Moving Away from the Psychiatric Paradigm: The Importance of Supports and the Emergence of the Wellness Models

This is written by Grainne Humphrys a wonderful friend who does this work in Ireland. This is other work she’s contributed on this blog.

Good supports are crucial for people in distress. People with good supports usually fare better than those with little or no supports. What does this say? It indicates that as human-beings we are interdependent. However our western culture and society promote independence and the modern bio-medical mental health system, with it’s professional barriers and reliance on medication as the sole solution, promotes distance and dependence. Neither is healthy. What we need to strive for is compassion and interdependence.

Peer support aims to strike this balance with it’s emphasis on interdependence as a core value. Wellness models, like Renew (formed here in Ireland) promote wellness, recovery and thriving. These models go beyond recovery to making thriving a reality. These approaches are led by an underpinning philosophy that mental and emotional distress is a human experience which should not be used to define an individual, nor does it warrant a medical label.

Here are the value statements of Renew;

  • We believe that the experience of psycho-spiritual distress is fundamentally a healing and renewal process and not an illness. Renewal is an ongoing process and a natural part of life. Illness is created by the ways in which we mismanage our distress.
  • We believe in supporting each other to find methods and resources that will help us through our experience of distress. We can find opportunities not only to grow and recover but to thrive.
  • Renewal is about reclaiming our personal power, cultivating our awareness and connecting with our own inner wisdom. Healing is aided by trying to make sense of our distress and life experiences.
  • We believe in interdependence. Isolation and stigmatizing often accompany experiences of distress. Parts of the journey can be very difficult. We can give each other strength by sharing our friendship, experience and hope. Renew is a caring community of equals.
  • We aim to connect with others in our communities that broadly support the common values stated here. These may be people who can offer health or caring services. In addition we hope that this contact will work towards removing the unwarranted fear and stigma that is attached to people in distress.
  • Renewal is best supported with attention to all facets of our being; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
  • We foster awareness of the barriers preventing wellness and thriving.
  • Renewal is a process involving breakdown, breakthrough, and break-out.

The biggest barriers we have to overcome are fear, discrimination and prejudice. The wall of silence that many experience and encounter in society fuels this fear. People in distress are still very much misunderstood. In the words of John Weir Perry “I really do feel ‘chronic schizophrenia’ is created by society’s negative response to what is actually a perfectly natural and healthy process.”

New emerging groups like Renew view distress as this natural process that it indeed is; as transformational crisis and as a process of renewal. We are a growing collective of visionaries who call for the non-medicalisation of human suffering. We view madness as meaningful. We challenge coercion and reject the reductionism of biochemical/ genetic theories of distress. We are unhappy that very often the emphasis is on mental ill health rather than wellness and the fact that the services remain predominantly medical model. We want to move away from the psychiatric paradigm. We campaign against de-humanizing ‘treatments’, like ECT, for example.

I can now bring in a more personal strand in saying a little about my own experience and journey through depression, or sadness and terror and my partner John’s experience and journey through schizophrenia, or altered states and extreme states of mind.

My experience was responded to in a wellness context whereas John’s was responded to in an illness context. My supports were very good and strong and many, John didn’t have any supports. My experience was responded to with Love, John’s experience was responded to with Fear.

My experience was viewed as transformational crisis and as process of renewal by my family and by supportive friends of my family. I was fortunate in that I was taken to a progressive psychiatrist who supported these views. My family were tolerant, loving and patient. They, and everyone around me, fed me with a diet of hope. John was signed into hospital, put under section, told he had a ‘chemical imbalance’ and told he would need medication for the rest of his life. In short, he was given no hope and hope is vital and integral to the recovery process.

It took me three years to fully recover from my experience and go on to thrive without any medication and without any further need for the mental health services, though I continued with psychotherapy. It is ten years ago this year since my breakdown (breakthrough, break out!) John has been involved with the mental health services for over seven years and has to date spent over four years incarcerated in Carraig Mor treatment centre, (the last two without release) is on four different meds (with debilitating adverse effects) including a depot shot and is described as ‘chronic’ by the consultant psychiatrist. He has experienced profound lonliness, isolation, terror and an array of disturbing side-effects from the major neuroleptic medications, such as, turning bright yellow from liver damage, akathasia (severe restlessness) tardive dyskinesia/ involuntary movement in his jaw, he suffers from extreme dizziness, severe anxiety and all his teeth have rotted due to the continuous use of largactil. There is no rehabilitation team in place for long-term residents. John very often just spends his days sleeping off the effects of the medications. He has been merely maintained and contained.

However I am pleased to say that he seems to have turned a corner just recently but it has been a long haul. I often wish there had been better supports in place for John so he could have gone through his experience in a more humane environment. Sadly and shockingly, John’s story is the story of many young people who have had trauma in their childhoods and then have an overwhelming experience in response to that trauma and then find themselves trapped in the net that is bio-psychiatry. I was fortunate to be priviliged with an education and a financially and emotionally supportive background when I had my crisis. Our socio-economic background can deeply influence the response we get to our experience of crisis. My Mother was empowered enough to question the so-called experts and protect me from becoming maintained and contained, John’s Mother gave her power away to the ‘professionals’ who care less about John and more about protecting their position.

I need to clarify that the level of trauma that John endured as a child was far more severe that what I went through, so his coping strategy was more extreme. I come from the more typically common ‘enmeshed family’ system whereas John comes from the less frequent ‘highly defensive’ family system. All these factors are so often over-looked yet they are central to the root cause/ underlying trauma. It seems tragic to me that those who need the most support in society very often get the least. Our society fails to acknowledge trauma survivors and would rather label and pathologise human distress. We don’t like to look trauma in the eye. Why do you think this is? Just a question to be thinking about. we need to ask ourselves; why, as a society, are we so afraid of the full emotional experience? Why are we conditioned to devalue our inner emotional life, as children?

John now views his experience through the ‘illness’ lens whereas I view mine through the ‘wellness‘ lens. However, I do believe that each person has their own way of interpreting their experience and making sense of it based on their given set of circumstances. I respect that everyone has their own journey through. My point though is that the response one gets to their distress may influence how it becomes integrated, processed and interpreted into one’s experience. To my mind the illness model takes longer to disentangle oneself from than the wellness model, because of the added layers of medication and pseudo-science which denies the original trauma. As I state in my ‘Acknowledging The Survivor’ paper, the trauma survivor is silenced three times; firstly by their family, secondly by society and thirdly by bio-psychiatry.

For more of Grainne Humphrys work see here.