Mental health problems are a growing public health concern. More than ever before, it has become a topic of great interest with better discourse and coverage in the media.
Health services in Britain are struggling to cope with the demand for services. It is encouraging to see several community initiatives (e.g. Heads Together) aimed at breaking the silence and stigma around mental ill-health.
But, can we be hopeful that good mental health can be experienced and enjoyed by everyone?
As a junior doctor, I developed an interest in psychiatry. I wanted to connect with people and alleviate their psychological suffering. Alongside my studies and training in clinical psychiatry, I got drawn into the world of personal development and self-help. I was looking for better answers to the age-old question of how best we can manage psychological pain and suffering.
I felt that something quite fundamental was missing in the way I was trained to understand and ‘treat’ psychological issues.
I had tried my best to be a psychiatrist focussed on the recovery of my patients, working on people’s strengths and holding hope for them. I tried to apply my coaching skills at work albeit with limited success. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for people and shared their sense of hopelessness.
I didn’t believe everyone could recover. I wished they would, but I saw them as ‘PSYCHOLOGICALLY BROKEN’ given their prolonged ill-health, lifestyle issues and their inability to function independently. After all, some of the people I was working with had major mental illnesses and had been unwell for a long time despite receiving ‘evidence-based treatments’ of the time.
I didn’t have any easy answers to their problems! My search for that elusive ‘missing link’ continued.
I finally came to the understanding of Innate Health and Resilience (The Three Principles, as described by Sydney Banks). During a coaching session based on this understanding, I woke up to a fresh insight that gradually transformed my practice of psychiatry and how I would subsequently see people with issues of the mind. I was shocked to realise – that I had been trying to fix something for my patients that was not even broken in the first place.
Thankfully, now a majority of my clients recover with minimal or no psychotropic medicines or intensive psychological work.
The term ‘psychiatry’ was coined by Johann Christian Reil, a German physician and literally translates to – medical treatment of the soul. That’s certainly a tall order, but worth bearing in mind.
I’d been reflecting on some of the greatest myths about mental health that I had fallen for in the past.
Here are my 5 greatest myths about mental health
Myth #1: Mental illness is the absence of mental health.
One of the commonest myths is that people with mental illness of any kind lack mental health and those of us who are lucky enough not to have attracted a diagnosis of mental illness (yet!) are enjoying good mental health. The assumption is also that mental health is never static, that it is ever-changing.
When people say mental health is never static, they perhaps refer to our variable states of mind and human experience. States of mind are never static. That’s part of being human. On a single day and even in a single hour, we can have a range of experiences and emotions. However, mental health is innate, the same in all of us and doesn’t change.
What I refer to as innate is formless and hence spiritual in nature. Some people call it a higher self, the infinite intelligence behind life, universal mind or our true nature.
Whether we consider ourselves spiritual or not, most of us are familiar with the feeling that there’s more to life than what meets the eye. Similarly, there’s more to mental health and resilience than what traditional psychiatry or psychology can explain.
However, our mental health does seem to vary depending on our states of mind and level of understanding. It is impossible to experience a deeper level of peace and wellbeing all the time. At times we can be so overwhelmed and consumed by our distressing experiences, that we stay in a lower state of mind for longer than we would like to.
However, what I refer to as ‘innate mental health’ does not leave us, even transiently. It merely gets buried under the rubble of personal thoughts, beliefs, and personal experiences. Hence, even when people appear mentally ill, at their very core, they are still perfectly mentally/psychologically healthy. They may not feel it, believe it or know it to be true.
Myth #2: If you have a mental illness, you are psychologically broken and need to be fixed.
I was very fortunate to have worked with a wise and compassionate psychiatrist as my training supervisor. Once he shared a story about a patient who’d told him: “I am schizophrenic” to which my supervisor responded, “I have come across a lot of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, I haven’t met a single schizophrenic!”
About five years ago, I had the privilege of meeting another wise and accomplished psychiatrist, Dr. Bill Pettit. He states with a degree of conviction:
“A diagnosis describes where you are, not who you are.”
A psychiatric or psychological diagnosis label can’t be your real identity. It’s only a headline banner encapsulating the symptoms/signs that come with various distressed mental states. When society understands that fact, more will realise that they are NOT their clinical labels and that recovery is indeed possible.
If we focus solely on the diagnosis and the symptoms of mental illness, we make the grave folly of attempting to ‘fix the person’ as if they are psychologically broken (the way I did early in my career!)
Of course, many people experience crises with symptoms of mental illness that may necessitate medical treatment for relief of symptoms. However, if we can spare a moment to look people in the eye and know that beyond their fears, their suffering, symptoms, behaviour and experience, people can never be psychologically broken – that they were already whole at a fundamental level, we can hold real hope for them.
The next time you hear someone say they are personality-disordered, bipolar, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, alcoholic, addict and so on, notice if you can see beyond what they can see for themselves. Try and separate ‘the label’ from who the person truly is.
Myth #3: Our past determines our present and future mental well-being.
Our past has power only to the extent that we believe it has. A few years ago, when working as a psychiatrist in the NHS, UK, I used to run a six-week course on stress and wellbeing alongside an individual who had lived experience of mental illness. Once, I met a lady who told me that she could never be well again as she had suffered abuse when young; she said she was having regular flashbacks of traumatic memories.
