When people hear that I now live rurally, they often have a misinformed vision of people taking it easy, watching the waves lap upon the shore, having a generally easy time of it. The truth is that yes, it is a beautiful place – and the pace is certainly slower – but like everywhere else in the world, people work hard and suffer from the same disillusionments, despairs and misfortunes as their peers.
Mental health is something that I’ve always had an interest in because it permeates every area of society. I have witnessed several tragedies resulting from mental health issues and I know that I’m not alone. Whether it is a relation, a friend, a partner, or ourselves, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been affected by mental health problems in some way. But what interests me is how, despite the scope of the symptoms, the general attitude towards mental health problems remains closeted, archaic, and the treatment given is always the same.
At the beginning of this month, I was blogging for the Writers Week literary festival in Listowel. This meant I got to attend plenty of amazing literary events as well as interview some of the writers. One of the events was a talk by Dr Terry Lynch; an avid researcher, practitioner and campaigner for mental health in Ireland who is openly discussing his attitudes to mental health and suggesting where positive changes need to be made. I thought it was an important event worth sharing.
Opening the talk in an open, honest address, Dr Terry Lynch explained, “Mental health is my passion; I could speak about it for hours. I’m an unusual voice in Ireland amongst the medical profession. If I was to sum up my position in mental health, I’d say that a major overhaul is needed from the current psychiatric model. There are many people who agree with me, and they do speak up, but not as much.”
So what does Dr Lynch believe in terms of mental health and mental wellness?
“Mental health is about emotional distress. Communities need to take back, to reclaim and embrace emotional and mental health and the many people who experience it.”
“So-called primitive cultures handle mental health a lot differently and their recovery rates of, e.g. schizophrenia, are much higher. I wondered why – if science is the answer – are we not getting results? My conclusion is that science is not the answer; humanity is the answer.”
So if humanity is the answer, how do we, as a community, embrace the idea that we can change attitudes towards mental health?
“We now have access to so much information; we can access media and create our open media; political, financial, religious scandals have come to the surface because of the enormous access to media.
“Mental health stands out as one area where the public stays misinformed. I see part of my role as a writer and speaker is to set this right. I believe in plain English; and to understand something well we should be able to explain it in plain English. We have a duty to explain it in plain English. We have to accurately define mental health.”
To assist the audience’s understanding, Dr Lynch discussed several common mental health misconceptions.
- It’s a mental problem – Dr Lynch disagrees. It is an emotional issues
- Mental health issues are lifelong – but many people have recovered.
- Mental illnesses are portrayed as brain disorders which are either a neuro-biological disorder or caused by imbalances in brain chemicals such as serotonin – Dr. Lynch said that this has not been established to be the case, and that doctors’ understanding of the brain is exaggerated.
- Psychiatry is the medical profession that most understands the brain – but that’s actually neurology and neurosurgery
- Mental health problems derive from a chemical imbalance – serotonin is used in everyday language but is it understood?
- It’s a genetic illness
- How dare anyone question the science?
Dr Terry Lynch went on to counter these with some mental health truths, including:In public interest, science must be questioned.
- There are no known chemical imbalances in the brain that account or cause mental illness. Have never been confirmed by chemical or laboratory tests.
- In everyday work with people, psychiatrists and GPs never investigate the brain, except to exclude non-psychiatric illness. There are no confirmatory tests. Think of the difference in activity to other wards.
- There is no medication that can replace a chemical imbalance.
- The biological answers are what the medical profession have been focusing on for last 100 years; that’s the hook that keeps us striving to prove it, following the standard viewpoint. But in fact, it’s far from proven. The research undertaken is not objective.
- Medication is medicating human distress and is focusing on maintenance rather than recovery.
- The most common symptom is loss of self: that’s where the drive for the book Selfhood came from.
- There are more than 36 components of selfhood that need to be taken into consideration.
Referencing the familiar saying of putting ‘the horse before the cart’, Dr Lynch explained how in the psychiatric profession, “it is traditional to decide the conclusion before gathering the evidence.”
Using examples from mental health sufferers, he explained, “this is not a mental issue but is about emotional distress; it comes in various forms and needs to be addressed in various ways.” A community-based approach is what he believes will help the situation; a change in understanding, a collective shift in mindset regarding “mental wellness and a focus on recovery, rather than maintenance”.
Dr Terry Lynch went on to discuss various mental health diagnoses such as bipolar and schizophrenia. He also addressed attitudes towards suicide, pointing out that because suicide is such a taboo subject in society, it leaves people feeling suicidal ostracised with nowhere to turn. He also focused on ways in which people can recover, suggesting alternative empathetic and less clinical approaches embracing person-centred coping strategies, humane support and a communal change in belief systems.
The session ended with an address from one of Dr Terry’s patients, thanking him for his assistance over the last four years; a fitting end to a very enlightening and forward-thinking event.
If you’re interested and would like to read more, Dr Terry Lynch kindly completed an amazingly informative interview before the festival. To learn more about his views, research and approach, click on the following links: