You are responsible for your recovery (from mental illness)

You will probably think I am unkind to even suggest this. But the truth is that nobody can bring change to your life, if you won’t. Just like no outsider can bring development in another country, nobody can bring progress to another group,  neither can anyone bring change in your life- even if they be your parents or anyone else close to you. You have to free yourself from the ghoul of mental illness. Be assured that others have trod the path, you are not alone.

The human mind is an interesting,  powerful device, and there is nothing that it cannot learn or unlearn. Even if there are behaviours that you have come to be  attached to, which you identify as inherent to your personality and sense of who you are, if they are not doing you good, you need to change them. Not because I am saying so- because getting rid of something that is not working for you, is only going to make you happier.

If you look all around the world, people who have overcome their severe disabling conditions are not weak people, who were attached to their disabled selves. They have taken their disabling conditions to be a part of their lives and lived lives accordingly, without being overwhelmed by disability forever. I am sure you would agree with me if I mention the names of Hellen Keller and Stephen Hawking. Perhaps on would think their disabilities have been big enough to incapacitate the average person’s mind into inaction. But that did not stop them. These are the role models one needs to look upto.

Trust me, I have always worked by looking up at role models- people whose stories I could see reflected in my own, and in whose struggles I felt I could find a resonance. I have found immense courage and will to survive by looking at others, especially those who suffer. Take heart and look at others. You will see more faces like mine, of those who have recovered.

Only when you believe that you too want to recover, will you take the next step – to plan how the recovery will happen. Recovery is always a slow process. You cannot be impatient about it, as you will have to muster many sorts of inner and outer resources, filter them over time to see what is working and what is not and remain consistently involved with them. I do not think anything can stop you from recovering. That is a promise from someone who has been there, done that.

However, before I conclude this little writing I must share with you, that nobody can recover without the support of outsiders of the circle. We cannot see where we are going wrong, or even if we can, we often do not know how to change it, because we are so accustomed to behaving in ways that we have always known. For that we need suitable others.

Since the mind is capable of learning and adapting, it can adapt to new behaviours. But what those behaviours could be, is not what we may know. That is where, counselors and therapists come in: to help you steer your path. If I did not have a therapist may be I would never have recovered myself. Whether or not I could be in regular counseling with her, whatever she advised me, I followed meticulously, because I valued her presence in my life immensely. Without outsiders we will make progress, but at a rate which may take decades to recover.

Choose sensibly therefore.

Therapy is not common sense- trust me

If everything could be achieved by common sense communication, then people would easily learn a few skills and resolve all their problems. But that rarely happens.  A vast array of problems start from communications, but to solve those problems we cannot often fall back on our own communication skills or abilities only.

People, particularly in India, often have a mistaken notion that someone who is therapist/counselor is talking from common sense and giving advice based on their intelligence. Yes, I agree, it seems like that, but reality is that is never the case. Let me start by saying that whoever has whatever level of intelligence, they have reached there in a complex distillation of ideas, study, immersion and of course years of work in the field.

I am giving this prelude to a recent encounter with a family that I want to talk about. It was the brother who approached me through a social network, upon seeing my work in mental health in some way. He asked me a few things and over time that set the ball rolling. His concern was for his older sister, a woman in her early thirties, who had been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In due course when I traveled to Delhi, they came nearly 300 kms to meet me, all the way from UP.

The woman, let us call her Sarita, came energetically and seemed charged with ideas, and full of enthusiasm and verve. I could see she was excited, and ‘high’ in some way. I would not want to see this ‘high’ as a psychotic high but there was a case of being sure of one’s self, and a bit of grandiosity- what would be seen as the classical ‘symptoms’ of a disturbance in the psychological wellbeing of a person. However, I never want to look at people through the lens of pathology or illness and therefore despite seeing the ‘symptoms’, which were truly subtle, I noticed her emotional fragility, anger and inner disturbance. After all I am not a peer for nothing, if I cannot discern how subtle the emotional fabric is.

At the end of the dialogue, which lasted a good two hours, I figured that the young lady had come to take a clean chit from me, that she did not have a mental illness and therefore did not require medication. Of course, I do not believe that anyone requires medication. But to move away from that stage where you do not have to take medication, you have to be cognizant  enough to move into the behavioural domain. I mean to say, that certain behaviours of those who are classified ‘mentally ill’ is ‘not normal’ by the standards of those around them. That is why they are taken to a professional- psychiatrist, therapist or counselor, or any other doctor.

Each one of these professionals acts in accordance with their  training. A psychiatrist believes that the ‘symptoms’ are due to a chemical imbalance and if the proper chemical is given, the person will become ‘normal’ or ‘fine’. Psychologists come with various kinds of training but they are mostly informed by the same set of principles as psychiatrists, especially those who go through clinical psychology courses.

