Mental Illness: What’s Really Going On

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World Mental Health Day was October 10th, last week was Mental Illness Awareness Week in the U.S. and the month of October is Depression Awareness Month. What I find offensive in all of these titles is the implied “defect” in those with a mental health diagnosis. Are we really talking about mental health or mental illness? It’s clear to me that mental health has become a euphemism for mental illness, and in terms of the “illness” part, it’s a concept I don’t really believe in.

For far too long, people have been operating from the medical model of mental disease and we need to tell a different story. I despise this “prevailing wisdom” locked in mainstream conversations about mental and social distress. The people diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety are not broken; they do not have a disease. What they have is trauma, disconnection or both.

I wish psychiatry would stop labelling and drugging people who are perfectly capable of learning better coping strategies with the proper support and education. I have been a student of the late William Glasser for longer than 30 years and he was one of the first to swim against the current of the medical model by speaking of true mental health, not illness.

In the ‘60s, he began teaching schizophrenics how to behave “normally” to get the things that were important to them. He understood that the nonsense of chemical imbalances, diagnoses and medication were inaccurate at best, and downright diabolical at worst.

When a clinician takes the time to really listen to a person who has created adaptive behaviors that resemble what is defined as mental illness, that clinician typically finds childhood trauma in that person’s history. Childhood trauma is something huge that happens in the lives of children who have no power over it and no behaviors to manage it. This trauma can be debilitating, but children are incredibly resilient.

Children have incredibly creative brains, making them able to adapt to their circumstances. Even in horrific circumstances, children can come up with behaviors that help them through trauma when no outside help is forthcoming. These behaviors are often generated subconsciously, so the child is unaware that they are creating behaviors to help them cope with the reality of their lives. The behaviors do help and are quite effective, so they become reinforced and over time, develop into neuropathways—most commonly called a habit.

It’s not about what’s wrong with them; it’s about what happened to them.

Psychiatrists have long hypothesized that brain chemical imbalances must exist in the brains of people with these ‘disorders,’ but they have not been able to find evidence of this in more than 30 years of looking for it. No reputable psychiatrist actually believes in these chemical imbalances anymore; however, many are still telling their patients they have chemical imbalances and will therefore need their prescription medications for life.

Enter big pharma. Pharmaceutical companies found major profits in prescribing drugs to this population of people: people who needed to develop creative behaviors to help them manage the trauma and disconnection in their lives. These drugs are called antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, stimulants, anti-anxiety medication, central-nervous-system depressants for sleeping, substance-abuse medications and cognitive enhancers. I am not a doctor and am not giving medical advice. However, I’ve learned from reading and speaking with doctors who have critically reviewed the research that placebo studies show the placebo group receiving the same benefit as the experimental group, when neither doctor nor patient know the conditions and the placebo causes dry mouth. No difference!

When you are taking medication and believe it helps to soothe feeling tortured by your own behaviors, a quick, feel-good fix might feel like enough. But I implore you to look beyond the drug for answers. It is designed to help you feel better, just like heroin or cocaine. You will likely feel better, but the drugs will not help you find connection or move beyond whatever trauma you may have experienced. However, if feeling better is all you want, please be cautious should you get to a place and time when you decide you no longer need your medication. Remember that chemical imbalance you didn’t have? After repeated psychotropic drugging, you have created a chemical imbalance. Your brain is seeking homeostasis. When you add artificial chemicals, it will stop producing its own so there isn’t a surplus. When you stop taking the drugs, your brain has a drug-induced, chemical imbalance and you may experience severe psychiatric-drug withdrawal symptomatology, indicative of the disorder you didn’t have that the drugs were supposed to correct. Doctors will use this as the justification for the drugs and tell you that you will need to be on them for the rest of your life. This is a lie.

For this reason, you should never stop your psych meds abruptly. Please read psychiatrist Peter Breggin’s book, Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal, for more information on safely tapering off your meds to prevent the horror of this dangerous withdrawal.

What you need instead is an understanding of what happened to you… what you developed this behavior for and why it may have worked for you. Once you have that conscious understanding, you can decide if it is still working or if you would like to create different behaviors and habits, which you are perfectly capable of doing.

The final task, and perhaps the most important, is learning to connect in healthy ways to the important people in your life and yourself. You don’t need drugs and no hope. What you need are paths to healthy relationships and recovery from trauma. You are not broken… you can heal yourself once you know the truth.

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