Dušica Lečić Toševski is very active and respected in the World Psychiatric Association, and is credited with the Institute for Mental Health in Belgrade being recognised worldwide as an institution that provides all types of treatment in a modern and extremely well organised way. Here she analyses this time of fear caused by the pandemic and offers valuable advice on how to fight the stress that everyone is exposed to
She was simply a wonder child, a prodigy. She enrolled in the first year of school at the age of six and was the top pupil of her generation, the Vukovac, the recipient of three Dragon Awards for poetry and the October Award for literary work. During her schooling at the Third Belgrade Gymnasium High School she won first prize in the city’s physics competition and first prize in the national competition for the Russian language. She successfully trained in handball at ORK Belgrade! She played the violin and sang in the choir.
She completed her medical studies with an average grade of 9.77! It was with the greatest achievements that she marked years of work at the Institute for Mental Health in Belgrade, which she led with great success, resulting in the building in Belgrade’s Palmotićeva Street becoming recognised worldwide as “an institution that provides all types of treatment in a modern and extremely well organised way”. She was among the most beloved and respected professors of the Medical Faculty in Belgrade, appeared as a guest lecturer at many world universities and was a very active and respected member of the World Psychiatric Association. She is one of the few women to become a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts – SANU.
And when it comes to testifying about herself, Dušica Lečić Toševski (68) says: “I believe that the child is father to the man, as William Wordsworth wrote in the poem My Heart Leaps Up, with which he revealed the importance of childhood long before psychoanalysts. According to the Hindu belief, every child comes into the world with the Atman, the divine spark, universal self. The Atman leaves the child with the closing of the fontanelle, the two soft spots on its head (no later than 24 months after birth).
“It is believed that we spend the rest of our lives searching for the return of that divine spark, with natural piety, on the path of maturing the personality. As in Wordsworth’s poem – “And I wish my days to be bound each to each, by natural piety”. The very act of conception and birth represents a miracle of miracles, and the repeating of the original act of creation.
“There is no more dilemma about what is more important – nature vs. nurture. How someone’s life will unfold depends on both nature (genetic basis) and upbringing. And while nature is partially unchangeable, it can be influenced by environmental influences (epigenetic factors), which are multiple, of course.
“My childhood consisted of three intertwined works – learning, reading literature and play. Those three parts never stopped being important to me. Working without expecting the fruits of one’s actions is a basic principle of karmic yoga, which, of course, I didn’t know initially, but I practised it later and have adhered to that throughout my life. Learning didn’t represent a difficulty for me; I didn’t have the ambition to become the top student of my generation – like everything that happened later, that only followed my commitment to everything I did, my obedience. I started reading early and couldn’t imagine my existence without books. I later gained the opportunity to pass on the knowledge I’d acquired as a teacher and mentor to many generations of undergraduate and doctoral students.”
I do not divide SANU membership by gender. No one objects to the French Academy – the genius of Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes, wasn’t admitted into the French Academy of Sciences
Medicine wasn’t her only choice. She was interested in physics, mathematics, literature and philosophy. She loves language and its purity, especially our own Serbian language, which she considers as being perfect. She deals with translations, not only of professional textbooks (seven) but also literature (six). We should soon see the publishing of her latest translations – the fourth edition of the book Jung and Hesse – The Hermetic Circle by Chilean writer Miguel Serrano, the second edition of Selected Essays by Wystan Hugh Auden, as well as one of Borges’ stories and several of his poems:
“Due to my various interests, I wanted to study physics and philosophy. Marie Curie was my idol as a child – a large poster displaying her picture was on my wall during my early years of schooling. And now her picture is in my studies, both at home and at SANU. After high school I spent a year in London, learning English. The greatest help in my search for a professional identity at that time was provided by my future husband, then a fourth-year student of the Faculty of Medicine who considered that medicine should be my choice. He was right. I found all my interests in medicine, especially later in psychiatry.”
She devoted herself with love to the study of medicine, and the only thing she didn’t handle with ease was autopsy classes on the subject of pathology. This, along with the yoga she practises, influenced her to spend several years as a vegetarian, until she became pregnant with her daughter Tara. After completing her medical studies she spent two years working as an assistant professor at the Institute of Physiology. The students awarded her the April Award for the Best Assistant. She conducted research for her master’s degree:
“I recognised within me a strong desire to dedicate myself to patients and clinical medicine, instead of animal experiments. I suddenly realised that psychiatry was my choice. I applied for a contest announced for a clinical doctor of the Psychiatric Clinic of the Clinical Centre of Serbia, which was then located on Avala.