I listened to her and said: “I’m truly sorry to hear your story. It must have been horrendous when it was happening. No one can say it (the abuse) didn’t happen or that you shouldn’t have flashbacks. However, you need to know that the abuse isn’t happening now – it happened back then. Your flashbacks or memories of what had happened are thoughts at this moment conjured up by a powerful mind and consciousness. The past is over!”
She looked stunned, went quiet for a moment and said, “No one has ever said this to me before.” She came back the next week and said our short conversation had helped. She said she had some flashbacks, but they weren’t as intense or frightening. She realised that she didn’t have to take her memories of the past seriously as they were her thoughts ‘in disguise’. The lady thanked me, and we hugged!
At the time, I had only just come across the understanding of innate health and resilience. I had shared what little I knew, but even that short conversation gave this person a fresh perspective about her flashbacks and what they really were. Until then, she was held back by her belief that she could never be well.
Some of us had experienced sad, traumatic experiences in the past. And, many of us have had a fair share of life events or losses that we didn’t wish for. It’s important to understand that the past is over – it’s an illusion in the present. The past isn’t real at this moment, but it can seem very real. The future too is an illusion; it isn’t real, but it seems so depending on the thoughts we may be entertaining about the future, at the moment.
Let’s wake up to the fact that –
Myth #4: More complex your mental health issue, more complicated are your treatment needs.
I recall sitting in monthly case discussion meetings in my old job as a rehabilitation consultant psychiatrist in the NHS. Almost every patient would be described as complex with a lot of complex needs, most of which couldn’t be addressed satisfactorily no matter how hard we tried. A senior member of the team would begin: “He (the person being discussed) is quite complex.” We would then talk about someone else, and they would say, “This person is complex too”.
Some days I would sit there thinking that if someone had examined my life, choices I had made, my personality, my ever-changing states of mind, my habits, they would describe me as complex too!
The point I want to make is – when we think of someone as ‘complex’, we tend to over-think. We look for complex solutions.
I had supervised a junior doctor who used to make time to cook meals with a few of the lads in my rehab unit. They used to look forward to it. A staff nurse who had years of experience practicing yoga and dance would give individual lessons to whoever showed an interest.
I used to run laughter yoga (an adapted version) sessions for my patients and staff. They used to love it, to see their psychiatrist ‘acting silly’ and being light-hearted. In those moments, there was no them and us. We all felt connected and shared some good feelings.
At the time of connection and light-heartedness, people’s complex stories and our views of their stories seem irrelevant.
It’s time to shift the focus from what’s different for each of us to what’s common and fundamental about the human experience.
Myth #5: You need to master a strategy to be mentally healthy and stress-free.
Can you recall the last time you felt at ease without needing to master or practice a strategy?
Do you think you can honestly say, “I feel at peace” without resorting to ‘doing something’ to experience that state of mind?
I used to think that for me to feel peaceful and be stress-free, my life had to be going a certain way, or I had to practice a self-help strategy. Now I realise that I had fallen for another myth – that I always needed ‘to do’ something to be mentally healthy and at peace.
It’s not uncommon for my clients to say, “I feel at peace with myself for the first time in years” after they start gaining insights into their innate health and innate resilience.
However, it’s usually a different story when they first come to see me – their state of mind can be anything but peaceful. There’s usually a lot going on in their lives. They are affected by stress – from demands at work, difficulties in their relationships, issues with health or financial worries.
I’m yet to come across anyone in my practice who hadn’t tried their best to cope using means available to them at the time. But, despite using different tools and strategies, most don’t seem to experience the peace of mind that they seek. In fact, all the trying can make them feel overwhelmed and sometimes worse.
What if we are already mentally healthy and free of stress at a deeper level?
What if by trying hard to fix the way we feel, we only get in the way of our psychological system spontaneously healing and self-correcting?
“Okay, great!” You may say, “Right now my life is pretty stressful. What should I do to access my ‘innate’ mental health?”
There is nothing specific to do but to only understand…
We understand best when we access our own insights (sights from within) about the principles behind innate health and resilience rather than when we intellectualise this understanding.
As Elsie Spittle puts it so eloquently:
I invite you to explore a simple but profound understanding of the power of thought and how the mind works. It may help you find the answers you’re looking for…
Michelle (name changed to maintain confidentiality) came to see me for work-related stress about a year ago. She was on sick leave and was struggling to cope. After a few sessions with me and learning about innate health and resilience, Michelle gradually started to improve. Recently I contacted her, and this was what she had to say:
“Things have been very different for me since I learned about the Three Principles/ Inside Out (understanding). My thoughts flow in and out, and I don’t take notice of them these days. I initially came to you really stressed in my job. At first, I was too scared to make a change, my thoughts were still in control.
“I wasn’t ready, but after a while, I decided to just go with the flow and try something different, whatever happens, it is all life experience. What will be will be… I have learned that I could do anything and not be afraid or get lost in the thoughts of what might be. My family life is also so much better; I have a great relationship with my daughter now. Learning about my thoughts have definitely made me a better person. Life is good. Thank you so much, Rani.”
Are you curious to get a glimpse of what Michelle had learned that transformed her life?
If yes, here’s a FREE sign-up to access the recorded videos of an introductory talk I had given on the subject of innate health and resilience. I’d welcome your feedback about what resonated with you most.
If you can think of anyone who might also benefit, please support by sharing this post.
Until next time…