As someone with almost 40 years of experience in the field of mental health, I continue to watch disturbing trends. As long as the medical model of mental illness is the gold standard of best practice, we are doomed to fail.
First, I’d like to say that mental health lives on a continuum, just like physical health. We all have some degree of mental health; I don’t use mental health as a euphonism for mental illness.
Second, the biggest myth in mental health is the existence of chemical imbalances in the brain. This theory has been touted by psychiatry to provide them legitimacy in the medical arena and repeated by Big Pharma. Why? Follow the money.
Psychiatry proposed chemical imbalances and Big Pharma created medication for it. The medication that’s prescribed has its desired effect not because the person has a chemical imbalance, but because the pill is designed to have that effect. I love the analogy Dr. Terry Lynch makes in his book, Depression Delusion: He writes about how heroin helps people feel better, but that doesn’t mean they have a heroin deficiency! However, once a person is on psychotropic medications for some time, it does create a chemical imbalance in their brain, one that brings on more serious symptoms when they begin to withdraw from their medication. This causes doctors to say, “See, I told you that you’d need this medication for the rest of your life.” They don’t understand the serious withdrawal effects and the incredibly slow taper that is needed to skirt around those effects.
Third, we need to stop labeling people with disorders. The word “disorder” implies there something wrong or broken in the client. Most of the labels we use in mental health describe behaviors people have developed to compensate for the things going on in their lives. Let’s look at Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), more colloquially known as Multiple Personality Disorder. What we know from people who suffer from DID is that they have a horrific history of ritualistic, repetitive sexual abuse over a prolonged period of time, perpetrated by someone who was supposed to protect them. In order to survive such unimaginable abuse, they develop the superpower of being able to dissociate: the ability to leave their body, hover near the ceiling and watch themselves being abused without experiencing the pain of it. I don’t know about you, but if I, or someone I loved, were being tortured in that way, I would hope and pray we would be able to dissociate. This is not a disorder but an incredible adaptation to a horrific situation. We need to stop talking to people about what’s wrong with them and instead start talking about what has happened to them.
The mind is an incredible thing, capable of all manner of protection. It can provide us with amnesia so we don’t have to remember something terrible that has happened. It can come up with behavioral options that are creative and adaptive to handle whatever we are experiencing. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I stubbornly call Post-Traumatic Stress to emphasize that is it most definitely not a disorder, is what our mind gives us when we have experienced something our brain can’t really make sense of. It involves something so gruesome, painful or debilitating that we experience stress. I would be more worried about my clients who didn’t experience stress following such a situation.
Finally, I am concerned about the sweeping focus on trauma in mental health. I should be happy about it because it is a focus that looks more at what’s happened to an individual rather than what’s wrong with them, but I fear that trauma is becoming the new label for people who are experiencing mental distress. We have disorder labels to describe what’s wrong with people; now we have a trauma category to put people in to provide an excuse for why they are the way they are, giving them a reason to be comfortable where they are. I don’t believe that is a healthy thing either.
Trauma is real. It’s challenging to get through this thing called life without experiencing some traumatic things. Some people have severe trauma, and now, we have a thing called complex trauma. Complex trauma refers to a child’s exposure to multiple traumatic events, which cause long-term and wide-ranging effects, as if regular trauma wasn’t severe enough. I do not want trauma or complex trauma to become the new labels that are used to tell people they are broken and will need psychiatric “help” for the rest of their lives.
I am all for counseling that helps people mitigate the effects of trauma through EMDR, Emotional Freedom Tapping techniques, Mindfulness, Mental Freedom or any other programs or techniques that inform people that, wherever they are on the mental health continuum, they can improve. It may not be easy, but if they are willing to put in the time, work and attention, they can develop the resilience that’s needed to mine their experiences for the Post-Traumatic GLOW (the gifts, lessons, opportunities and wisdom) that is there for them to find in their experiences.
We mental health professionals need to be empathetic to the horrific tragedies our clients have endured without spending the bulk of our treatment stuck in a past that cannot be changed. We need to help our clients develop the skills they need in the present to reclaim their positive mental health. It is their right as humans and we are privileged to be able to illuminate that path.