This determined my further academic destiny and satisfied my desires (to combine rational empirical research and contemplative nature). Psychiatry is the most noble medical discipline for me, as a combination of science, healing skills, philosophy and art. The choice of profession is often unconscious. The fact that my name is associated with psychiatry was revealed to me by a manic patient (in manic states people have rich associations by similarity) when one morning, as a young specialist, I paid a visit to the Department, and she told other patients:
“This is Dušica Lečić, she treats my soul” [duša means soul and lečitii means to treat]. And, indeed, the name is a sign (nomen est omen).
“The noun psychiatrist comes from the Greek ψυχίατρος (ψυχί – soul, γιατρός – healer).”
She says that she has never had a problem with being a woman when it comes to proving herself professionally and advancing:
“God determines what gender and race we will belong to. Everyone carries within them two principles – female (Anima, Yin) and male (Animus, Yang). It is essential to have a balance between these principles (Yin and Yang) on the path to the realisation of the Whole, the Tao. Or on the way to Ithaca, which was so beautifully described by Constantine Cavafy in his poem Ithaca. Being a woman is a gift. Every woman, in addition to the stated principles, contains the great mother Eva (calm, consecrated), but also Lilith (seductress and rebel). I recognised both in the literature – those are Eva and Edwina in Hamsun’s Pan, Tereza and Sabina in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Natalya and Aksinia in Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don.” However, for SANU, which she entered as a correspondent in 2009 and has been a regular member of since 2015, it is especially true that it doesn’t favour women. However, CorD’s interlocutor is determined:
“I do not divide SANU membership by gender. No one objects to the French Academy – the genius of Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes, wasn’t admitted into the French Academy of Sciences. The first woman to achieve that was Marguerite Yourcenar, and that was only in 1980, and to date there are only nine such women members. Isidora Sekulić was selected as a correspondent member of the Serbian Royal Academy in 1939, and as a regular member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences in 1950, as the first female academic. And she was not chosen because she was a woman, but because of her exceptional creativity. It’s important that SANU has never accepted someone who didn’t deserve it, and it’s certainly made a mistake about some. But it wouldn’t be good for SANU to accept members for the sake of gender equality.”
Apart from the pandemic, there has also been an infodemic, which also impacts on increasing the sense of helplessness and prevailing fear, which is easy to control from the side
For this successful and special woman, the best way to defend women’s rights in today’s Serbian society implies maintaining the individual and collective principle of women. And the best way to conquer men is with femininity:
“Extreme feminism is toxic and I think it has brought great harm to women. In modern times, in Western cultures, it seems as though everything is aimed at erasing the elementary, natural differences between men and women.
There are movements aimed at abolishing the eternal, necessary, evolutionary dance between the sexes and the destruction of masculinity, so it wouldn’t be strange for opposing movements to appear for the protection of men. Every woman brings the divine spark of creation by giving birth.”
A question that’s often posed is – what is the mental state of the nation? And sensationalism and generalisation is often prompted in response. As a distinguished neuropsychiatrist and official expert of the World Health Organization on mental health, Dušica turns to the current state of mental health in Serbia during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“The situation in a country depends on many factors, including economic ones. However, so-called rich states are not free of the diseases of their citizens, both physical and mental. The level of development and availability of the health system is essential to maintain the health of society, as well as prevention (the goddess Hygiene is more important than Panacea, prevention is more important than treatment), and the improvement of mental health.
“Health for all, the dictum of the World Health Organization, is an ideal, utopian goal. This has especially been shown by the Coronavirus pandemic. The polarised world has been united by a pandemic that has shown all the weaknesses and fragility of homo sapiens, as well as that “no man is an island” as John Donne wrote in his wonderful 1624 poem Meditation 17. No one is spared, and it is not known “for whom the bell tolls”. Apart from the pandemic, there has also been an infodemic, which also impacts on increasing the sense of helplessness and prevailing fear, which is easy to control from the side. No one was ready for the current pandemic, and in their arrogance and the anthropocentric world, in which man thinks he doesn’t have to fear for his soul, people imagined that the rulers of the planet are in search of material goods and superficial, transient values.
“Despite the spread of the virus, in which no one is safe, individualism and fear for survival have grown. The term social distancing was introduced, completely mistakenly, because a person cannot survive without social contacts, except for the small number of happy monks on the Holy Mountain and in the ashrams. This relates to physical distance that is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus and which, inevitably, deprives everyone of the expression of basic emotions, for which touch is important (as well as for the survival of the species), especially in countries like ours. Restrictive measures are necessary, but not the ones that were introduced in our country at the beginning of the epidemic – the total lockdown of people aged over 65 was absolutely unacceptable and very harmful.
