What do we know about mental health?
In my opinion, not much. Psychiatrists and psychologists, know a lot about mental illness, but I would warrant that very few really know what “mental health” looks like.
In 1973, the journal, Science, published a paper by David L. Rosenhan, called “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, which detailed the experiment he conducted, in which eight sane people gained access to 12 different American hospitals, by pretending to hear voices. Once admitted, they acted in a “sane” and “normal” manner, apart from taking notes to describe their circumstances. All but one of the pseudopatients was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and discharged 7 to 52 days later, not having been pronounced “sane”, but with schizophrenia “in remission”.
I know that there have been a lot of changes in the psychiatric field since 1973, and I know that psychiatrists now have stricter criteria for the diagnosis of mental illness, but I still wonder: if the same experiment was performed today, how different would the result be?
The mind is a powerful thing. Both the patient’s and the psychiatrist’s minds have great creative power. Once one has a belief of the patient’s mental illness, it is easy to try to fit any perceived abnormal behaviour around that diagnosis (as in the Rosenhan experiment, when hospital staff considered the pseudopatients’ “writing behaviour” as a symptom of their illness.) If they both believe that the patient is mentally ill with an incurable illness, such as schizophrenia, then reversing that belief becomes virtually impossible.
Psychiatrists are good at diagnosing mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) keeps growing with each new edition to include more and more “abnormal” behaviours, and “luckily” there are a growing number of drugs being developed to treat these disorders. Unfortunately, there is such a strong link between those who develop the drugs and those who develop the list of disorders to match those drugs, that their impartiality cannot be guaranteed.
Oops! Shouldn’t that have been the other way around? Shouldn’t the disorder come first, and a treatment for it follow, after much study and research?
I know that there are a lot of people who are truly suffering from conditions which have been diagnosed as mental illness. I know that drugs have helped to relieve their suffering in some cases, but even the psychiatrists don’t claim to cure any of these conditions with drugs.
But the drugs have helped people to function, haven’t they?
Well, as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on that question.
Yes, surveys show that many patients receiving anti-psychotic drugs do report an improvement after taking them. However, there has been very little research done on what would happen if such patients were allowed, instead, to work through their psychosis in a loving and supportive environment, where there was no pressure to conform or to function “normally”.
Loren R. Mosher MD helped to develop an experiment, called the Soteria Project, carried out between 1971 and 1983, in which psychotic patients were allowed to live in such an environment, without resorting to anti-psychotic drugs, which often have serious side effects. Although some of the side effects have been reduced in newer versions of these drugs, I believe they still pose significant risks to the patient’s physical and mental health. Loren Mosher later said: “I am convinced now that “schizophrenic” behaviour results from psychosocial experiences and is not biological in origin”. What this means to me is that, as with many drugs, anti-psychotic drugs are treating the symptoms but not the cause.
What is the cause of psychotic episodes?
The book, Spiritual Emergency, which brings together a number of essays by various authors, posits the theory that, in at least some cases, psychosis is a process of spiritual transformation. Psychiatrist and psychotherapist, John Weir Perry, in his essay about his experience at a resident facility offering a caring environment for psychotic patients, stated that: “A therapeutic environment is far more effective than medication. It offers the opportunity for the individual to concentrate on the inner work, to sustain the effort, and to move forward in the process. Without such an environment there is a tendency for the process to get stuck, going round and round the same contents without movement.”
Could this be the reason that many on anti-psychotic drugs fail to fully recover from their condition? Could they be stuck in that transformation process, without a means to find a path to the other side?
Eckhart Tolle in his book, A New Earth, indicates that, in identifying with our ego self, we create within us a fear and distrust of others, such that we, so-called normal people, verge on the paranoia that just becomes more pronounced in those suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. We see any threat to our thoughts or beliefs as a threat to our identity.
He suggests that identifying with a collective ego, where it is “us” against “them”, can be even more dangerous. “By far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego. One can go as far as to say that on this planet “normal” equals insane.”
We know, from Eckhart Tolle’s work, that the way to bring balance to our lives and avoid living from our ego is to live in the present moment. Within the stillness, in the present moment, we find peace; we find that there is really nothing and no one to fear. He quotes a saying: “Stillness is the language God speaks and everything else is a bad translation.”
To bring sanity to our “normal” insanity we need to find peace in the present moment. We come closer to being able to find this peace every time we meditate. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, meditation can also happen as we go about our normal daily lives. Eckhart Tolle has mentioned that we can practise living in the present moment, where peace and God reside, even when walking across the room to pick something up, if, as we do so, we focus on each step we take, rather than what we will do when we get to the other side.
It is my contention, then, that if we can create sanity from our “normal” insanity in such a way, then this may also help to create sanity in those with more pronounced insanity.
To do this, though, I believe we would need to do the following:
- • Provide them with a safe and loving environment in which to reside and work through their psychotic episode.
• Allow them to remain drug-free in order to experience the process fully.
• Teach them how to meditate and live in the moment.
• Love them unconditionally, just as they are.
- (Please note that it can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking drugs. Please consult your health care provider before considering this.)
I would be interested in hearing your views on this. If you don’t mind sharing, I would be happy to hear how “mental illness” has affected your life. If you’re wondering why my passion about mental health, that will be the subject of another blog.
Image courtesy of Kittikun Atsawintarangkul / FreeDigitalPhotos.net