The Wisdom of Personal Stories

The 18th century philosopher, Rousseau believed that we are different than all other animals because of what he called our perfectibility.  We are capable of developing and changing.  The gift of possibility is there for us throughout our lives.

Neuroscientists have now recognized that the brain keeps growing. Just like other muscles, we must use it or lose it.  It always has the potential to change and grow regardless of our age or condition. This concept – neuroplasticity has finally achieved some mainstream credibility. Humans are a work in progress.

From antiquity to the present day, madness has stubbornly resisted numerous and varied attempts to unlock its unwelcome grip on human beings. Historically, people who experience extreme mental and emotional states, struggle not only to find their way, but even more so from having to endure harmful treatments. Too often, desperate, ill-conceived attempts to control, prevent, and eliminate this frightening and confounding human condition (many times more disturbing to those around them} have resulted in severe and painful damage to the minds and bodies of people whose voices, rights, and feelings are scorned.

Until the latter half of the 20th century, knowledge of madness was the exclusive domain of the professional observers and treaters of madness. By virtue of being mad, a person was deemed to be without credibility and unable to contribute any meaningful knowledge to help understand madness – their own and others.  But the compelling need to give testimony to what one has experienced and witnessed has defied all attempts at suppression.  A vast store of once rarely read first-person stories bears witness to the need to reclaim their voices and find a way to speak of their own hard fought for wisdom.  I wonder why so much useful information that comes from their lived experience does not get used and valued.

How can mental health professionals understand complex life stories, when they are content to work with stereotypes – categories (diagnoses) that are used to explain what we do and who we are?   I see too much value given to simplistic formulaic responses that are revered as evidence based treatments. I think we can guard against going off course by looking at how people live their stories.  What do people do when unfolding events do not match the script that they and their families planned and envisioned?

A friend, who is a lawyer, well respected for her mental patients’ rights work, condensed her personal work philosophy into the four following statements:

1) No matter how messed up people are, force and violence and coercion usually make things worse.

2) No matter how messed up people are, almost always they will have a pretty good idea of what they need and what will work for them, and since most treatment is guesswork and the best treatment involves respectful attention, mental health treatment should aim its guesswork at respectfully attending to what the person says he or she needs and working with them on that.

3) Leaving people in the places where they live and where they have natural communities is almost always going to be better than locking them up in places like hospitals, where the primary goal is going to be the maintenance of order and control  (no crying, no sobbing, no raised voices, no being really upset in mental institutions).  I think institutions and the practices they breed, like seclusion and restraint are fundamentally inhumane, and they don’t help people get better.

4) The worst thing that can happen to anyone in severe emotional distress is to be labeled a mental patient.

People need safe affordable places to live, educational opportunities, friends, intimate relationships, to have families, raise their children, get jobs that give them the chance to advance and be able to see the future with hope and optimism.  We need communities that can tolerate, no better I should say appreciate and benefit from difference so that those who look act or perceive differently, can still find a community or social network of their choice where they can be fully integrated and valued.

Mental health services are most useful when there is a collaboration where growth and development permeates the relationship — where there is respect, dignity and equality.

No one is immune to the physical and emotional pain of living.  Such is life and perhaps especially so in these times that we live in.  Who would not want a quick fix…a pill…a strategy – one that works quickly with no ill side-effects …. one that would not interrupt the pursuit of our potential or corrupt our values?

Human growth and development thrives in an environment where there is support, encouragement — and a dynamic balance of risk and safety.  When there is no clear evidence of  harm to others, the quest for identity, authenticity, and the struggle to realize and act upon one’s potential should be a right for all.