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Posts Tagged ‘mental health services’

Burne Jones and WIlliam Morris 1874Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher, and a successful author. His books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth” have been devoured by a worldwide audience in search of that intangible “something” that is missing from our lives. Tolle brings together insights from all the world’s religious traditions and, for me at least, his success lies in his non-religious, transcendental approach to matters of mind, body and spirit, also to his humility and his engaging sense of humour. It’s no secret that Tolle has suffered from depression and anxiety, no secret either that his success is due also in part to the way he has dealt with his own mental illness.

In a society built on rationalism, determinism, and materialism, people who are mentally ill are not seen as reliable witnesses to the facts of life, at least not usually by those who control the gateways to employment, and financial remuneration. But if we think about it for a moment, the statistics suggest one in five of us have or will suffer from a mental illness. Then, since 80% of mental illness goes undiagnosed, this suggests very nearly one in five of us doing valuable work right now is already mentally ill, yet managing to hold the place together somehow – so we can’t be that unreliable either, can we? What’s even more interesting is that by implication, statistically, probably one in five of those people who hold mental illness low regard, are themselves mentally ill.

As a student in England, Tolle, suffered terribly from feelings of anxiety and depression. One night he lay down so overcome, he told himself he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly, this is the fate of many – an illness held in secret, ending suddenly with a tragedy that leaves others shocked by its unexpectedness. But what happened to Tolle was not what usually happens. He experienced an inner separation and an insight that was to be the catalyst of his life’s work. I’m paraphrasing here but he asked himself something to the effect of: who is the self that cannot live with my self any longer? The self he could not live with, he concluded, was the bit he associated with the pain, the egoic self. And he reasoned that the essential part of “Tolle”, indeed of all of us, was something else, something above, and not part of the pain.

He went on from this potentially fatal moment to become a teacher, counsellor, and an engaging life coach to millions. His teachings are all over the place – on Youtube, in books, DVD’s, lecture tours. I find in them much that explains the highs and lows of the lives of human beings, but the story of Tolle is itself an inspiration, demonstrating that mental illness does not invalidate anyone from playing a constructive or even a leading role in society.

Yes, we’ll sometimes have a hard time from ignorants and materialists who think the brain is a computer made of meat, and that a part of our brains have gone rotten. But our brains are not rotten. You cannot diagnose mental illness from a brain scan. Our brains are like everyone else’s. There are no bits missing. What mental illness does, however, is it puts us on the edge of something, thrusts us into the depths of an unknown, even at times a frightening inner realm, but the stories we bring back from that place are important – not only for our own healing, but the healing of others like us. So tell the Internet your stories. Use your creative faculties.Get a blog, get a Flikr account, and get busy.

I spoke last time about the three vessels of being – the physical, the mental and the spiritual – and how attention to any one of them can help maintain the others and restore us to ourselves. Creative expression is very much concerned with the mental life, and is the most natural channel for the otherwise jagged and ferocious energies of mental illness. So many artists and larger than life celebrities are mentally ill, yet they are also possessed of the most remarkable abilities. So, write it, journal it, paint it, doodle it, tell it in poetry, sculpt it, and learn by it. Through creative expression we turn something negative into something positive and, as we give external shape to what has up ’till now been only an internal, mental thought form, we realise it is not who we really are at all, that pain. It dwells within us, yes, and it looks like that, but it is not who we are.

The search for who we are is the same as the search for our life’s meaning, whether we are suffering from a mental illness or not. But that you suffer can be interpreted as a sign you sense there is something vital missing from the world, that your inability to fit in with it is more a reluctance to dance with a partner who is not of your choosing. Again, one in five of us will at some point suffer from a mental illness. It is not our fault if society has difficulty in accommodating that fact, or in facing up to the question it begs regarding the nature of society, and the direction it is moving in. But neither can we blame society for its ignorance if we do not tell it how we feel.

Do not say how can I live with myself? but say instead who is the self that cannot live with my self. And in separating yourself from the pain, go seek instead the self you want to be.

I leave the last word on this to Eckhart Tolle:

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bearded man 2Men are not alone in suffering from mental illness, but the fact they do suffer is effectively suppressed by everyone in society, including the men who suffer. There is a stigma about it, the result being men deny the facts and are afraid to seek help. There are of course many forms and degree of mental illness, not all of which end in tragedy. But all mental illness, especially if borne in silence, will not only thwart the life chances others take for granted, but it will deny us even the basics of a happy life, one lived without the daily fear of some imagined calamity.

