A Crazy Camp Idea

By Will Meecham

If you’re interested in more of Will’s work I highly recommend his blog, WillSpirit, where he explores growing and wellbeing after recovering from a traumatic childhood.

A Crazy Camp Idea

What if instead of psychiatric hospitals, we created spirit-healing camps?

Not long ago I wrote a post proposing that Mental Health Day be renamed Spiritual Health Day. In that essay I explained how it seems to me that spiritual malady would be a more accurate and less damaging label than mental illness. With that in mind, I submit we should work to create crisis centers that nurture the soul.

Whenever people felt crushed by unrelenting sorrow, or burned with too much energy for normal life, or heard persecuting voices, or felt like God’s chosen child, they would be offered escape to a pleasant retreat in the countryside. Once onsite, they could work in an organic garden, or staff the stables, or help build a new lodge. They could ride horses, paddle in canoes, and play frisbee on the lawn.

They could come and go when they pleased. They would learn about the brain, and about psychiatric problems, but they would also hear how mental conditions have been positively viewed by other cultures. They could attend meditation sessions, practice a spiritual tradition if they chose, and they could make art of all kinds. Groups would play music and sing in the evenings. There would be no television, and no computers, but lots of books and endless craft supplies.

The tenants could choose whether to stay in dormitory-style lodges or camp alone in the wild. They would be encouraged to keep regular hours, to exercise, and to participate, but they would never be coerced. And each day a bus would arrive to bring in newcomers and let those who wanted to depart go home.

Those who felt in contact with mystical forces would be guided by spiritually advanced peers who had passed through similar gates. Those who wanted to talk about their problems could meet in groups. Others could journal on their own. Attendees would learn about the inspired but troubled minds of Mozart, Lincoln, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Plath, and many more. They would be taught to harness the positive aspects of their condition and minimize the negative. They would be guided by others like themselves instead of ‘normal’ professionals. A prerequisite for employment on the grounds would be direct experience with personal or familial psychiatric distress.

Medications would be available, maybe, but they would be voluntary only, and prescribed by doctors who understood the dangers of pharmaceuticals. There would be just as much emphasis on bodily as on mental care. Aerobics, yoga, Qi Gong, running, and many other physical activities would be offered. The camp would emphasize good food, socialization, and fun. At the same time, anyone who needed solitude could readily find it.

People would be asked to securely store their valuables prior to entry, so there would be no concern about theft or jealousy. And if anyone became unacceptably disruptive, the worst consequence would be a bus ride back out.

Perhaps this sounds too utopian to ever be realized, but there have been several programs along these lines over the years. Unfortunately, few have persisted and the model has not spread. The Quakers rejected dungeons in favor of humane asylums long ago, but in an era when few knew how to manage powerful mental states or transform them into positive experiences. Nowadays reimbursement issues and the dominance of drug companies have produced the modern mental ward, complete with little paper drug cups and heavy steel doors.

The new model might succeed where earlier experiments broke down, because it would emphasize management by those who had been through psychic torment but grew beyond it. This would not be a paternalistic asylum, but a fraternal refuge. The staff would not be guards, but guides. Without enforced confinement, with little reliance on drugs, and in a rustic setting, costs could be minimized.

Perhaps I’ll be accused of living in a dreamworld, but the vision of a naturalistic healing center has been on my mind since childhood. Why must mental health care be administered in sterile hospitals? It’s not like psychiatric problems are transmitted by germs.

We don’t lock the grieving widow in a mental ward because she feels overwhelmed by sadness. We take her to a chapel, surround her with friends and family, and honor her departed husband. When people die we use the inevitable emotional turmoil as the pivot for a ceremony calling Grace into the world.

Or consider that when people feel powerfully moved at weddings we don’t hand out Ativan; we encourage the full expression of Bliss.

When emotion occurs in a group setting it becomes a shared and sacred event. Even tragedies like earthquakes and terrorist attacks bring this quality to light. Look at the rituals and monuments built around 9/11.

So why can’t we use the same tactic to deal with the isolated breakdowns and breakthroughs that occur sporadically every day in every culture? Why not emphasize the power of these experiences rather than their pathology? Why not offer the suffering a setting where they can be safe while they rattle their mental cages and seek a path toward peace?

Mental turmoil can be used as the base metal for an alchemical transformation of spirit. Agony can turn to insight with the right support. Maybe what I’m suggesting isn’t the best answer, but to me it sounds better than Bedlam.

After a traumatic upbringing, Will Meecham, MD, MA studied ecology, zoology, biophysics, neuroscience, medicine, ophthalmology and reconstructive surgery. In 2000, neck disease prevented him from continuing to work as an oculoplastic surgeon. He spent many years in emotional, intellectual, and spiritual exploration, investigating how people cope with childhood trauma, adult disappointment, and mental distress. He now works as a physician acupuncturist, specializing in the promotion of mental wellness. More of his writings can be found at his personal website and blog, WillSpirit.com, and his acupuncture practice is explained at MarinMedicalAcupuncture.com.

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