2 patient examples to dramatize this point. Let me call one “Ms A” and the other “Mr B.” Ms A was already an attorney, albeit one who hated reading and writing—and especially arguing. Yet she chose law on the advice of her parents, who dismissed her wish to become a baker, unmoved by the wonderful creations she made for friends and family. Ms A did well in grade school, high school, and college, well enough to be admitted to law school. Yet her concentration dropped as she studied legal details that held little interest for her. A local doctor diagnosed her with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and started her on stimulants, despite the absence of an early history of attention problems, and apparently without inquiring about her interest in the subjects that she studied. With these pharmaceutical aids, she earned her JD, passed the bar, and was hired by a mid-sized law firm in midtown Manhattan. Although her parents were thrilled by her seeming success, (her analogue to a garden’s sunshine), she was unhappy sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, when she wanted to be baking.
Because she was so unhappy, she went to each happy hour after work, and soon enough developed an alcohol use disorder. She started coming in late for work when she was not calling in sick. Luckily, the bar association offered help to their members and referred her to treatment, which by this time included antidepressants as well as anti-craving medications. We also added behavioral activation to encourage her to engage in pleasurable activities (and to increase the odds of overcoming depression, as reported in New England Journal of Medicine.1
Instead of idling away her after-work hours at local watering holes, she signed up for culinary classes. Her mood brightened enough, and her concentration cleared enough, for her to decide on her own to complete a culinary certificate and to change careers. As she put it, she preferred to “knead dough” rather than to make more dough. No longer sitting in a chair for hours on end, she could wander around a commercial kitchen at will. She decided that she no longer needed the stimulants that were prescribed to push her through an education that she disdained. In short, she found her shade garden where she could not just survive, but thrive—even if it was not the sunny rose garden that her parents recommended.
Mr B’s situation was somewhat different. Always a shy man, Mr B found solace in his college computer classes that required limited human interaction—and that also promised a bright financial future. It came as no surprise that he landed a good-paying coding job after graduation, but it was an unpleasant surprise when he became paranoid while working in a large open space rather than a confined cubicle. Soon enough, he accused coworkers of plotting against him, and engaged in enough arguments to lose the job. He never had frank auditory hallucinations—only barely audible intermittent whispers—but, in hindsight, his evolving symptoms sounded ominous. It was easy enough to find another job, given his high-level coding skills and the high demand for such skills, and it was surprisingly easy to squash those emerging psychiatric symptoms with a low dose of an atypical antipsychotic.
All might have worked well, had he not developed involuntary facial twitches from his new medication. To avert worse consequences in the future, he reluctantly agreed to stop the medication, even though it had brought him so much relief. We substituted cognitive behavioral therapy techniques instead, and watchful waiting. Then, Mr B was literally saved by the pandemic. Everyone in his office was forced to work from home. Without the untenable proximity to his coworkers, his paranoid symptoms abated, even in the absence of medication. The erratic whispers evaporated. Even his productivity improved, and his supervisor commended him. When the company owners spoke about reopening the office, we opted to request accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would allow him to work from his family’s home. Better to work from home than to wind up in a hospital setting, should his rudimentary symptoms return and progress to a full-blown schizophrenic break, which could impair his cognition in the future and interfere with his employability. For Mr B, his home office was his shade garden, where he could survive and thrive.
Is there a moral to this story and a special message to psychiatrists? Yes, there is. These 2 cases of human ecology demonstrate the interactions between humans and their environments.
I wish I could claim to have discovered the concept of human ecology, but I cannot. This term was coined many decades earlier. Although we discuss the impact of climate change on human well-being, human ecology is not a concept that we typically discuss in contemporary psychiatry, but perhaps this concept deserves consideration. The concept of human ecology traces back to Carl Linnaeus, MD, whose name we heard in those biology and botany premedical courses taken while we were en route to becoming physicians. Linnaeus is best remembered as a taxonomist who categorized both animals and plants—but he was much more than that. Linnaeus was both a botanist and a physician who probably would have appreciated how gazing at gardens can add insights into treating patients.
Dr Packer is assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai, New York, NY.
1. Park LT, Zarate CA Jr. Depression in the primary care setting. N Engl J Med. 2019;380(6):559-568.