When we suffer from mental illness we become emotionally useless to those around us, also angry with ourselves for being “weak”. There is also a mysterious energy about it, and if we don’t take steps towards healing, it will form itself into a powerful vortex, sucking us down into an ever decreasing spiral, diminishing our chances of ever getting on with a normal life. We may begin to self medicate with alcohol or other drugs, self harm, manifest irrational, compulsive behaviours, and in the worst of cases begin to think suicidal thoughts.

It’s a remarkable fact that throughout all of this we will appear to be functioning well, turning up for work, doing a decent job, smiling, being nice, and bringing home the bacon. But it’s a mask. We are skilful at evasive tactics that get us through the day, avoiding the trigger situations we associate with our anxieties. All of this comes before we seek help, if we ever do – and 80% of us don’t. When we eventually stop functioning, we do so suddenly, catastrophically, and no one, including us, sees it coming. The really sobering fact here is that mental illness is not rare. It’s very common. One in five of us is suffering, right now. It’s just that nobody ever talks about it. How crazy is that?

So what do we do? Well, like all illnesses, much falls upon the sufferer to acknowledge the problem. Everyone experiences lows in life, but they pass. Mental illness is different. It settles in. If you’ve been feeling inconsolably down or on edge for months, let alone years it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor. That’s the litigiously-aware, super-sensible advice – go speak to your doctor, because what the hell do I know? But the reality of state primary healthcare services is that the time, sympathy and understanding one needs to sort things out properly will most likely be lacking. If you’re lucky you’ll get a hastily scrawled prescription for anti-depressants, and a referral to psychological counselling. The waiting time to your first session will be in inverse proportion to how much you managed to frighten the crap out of your doctor with what you told him, so don’t hold back because you need that referral, and you need it fast!

But sadly, again, the cash strapped reality of public mental healthcare is that it can backfire when you feel you’re not being given the necessary face-time with a competent or at least half way human counsellor, that you’re not being listened to, that indeed you never see the same counsellor twice in a row, that you feel you’re being fobbed off with drugs that aren’t right for you, that your regular sessions are broken up by spurious cancellations on their part, when, if you miss a session yourself, no matter what your excuse, you’ll be kicked into the long grass and left there to rot.

Then, those anti-depressants become your only hope, and are not to be sniffed at as they enable one to keep going without taking time off work, and more importantly having to explain why. Me? No, I’m fine! Just a touch of flu. But they don’t work in all cases, didn’t work for me, turned me into a zombie and robbed me of sleep for weeks on end. It also gave me pause how relaxed my GP was about putting me on them for life, careless of the risk of serious side effects and little or no supervision. But if you’re in a situation where you’re thinking of taking your life, they might just save your life and you’d be unwise to reject this option. It’s just that when we’re suffering from mental illness, we don’t always act wisely. We react instead to fear and to the isolation imposed on us by that illness.

Because of my  negative experience with mental health services, I’ve always been leery of the long term medication route, also guilty of labelling mental health care professionals (unfairly) as lacking empathy and being ruled by the same tick box culture as everyone else these days, merely there to fudge you off their books as a successful intervention with the minimum of time and effort, because time and effort costs money – and there isn’t any. Instead I became a lone survivalist, hunkered down in my flimsy home-made refuge with a handful of improvised weapons to keep the demons at bay. But they they bought me time, and time and effort is what it takes. There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves, and a lot of free information online these days to demystify those demons.

So ask yourself this: do I want to get better? The answer might seem obvious, but some of us are so benighted and so closely identified with our illness, we lack the mental focus to even understand the question. Once we accept the need for healing though, then proper healing can take place, but it won’t come solely through the intervention of a healthcare professional, or from out of a blister-pack. These are merely some of the tools at our disposal, to be used wisely and mindfully – mindful of the fact that even a doctorate in psychology does not give the other person a clear window into your head.

Mental illness is different to other illnesses; it does not attack the body directly, it attacks the soul and its methods are as unique as we are. Indeed it uses us to attack ourselves. It confuses us into thinking we are nothing more than the pain we feel. Unfortunately the defences we can deploy will seem as bizarre as the illness, indeed they will require the adoption of a frame of mind as irrational as the malaise under which we labour. Therefore, again, we encounter an internal resistance, because the possession of even the knowledge of such techniques is a tacit admission of the need to deploy them in the first place.

Such is the bind we find ourselves in! But anyway,…

As a first step we must dis-identify with our illness. The pain, the fear, the debilitating isolation, the strange compulsions, the damaging thoughts. These things are not who we are, they are just thoughts. Even if they threaten to kill us, they are still merely the things we suffer from. If we can find the space within ourselves to step back and say: no, I am not that, then we’re already moving in the right direction.

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