By Katie Davern
The “Think” program of the local NPR affiliate, KERA Radio, interviewed Dr. Robert Kugelmann, a psychology professor at the University of Dallas, about the psychology of disease. Kugelmann, along with Dr. Angelica Tratter, adjunct professor of psychology, was asked to give an opinion on why people battling some diseases are viewed as heroic while those battling other diseases face judgment or fear. The interview aired on Tuesday, Nov. 18.
The producers approached UD after they found the description for a “Health Psychology” course listed online, according to Kugelmann. They asked if the professor who taught the course would be interested in speaking about some of the issues. Kugelmann, who has been asked to give interviews about various topics several times in the past, said he usually turns down such interviews because they are not in his areas of expertise. But because health psychology is one of his particular fields of interest, and a course that he has taught since the 1980s, Kugelmann said he felt that the interview was something he could do.
The hosts of the talk show, which covers a variety of topics, wanted Kugelmann and Tratter to address the ways in which different medical conditions affect a person’s identity and how he is viewed by others. Kugelmann is especially interested in the notion of stigma and in examining the reasons why people with certain diseases are seen in a negative light. Kugelmann said he believes one of the main factors is the visibility of the disease. People with facial scars or deformities from disease are less likely to be helped by others, as others tend to be put off by or afraid of what they see. He also noted that people who behave oddly, or who are heavier or thinner than the norm, receive similar treatment.
Kugelmann said he thinks that this type of treatment can be harmful, since medical conditions affect more than just the body.
“It’s also because we are embodied beings, it’s how we are in the world,” he explained. “You have the disease on one hand, but you also have the person who is living with the disease, and it becomes a part of their life in some way or other. And it can shape the way they see themselves in the present, and how they see themselves moving forward toward their future, and the way they see themselves in the past.”
Kugelmann noted that, on the other hand, invisibility of disease can also stigmatize the victims. People who suffer from chronic pain, for instance, which has no outward symptoms, are often suspected of being lazy or of trying to “milk the system” to get medical insurance.
“Pain is a subjective phenomenon and it can easily be discounted by other people because it doesn’t show,” he explained.
Kugelmann also emphasized that disease is not simply a personal issue, but a social one as well. He said he believes that our society’s emphasis on individual responsibility and personal autonomy can lead us to neglect the social factors that contribute to disease. According to Kugleman, there is an inverse relationship between ill health and income across the board — people with lower income levels often do not receive proper medical care, which creates a vicious cycle between poverty and illness.
“Part of my point, I would argue, is that we have a collective responsibility,” he said.
Originally a math major, Kugelmann said that his first job after graduation sparked his interest in the field of health psychology. Working for the welfare board in Monmouth County New Jersey, Kugelmann’s assignment was to help with medical and social reviews of people on disability insurance. He would go out to their homes, interview them, get statements from their doctors and obtain consent forms, gathering information to send to a review board that would determine whether they were eligible to receive benefits.
According to Kugelmann, the most interesting aspect was that he could see how people lived and coped with all kinds of medical issues, especially mental illness. He said it was eye-opening to see the host of other issues that go along with disability and poverty, such as the sometimes horrific housing conditions or the inability to receive treatment from a doctor.
“I got to see the whole, big picture of how living with an illness is an existential condition,” he said. “It’s not just your biology, it’s your whole life in varied ways. That experience really oriented me, till now really.”
Kugelmann said he thought that the interview with KERA went very well and that he was happy to speak on an important topic.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve been surprised at how many comments [I’ve gotten]. I think the school probably did a good job of advertising it.”