Patients with psychiatric disorders (as well as general medical conditions) often describe their lives in terms of suffering. Although suffering is honored as a central focus of physicians' concerns, it is not even indexed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. Generally connoting severe, prolonged distress, suffering can be distinguished from pain, depression, and anxiety. The aims of this article are to consider whether attending to suffering per se in psychiatric patients merits attention independent of other commonly assessed psychiatric symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and conventional distress, and how targeting suffering per se might add value to psychiatric patient care.
Sources for this article were obtained via a selective literature search in PubMed using the terms “suffering” in the title and the terms “psychiatric disorder,” “mental illness,” “assessment,” “measurement,” “scale,” “existential suffering,” and “unbearable suffering.” Articles of interest were followed up using a snowball technique to examine “similar articles” and “cited by” titles to find additional pertinent articles.
Definitions of suffering in the medical literature stress its subjectivity, particularity, complexity, and connection to a wide variety of noxious sensations, as well as real and anticipated deficits, losses, and thwarted motivations. These can affect the entire spectrum of universal human needs, from basic biological issues through intrapsychic, interpersonal, and social issues, encompassing existential concerns of meaning, purpose, and transcendence. Based on these factors, a definition of suffering in patients with psychiatric disorders is proposed. Although efforts to measure suffering have been limited and numerous gaps in the literature are evident, several scales may offer suitable bases for the study of suffering in patients with psychiatric disorders.
Conclusions and Implications
Ascertaining sources of suffering may require new types of inquiry and additional time. Well-described, evidence-informed strategies and time-honored psychotherapy techniques are available for addressing the numerous concerns that contribute to suffering. Patients with psychiatric disorders whose distinct, multidimensional sources of suffering are identified, acknowledged, and addressed may experience better treatment quality, greater treatment satisfaction, and possibly better outcomes than those whose clinicians' attention is limited to conventional psychiatric signs and symptoms.