I have a diploma in counseling. But more significantly also a lived- illness/recovery experience, to fall back on.  I fall back on my lived experience based knowledge pretty regularly to understand the suffering of others. People, like me, often work in the domain of social psychology and self experience puts my knowledge at an altogether different level. I am not arrogant about it, but trying to capture the difference. Just imagine a dentist who has never known a toothache. How can they understand the pain of a patient? Contrast that with a dentist who has had dental caries, been through root canal treatment, got a tooth extracted in teenage and has two cavities. How much more the latter would know about the suffering of their patient?

The Story I was referring to…

Coming back to Sarita’s story. After one set of dialogues the duo went back. There was a lot of friction with the father and that seemed to be a dominant motif that emerged. The younger brother played the balancing role in the family. Sarita was happy that I was willing to look at her beyond the psychiatric label of schizophrenia. After that assurance, she was sure that she did not need any medication, which in any case, she had been flushing down the commode.

A few days later, she befriended me on the social network, and I noticed a sudden spike in her activity. In a way Facebook serves me very well, especially for watching what is going on in the lives of those I counsel or generally engage with, because it warns me if something is going wrong. (I recently also caught another friend getting into the spiral of PTSD, and warned her, told her to go to sleep calmly for a few days. It seems she tided over that. She her admitted to all the ‘symptoms’ that I had seen, which made me raise the question with her in the first place). I found her trailing me on every forum and posting her own posts there, by joining a whole lot of fora where I was involved. I found this a very unusual behaviour and I asked her brother, if everything was ok.

He informed me that things were not good and Sarita was too excited about a certain new thing in her life. She was going on talking about it to everyone, in a manner which raised suspicion about her. I told him, to tell her to talk to me, if she would like to. She did, through a facebook or WhatsApp message! In what way can a professional help a client via a message?

Few days later, on the occasion of the World Mental Health Day, I sent a message to her brother again, hoping all was well. It wasn’t. Sarita was clearly ‘high’ by now and aggressive, offensive and charging her family, particularly father, with all sorts of things. All my exchange happened with the younger brother alone, via messages only. When it seemed she would not be interested in counseling, I told him to seek recourse to psychiatry, which I inevitably know, would forcefully drug her, sedate her and possibly give her ECT. I shudder to think of that!

The brother understood what the way out was, since the sister was unwilling to talk to me, or seek any insights into her life, or have any other way, but her own. She left a job that I had encouraged her brother to help her hold on to, because she wanted to float her own entrepreneurial venture. I told him how to win her over take up the government job, as she was adamant, that it was beneath her dignity to do so.

Upon my recommendation, the brother took her to the psychiatrist and sure enough, the forcible drugging, the sedation and the ECTs followed suit. Families will never know how they become the chief arm of psychiatric coercion and the biggest reason why people become permanently disable due to mental health conditions, that they can easily recover from. What could I have done in this case, even if the brother trusted me completely to guide them? If the person who needs to talk to me, and understand the situation does not understand it herself, what recourse can the family take?

My advice to any family would come from two options. One is the biomedical way, which is often forcible and therapy/counseling. The latter is difficult, and requires patience. No matter what medication they take, if you do not want to incapacitate your loved one for the rest of their life, they will have to seek therapeutic guidance and support, to deal with their situation/s. If you forcibly medicate them or give them ECT (which should be made illegal immediately), you are actually infringing on their human rights. Yes, you got it right- it is a human rights violation, which you are committing within your own home, with your own loved one. Sorry to say that, if it hurts your sense of justice, but I cannot fool you or me about this.

How could therapeutic work have proceeded after the first meeting with Sarita?

Ideally the first meeting is where anyone assesses a situation. You hear the two points of view or sometimes even one person, if they have come alone. First meeting or even a few meetings should be the ground that people have to understand one another. Entering into therapy is entering into a relationship and both people need to know another. Would you not like to know who your therapist is after all?

In family counseling it is always better to listen to everyone and talk to everyone concerned, because ultimately everyone in the family is impacted by one person’s condition, whatever it is. Narrative therapy goes even a step further to include even the next level of people, and open dialogues mean involving even the kinsmen!

In the subsequent meetings, one sets an agenda for action and a modus operandi. No therapy work cannot get over in one, two or three meetings. Often it takes many a meeting with clients, for someone to truly understand where the roots of suffering lie in their life.

