One of the things I really value in people is an ability to communicate difficult concepts in ways everyone can understand, for, as Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So, how can we all understand something as complex, yet vital, as our own minds and brains? We listen to an expert communicator in the field like this week’s instalment of the Weekend Name Drop. Meet Frank MacMaster.
Name: Frank MacMaster
Creative field: Psychiatry, Paediatrics, Neurobiology, Research & Writing
Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Best known for: Holder of the Cuthbertson and Fischer Chair in Paediatric Mental Health in the Departments of Psychiatry and Paediatrics, University of Calgary.
My connection: I met Frank in my first year, in fact, in my first week at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Living just down the corridor from me, Frank and I formed part of a large contingent of guitar players on the third Floor of Burke House, including Rob Currie, who was a second or third year Political Science student then, and Daryl Parsons who would later front the band, Hu Noo. Duane Andrews joined us the following year – we had some fun playing together! Unlike myself, however, Frank was the real deal on a six string, studying guitar in the Jazz programme. I loved Jimmy Page and Frank loved Jeff Beck, but we both had a fondness for Joe Satriani. First year was a lot of fun for me, and Frank was a big part of that, always friendly, intelligent and encouraging. It’s been terrific to reconnect with him on Facebook in recent years and see the fascinating path he has followed since, as a researcher in neurobiology, particularly regarding adolescents.
Inspiration for this writer: Frank was, and probably still is, a bloody good guitar player. But these days, it is his intelligence, humour and love for his family that inspires me. While I can’t share heaps of personal Facebook commentary, I can assure you that Frank is an expert observer of human behaviour who can sum up a scene in the tradition of great comedians. He also speaks his mind (no pun intended, but Frank appreciates brain/mind jokes), he never backs down and he is always coherent in political discussions. Most of all, however, I know Frank to have great passion for his family and great compassion for people struggling with mental health, such as depression, ADHD, OCD, and Bipolar Disorder.
Why you should check him out and share with others: Perhaps it’s these qualities that helps Frank “keep it real” even when dwelling in the lofty heights of science research and academia. He appears to see himself as a family-man and physician first, and a scientist and writer second, knowing the significance of the latter, yet having a value system driven by the former. Keeping it real means knowing why he does what he does, having great empathy for those who need to understand what he does, and cleverly creating ways to communicate it all for greatest impact. So, while he has written a plethora of papers for medical journals, he has also been featured several times in the Calgary Herald. You can also see some of his talks on YouTube, geared towards a parent audience and hitting the mark each time. How important is that when dealing with young people and the ones who care about their mental well-being?
Sample of work:
From Frank’s article in the Calgary Herald, “You Are Not Alone”, 25 April 2012:
‘Why has it been so hard to understand mental illness? When people think of the heart, most can grasp the idea of a pump. When people think brain, they think computer, but they don’t know how they work, either. The metaphor for most people doesn’t go much beyond “it’s complicated.” There is a great line from Emerson Pugh, a leading computer scientist: “If the brain was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.” But some of us are not so easily deterred.
Indeed, for some, a limited understanding of the brain acts to bolster their excuse for ignorance. Because we can’t point to a single spot on a medical image or a single gene to explain a disorder, it can’t be real. There are many people who make a good living being naysayers when it comes to mental illness. Their time is ending, however, as neuroscience is marching forward.
Using new imaging technology, we are beginning to map these disorders in the brain and our understanding of genetics and epigenetics — where genes meet environment — is improving every day. For young scientific minds, there is no better field to be in now, where true progress can be made.
Since we don’t fully understand the biological causes of mental illness, does that mean that they don’t exist? Hardly. At one point we didn’t understand diabetes or heart disease, either. For many years epilepsy was thought to be demonic possession. Even today, a recent study by T.B. Kate Collins from Dalhousie University showed that a good number of people still think that people with epilepsy are more prone to violence — similar to a quarter of a century ago. So misconceptions are very persistent about many brain diseases despite scientific progress.
What is the result of this stigma about mental illness? People are slow to seek treatment for their illness and slow to seek social support, often due to fear and shame. But not seeking treatment promptly has real consequences.
For every year bipolar disorder goes without proper treatment there is a 10 per cent less likelihood of recovery. More alarming, in a 2009 Canadian study, almost half of patients who have suicidal ideation and one in four of those who have made a suicide attempt report not receiving care or even perceiving the need for care.
On a larger scale, it can also lead to bad policy, such as insufficient funding for care for people with mental illness, or support in schools, etc.
Stigma says more about the person espousing it than the person with the disease. The science has come too far to allow ignorance to continue to flower. Would you joke about somebody’s child having cancer? Blame the parents? No.
What do I want people to do? Not much: just to be understanding. A little compassion goes a long way. It is time for us, as Canadians, to rethink pediatric mental health. When a friend confides in you that their child is having a difficult time, don’t recoil; reach out. Even with all the people working hard to help, these children need the support of their families and communities.’
Here’s Frank, himself, speaking about adolescent mental illness as part of Alberta’s Children’s Mental Health Learning Series:
The Weekend Name Drop is a weekly feature on this blog, promoting people I have encountered who are doing creative things.