Extreme feminism is toxic and I think it has brought great harm to women. In modern times, in Western cultures, it seems as though everything is aimed at erasing the elementary, natural differences between men and women
“Mental health protection changed significantly during the course of the epidemic. Healthcare services must be focused on emergencies. Physical distancing, and often also social distancing, among some people with mental problems impacts on everyone, especially those who are emotionally unstable, extroverted and in need of contact. An epidemic crisis, quite naturally, causes existential fear, and as the pandemic has continued for a long time, there are experiences of helplessness, hopelessness, apathy or rage, particularly among vulnerable people who lack adequate coping strategies, as mechanisms for overcoming stress. All of this can develop into depression. No one has been spared. The young are impacted because they are deprived of direct and immediate manifestations of the joy of life, while the older are impacted because they are deprived of freedom in the time they have left until they meet their maker. It is clear that the existential fear caused by the virus has for many also amplified the fear of literal survival, due to poverty, closures and the halting of work. There are also many problems because the health services – which are aimed at treating patients with COVID-19, while preventative and control examinations and treatment of numerous other conditions have been neglected and take place only in emergencies. This effects everyone except the small number of privileged people who are able to secure treatment in private hospitals.”
Our country seems to have been united by the fact that, during the first wave of the pandemic, a total ban on the movement of the elderly was introduced under the pretext of “protecting the lives of parents”, when in fact it was done to protect the health system from the hospitalisation of people who often have multiple associated diseases:
“Freedom of movement is a basic human right, according to Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Even convicts in prisons are permitted to take a daily walk! That stigmatising, discriminatory, dehumanising measure was a measure against human dignity. It should be added that locking up the elderly (otherwise the most disciplined and responsible section of the population) endangered their physical and mental immunity. Such locking up, introduced with the intention of saving lives, can actually destroy lives. And while the healthcare system has perhaps been saved temporarily, and although the elderly may have remained safe from the virus for almost two months, due to forced passivity and probable co-morbidity (which could not be controlled by medical examinations), serious consequences are possible. and no one will be able to count the victims.
“Isolation of the elderly is a measure of social Darwinism, which dictates that the youngest and strongest should survive. In the narcissistic modern age of ageism, when only being young and successful is acceptable.”
Many laypeople believe that COVID-19 will have major consequences for people’s mental health. Dušica confirms that the Coronavirus pandemic already represents a source of chronic stress. Whether consequences will arise and what they will be – like everything in nature – depends on many factors:
“There can be many consequences for mental health: anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, burnout and chronic fatigue syndrome (especially among healthcare workers), the exacerbation of previous mental disorders, family problems, abuse of alcohol and anxiolytics, self-destructive and heterodestructive behaviour etc.”
How can one protect oneself from the fear of COVID, how can we fight COVID, and in this we don’t only mean the obligatory masks that are naturally implies? CorD’s interlocutor provides the following answer:
“The best definition of mental health was provided by Sigmund Freud – a mentally healthy person is able to both love and work. Freud was engaged to Martha Bernays for four years. He had to secure his employment status and earnings to be able to get married, and he was poor, borrowing money from his older colleague Josef Breuer. His letters, like everything he later wrote, are literary works of the highest order (Freud didn’t receive the Nobel Prize he deserved, but he did receive the Goethe Prize for Literature). In one of his letters to his fiancée, he wrote “let’s love and work together”.
Despite the spread of the virus, in which no one is safe, individualism and fear for survival have grown. The term social distancing was introduced, completely mistakenly, because a person cannot survive without social contacts, except for the small number of happy monks on the Holy Mountain and in the ashrams
This dangerous virus is mostly beyond our control, except for individual physical protection measures that are known to everyone. It is essential to return the focus of control inwards, towards one’s own personality. Work, of any kind, is essential and, of course, depends on preferences and possibilities. Whether someone dedicates themselves to cooking, tidying their house, cleaning their yard, handicrafts, writing, praying, meditating or something else depends on their inclination. It is useful to structure each day, as well as the upcoming week, month. Continuously monitoring the news is stressful and should be reduced to a reasonable level (once a day, for example, to obtain basic information about the epidemic).
Physical activity is, of course, also essential – walking for half an hour a day is enough. Among the large number of books that I’ve read during recent months is also the Camus work The Plague, a book that I received from school in my early days. Each re-reading enables new discoveries. The pandemic seems frightening and shows the helplessness of man to influence his destiny and the absurdity of the modern world, and Camus describes that in this masterpiece.
However, everything comes to an end, the pandemic will pass, with casualties, unfortunately. When asked how the plague can be defeated, Camus answers – with decency, and for him decency means everyone doing their job. And I believe that goodness, love and decency will save the world.”