The last blog of Pat Risser…. “The T Word”

The piece below is the last blog of Pat Risser. It is published here for the first time. It was shared with me by Sharon Cretsinger who told me that Pat gave it to her shortly before his death and asked her to share it as she saw fit. I am past honored to print it here.

For You can tell a lot about people by what they leave you with. It is so fitting that Pat leaves us with thoughts about the importance of touching each other.

He knew about touching. He touched so many many people in so many ways and will be so sorely missed.

THE T Word

Pat Risser

The  word touching–I call  it  the  “T”  word– is  almost  as  taboo as  the  “S”  word—sex— and is  rarely mentioned in the  mental  health system.   A  cloud of mystery surrounds  both of these  words, the  saying of the  words  as  secretive  and closeted in fear as  the  practice  of either of them.  My personal  longstanding interest  in touching is  in part  because  I have observed many patients  who I knew  to be  starved for touch, and because  of my own need for touch.  I grew  up ‘touch hungry”  and either thrive  or don’t  thrive  depending on whether my touch needs are met.

  It  has  been proven that  touching is  the  most  important  sense  at  the  time  of birth and, infancy. Babies  must  be  touched, held, and rocked or they will  fail  to thrive. Rene  Spitz, now  famous  for his  research in this  area, studied babies  who were  cared for in orphanages and found that  babies  who went  without  touching, though their environments  were  clean and they were  otherwise  cared for, suffered from  marasmus, an extreme  form  of withdrawal.  Studies  conducted in different  cultures  by a  wide  variety of experts, indicate that  children grow  up happy and well  adjusted in places  where  touching is  the  norm.  Few studies  have  been done  with adults  but  one  by James  Prescott, a  former official  at  the  US Department  of Health, Education and  Welfare, looked at  the  root  causes  of violence  and found that  cultures  in which there  was  a  great  display of infant  affection had low incidences  of adult  physical  violence.

Touching has  been frowned upon in the  mental  health system.  Everyone  knows  that  you don’t  touch psychiatric  patients.  Reasons  given may vary from, “you will  send a  patient into a  homosexual  panic,”  “patients  do not  want  to be  touched or hugged—they are  too afraid,”  or,  “they will  interpret  touching as  sexual.”   It  is  my contention that  patients  are never asked.  One  psychiatric  nurse  at  Vanderbilt  University Hospital  in Nashville, however, asked over 75 patients  whether they would rather hold or be  held.   They all favored being held because  they said they had had to be  the  nurturers.  In a  survey done at  South Florida  State  hospital, persons  were  asked to identify what  is  helpful  when they are  upset  for the  purpose  of the  development  of a  de-escalation preference  form.  Many of the  responses  were, “I’d like  to be  hugged.”

   It  is  not  just  psychiatric  patients  who are  not  touched.  Our  American culture  is  a  nontouching society. Barriers  exist  to open touching and hugging in public, though the practice  of massage  is  now  highly endorsed.   We  are  brought  up to believe  that competition is  more  important  than compassion;  instead of being taught  how  to touch we are  taught  how  not  to touch, and our textbooks  say nothing about  its  importance.   When I recently visited the  library to find books  on the  subject  of touching, I found only two, and the  key book written by  Ashley Montagu, entitled,  Touching,  was  not  available  in definitions but none of them relate to sensory need for touch or mention skin touching. Desmond Morris, well-known anthropologists on the other hand, states, “A single intimate body contact will do more than all the beautiful words in the dictionary. The ability that physical feelings have to transmit emotional feelings is truly astonishing.”

A few physicians are beginning to focus on the value of natural approaches for healing. Hospitals are beginning to include artwork, murals, bright colored walls in children’s wards; Hospice has created comforting environments for patients with cancer and have openly advocated for them to be touched. Humor, thanks to Norman Cousins, is recognized as a powerful healer. Pet therapy is being given the high sign of approval for persons of all ages; just check out the number of pet magazines with many articles about the value of petting your pets. Other examples of progress include the development of Comfort rooms instead of Seclusion rooms in psychiatric hospitals. Touching is often “touched on” in all of these new efforts. However it is only a few people like Helen Colton, author of Touch Therapy, who states how touch might affect our emotional wellbeing. She writes “We cannot survive and live with any degree of comfort and mental health when we are not able to feel. A complete loss of our sense of touch can send us into psychotic breakdown.”

As a consumer survivor advocate, I write these words in hopes that other consumer/ survivors will join me to address the issue of touching and to propose changes in mental health policies to promote healing touch. (It should be noted that “no touch” policies are rarely written; they are among the unwritten rules that are noticed only when someone has been touched, sometimes inappropriately, but often because of supervisory discomfort, not the patient’s)

I make the following suggestions of where we can start: (you may think of others)

1. We begin to use the words “ person centered touch” along with “person centered language.”
2. We promote the use of comfort rooms in hospitals instead of time-out rooms, which have comforting items in them, and where a person might receive a massage if requested.
3. We promote changes in training materials for psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses that talk about the importance of touching.
4. We identify our own needs for touch and include wellness programs in drop-in centers that use the practice of touching.
5. We begin to feel comfortable asking people, “Would you like a hug,” and feel comfortable giving one.
6. We ask someone, “May I have a hug?” when we need one, remembering that 12 hugs a day are recommended.

In conclusion, I hope that the above is “Food for Thought” and that we begin to recognize the need for “Touch for Health.” Have you had your hug today? Have you been touched today?


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