In Sarita’s case, this could have happened-

  1. Sarita could stay in touch with me and talk to me, not more than once in two-three weeks. That would really help us understand what is going on in her life, which causes her frustrations and anguish, and which periodically boils up as temper tantrums and then accusations against her parents.
  2. The way to deal with any behavioural issue is to address the behaviour directly. I increasingly prefer to bring families into dialogues early, so that whatever we are talking with one person, could be known to others who would help in accomplishing the goals of that one person. Often family communications are deeply fractious due to forcible handling of psychiatric crises. Families need help with talking to one another gently, without causing further rifts.
  3. Ultimately, it is Sarita’s journey towards her individuation and she needs to understand that whatever expressions she has to express her anger, frustration and moods is not working with others around. She would have to develop a more reasonable and non-threatening communication which does not make her family and herself a social nuisance and laughing stock. Part of the anguish of her brother stems from this responsibility towards his parents and neighbours.
  4. Any journey towards finding one’s balance takes time. Most will not even attempt it in their lifetime. Only the ones who are deeply fractured seem the most appropriate ones to require a therapeutic dialogue. In reality everyone needs help, support and guidance.
  5. Equally as much as Sarita, her family needs the support, help and collaboration. That is why family therapy is the need of the hour, not individual therapy.
  6. Assuming that a client like Sarita would speak with me once a month, it will easily take her between two -three years to understand her issues in a more clear way. Though it may seem a lot, but what is two/three years compared to a life of psychiatric medication and who knows how much disability due to them? I must add here, that every meeting between a therapist and their client, has long term effects. So though once a month may seem very small a time, in reality it has a long lasting effect, almost like a butterfly effect, which touches many chords in their lives.
  7. In family therapy literature, it is said that within 20 sessions, most outcomes of a long term nature, would emerge. I agree with this. (In due course if we can create reflecting teams, that would be even more empowering and faster). 20 sessions can happen over a couple of years…is that not truly remarkable? I am not sure India is ready for it yet! Sad, but this is what I am seeing from multiple families.

What follows are some general ideas about therapy-

  1. Till those who are given mental illness diagnosis do not feel the need to seek help to change their outcomes, no change can happen with a dialogue between any member of their family and a counselor, like me. I have seen many a person in a family wanting to bring their loved ones for counseling, but find that they do not have enough trust between one another, to accomplish that!  It is truly sad for them.
  2. Therapy is not a day long affair. It is a reflection on our lives and how we have come a long way, with our behaviours. Therapy does not mean I am a therapist and you are a patient. Therapy is your attempt to heal yourself through dialogue and understanding that emerges from it, by learning to look at your life in a more balanced, philosophical and calmer way.
  3. Therapy means someone is helping you change your behaviour and assisting you become what you always wanted to- by holding your hand, while you gain that wisdom. It is not about guiding you at all. It is about letting you become the expert in your own life. But until you want to change your behaviour, nothing about your life can ever change.

Caregivers can change outcomes in mental illnesses

Having seen the outcomes of many recovery stories and even non-recovery ones, the one thing that becomes clear is that if assisted positively and non-intrusively, many people can recover even from serious mental illnesses.

So why does it not happen more often? The one likely thing that comes to mind is that mental illness triggers off due to some contribution from the family environments- like it or not. Perhaps this is the most difficult idea to digest.  But if we can stomach it, and be willing to reflect upon what they could have done or wrongly so, then many things can change.

With this in mind, I work in therapy with people- I mean families, and with the same idea, I decided I ought to reach out to a wider number of people. But instead of choosing to keep the knowledge offered as part of the course, only a function of my own knowledge, why not spread the net wider and bring in many others, who have been working in mental health with a similar or same commitment as me, and trying to diminish the burden of human suffering, wherever possible.

With this idea as a background I decided to do two things- first of all create a framework of ideas and then a resource base of ‘experts’. Honestly speaking, perhaps neither of these ‘experts’ would claim themselves to be as such, and this is not to judge their knowledge and represent it in the same way as the positivist tradition does- for measuring expertise by degrees and professions. My only basis for classifying them as ‘experts’ is the number of years they have been working in the field and the orientation they carry- recovery and rehabilitation from mental illnesses.

As yet this orientation has not gained salience in India, unlike some Western countries- and therefore these people have not been seen as such either. But I hope with this course now in the public domain, more people will recognize the reality that mental illnesses can be a thing of the past, if more people take heart, families change their attitudes and supportive behaviours. This is one of the key advantages of being in relatively poorer countries- that our family systems are quite intact. So why not assist them in augmenting what is already present, rather than aping Western models and walk towards our own annihilation via their pharma enterprises.

Here is the first Caregivers’ Online Course, that I have been referring to as part of this blog post. And I feel relieved at last to have come to this clearing- there is so much water under the bridge, from making the website, to getting the experts to collaborate, structure, and now the next challenge- to ensure its viability and efficacy.

Reshma’s Schizophrenia Memoir

The memoir of Reshma Valliappan is finally out and this blogpost is just about that. I do not think I need to say anything about it, because the article that I am about to share on the issue says it all. I must say why this memoir becomes significant is that the author stopped talking medicines, though she calls herself now a ‘schizophrenist’. This is a big contrast to my position, though possibly becomes it comes from research- where I reject any labels of mental illness and call it a linguistic rephrasing of people’s distress into medical categories.

Of course knowing Reshma personally, I feel she is one of the brightest, most energetic and vivacious people to be with. So to have such a high level of intellect is a compelling case of the spirit plunging to that low to offset the ‘highs’. Knowing bipolar the way I do, and knowing that it is perfectly ‘curable’ if someone is committed enough to deal with it, and persistent no matter what- I am beginning to feel that so is schizophrenia! of course the world is not ready to hear this, even though many people have been saying this for decades, including psychiatrists and linguists. That brings me to the point that I have been wanting to delve in for a long time- a study of psychosis!

So this is the  post- that talks about Reshma’s story. I hope it will offer a ray of hope to some at least.

Making Madness Uniform and Global- the American Way

This post is about the book by Ethan Watters’ book- Crazy like Us. The book cover looks this way. I discovered this a few years ago when I read a review of it in a Hindi newspaper by Prof. Girishwar Misra (the one person who has mentored my academic writing for over a decade now). Within a short time of that I got the book for myself.

Here is another review about the same book. In this video, Watters shares the experience of writing the book.

CROSS-CULTURAL psychiatrists have pointed out that the mental-health ideas we export to the world are rarely unadulterated scientific facts and never culturally neutral. “Western mental-health discourse introduces core components of Western culture, including a theory of human nature, a definition of personhood, a sense of time and memory and a source of moral authority. None of this is universal,” Derek Summerfield of the Institute of Psychiatry in London observes. He has also written: “The problem is the overall thrust that comes from being at the heart of the one globalizing culture. It is as if one version of human nature is being presented as definitive, and one set of ideas about pain and suffering. . . . There is no one definitive psychology.”

Behind the promotion of Western ideas of mental health and healing lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature. Westerners share, for instance, evolving beliefs about what type of life event is likely to make one psychologically traumatized, and we agree that venting emotions by talking is more healthy than stoic silence. We’ve come to agree that the human mind is rather fragile and that it is best to consider many emotional experiences and mental states as illnesses that require professional intervention. (The National Institute of Mental Health reports that a quarter of Americans have diagnosable mental illnesses each year.) The ideas we export often have at their heart a particularly American brand of hyperintrospection — a penchant for “psychologizing” daily existence. These ideas remain deeply influenced by the Cartesian split between the mind and the body, the Freudian duality between the conscious and unconscious, as well as the many self-help philosophies and schools of therapy that have encouraged Americans to separate the health of the individual from the health of the group. These Western ideas of the mind are proving as seductive to the rest of the world as fast food and rap music, and we are spreading them with speed and vigor.

No one would suggest that we withhold our medical advances from other countries, but it’s perhaps past time to admit that even our most remarkable scientific leaps in understanding the brain haven’t yet created the sorts of cultural stories from which humans take comfort and meaning. When these scientific advances are translated into popular belief and cultural stories, they are often stripped of the complexity of the science and become comically insubstantial narratives. Take for instance this Web site text advertising the antidepressant Paxil: “Just as a cake recipe requires you to use flour, sugar and baking powder in the right amounts, your brain needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best.” The Western mind, endlessly analyzed by generations of theorists and researchers, has now been reduced to a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls.

All cultures struggle with intractable mental illnesses with varying degrees of compassion and cruelty, equanimity and fear. Looking at ourselves through the eyes of those living in places where madness and psychological trauma are still embedded in complex religious and cultural narratives, however, we get a glimpse of ourselves as an increasingly insecure and fearful people. Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.

If our rising need for mental-health services does indeed spring from a breakdown of meaning, our insistence that the rest of the world think like us may be all the more problematic. Offering the latest Western mental-health theories, treatments and categories in an attempt to ameliorate the psychological stress sparked by modernization and globalization is not a solution; it may be part of the problem. When we undermine local conceptions of the self and modes of healing, we may be speeding along the disorienting changes that are at the very heart of much of the world’s mental distress.

This above is extracted from the following- This article appeared in 2010

The book CRAZY LIKE US- is a great bit of research and one of the books that I cite in my own research as well.