An interview with Dr Terry Lynch (Part 2)

This week, by request, I’m posting part 2 of an interview with writer and leading mental health specialist, Dr Terry Lynch. In case you missed it, you can read part 1 here. (Please note: this was originally written for Writers Week 2012 by Elizabeth Rose Murray on May 24, 2012)

You speak about the ‘mental wellness-illness spectrum’; for people who’ve not come across this term before, can you please elaborate.

Dr Terry Lynch

I believe it is appropriate to consider emotional and mental health as a spectrum, a range, rather than simply two levels, mental wellness and mental illness. As I see it, mental health itself is very closely related to our level of emotional distress, our level of sense of self. There is a wide range within which a person’s sense of self and level of emotional distress may fall. Some people have a very solid sense of self, experience little emotional distress, and consequently their mental health is in a peaceful and generally calm state. Others experience major emotional distress and have little or no sense of self. A significant number of this latter group will have been diagnosed with major mental health problems such as schizophrenia. Between these two extremes, these two poles, there is a wide range of levels of emotional distress and sense of self. In my experience, the lower a person’s sense of self and the higher their emotional distress, the more likely they will become diagnosed as having a mental illness.

You say that words are very important to you. To what degree can words help the current understanding and misunderstandings around mental health?

How we use words is extremely important. I am a great believer in simple, plain English. If you truly understand something, you should be able to explain yourself in plain English. This applies to doctors as well as to others. Part of the reason there is so much mystery, fear and mystique around mental health is that as a society, plain English is no longer our first language in matters concerning emotional and mental health. We defer instead to medical language, medical jargon, and complex words and phraseology creates an immediate hierarchy, where ordinary people, who cannot be expected to understand medical jargon, that the ordinary man in the street cannot comprehend or access, and is therefore disempowered, albeit unwittingly.

In my opinion the use of medical jargon in mental health frequently muddies the waters rather that bring clarity to the situation. For example, if a doctor truly understands depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, he or she should be able to explain themselves to people in plain English to ordinary people. If they cant, then in my opinion this raised questions about their actual level of understanding. One of the main recurring concerns I have had regarding mental health for the past 15 years concerns the repackaging of emotional distress into various categories of mental illness, as mentioned in an earlier question. It is through the abandonment of plain English and the adoption of medical jargon that this repackaging process occurs.  Plain English includes people and promotes equality and transparency. Jargon of any kind may promote exclusivity, and hierarchy rather than equality.

Tell us about your journey to publication: BEYOND PROZAC: Healing Mental Distress and Selfhood: A Key to the Recovery of emotional Wellbeing, Mental Health and the Prevention of Mental Health Problems. Was the experience what you expected and did writing your second publication differ in any way from writing your first?

I qualified as a medical doctor at University College Cork in 1982. I trained to become a GP, and subsequently worked as a GP until the late 1990s. During my years working as a GP, I increasingly came to doubt the soundness of my medical training in the area of mental health. I began to realise that much of what we doctors do in mental health is to reinterpret what people are experiencing, and I became increasingly concerned that the methods of interpretation I had been taught in medical school might not be nearly as reliable in practice as I had been told they were. I had become concerned with what was becoming increasingly clear to me as a considerable lack of true science and understanding to back up the medical approach to mental health.

Once I focused on this, I constantly kept a notepad with me, jotting down ideas whenever they struck me. Gradually the book took shape. My first book Beyond Prozac was first published in 2001 in Ireland, re-published in Ireland in 2005, and was published in the United Kingdom in 2004. The writing process for this book began about 3 years prior to publication, perhaps more. Ten years on, Beyond Prozac has been a best-seller, was shortlisted for the Mind UK Book of the Year Award in 2002, remains in print, widely known in Ireland, and has touched many people and apparently continues to do so. I am humbled and honoured to know that. I certainly didn’t expect anything like the reaction Beyond Prozac received, but this reaction told me something important: that much more such work needs to be done.

I published my second book, Selfhood: A Key to the Recovery of Emotional Wellbeing Mental Health and the Prevention of Mental Health Problems, in 2011. The drive to write Selfhood came from a desire to produce a practical and accessible self-help book for people experiencing emotional distress and mental health problems. The book revolves around one’s sense of self, because over the years I have found this to be a key aspect to emotional wellbeing and mental health (if one has a solid sense of self), and a key aspect of emotional distress and mental health problems (if one does not have a solid sense of self). I wanted to make available a book that would essentially encapsulate how I work, how the process of recovery of self works, and how this benefits our emotional wellbeing and mental health. The recovery of our sense of self is akin to a project, an extremely important project, one that takes time, patience, work, and gentleness. I wanted Selfhood to be a book that people could read, re-read, refer to and learn from, implementing the book contents in real and practical ways in their everyday lives, rather than being a book people read once, said ‘that was nice’, never opened the book again, and having read it, implemented little or no change in their life.

I have been very pleased with the public response so far. Many readers have fed back to me that reading Selfhood it was like reading about themselves. Several prominent UK mental health organisations have spoken highly of Selfhood. While Selfhood is written primarily for individuals, I am very pleased that a prominent Irish psychotherapy journal has just this week  published a very positive book review of Selfhood, in which the reviewer wrote “I strongly recommend it as a requirement in (counseling and psychotherapy) training programmes”.  Perhaps what pleases me most is that I think I have managed to accurately articulate the issue of self and how it applies to emotional wellbeing and mental health, making it understandable for and accessible to the reader.

You take an all-round approach in your work; medical practice, conferences, radio, publication.  What do events like Writers’ Week mean to you?

I am delighted to have been invited to speak at Listowel Writers Week, I consider it an honour. Listowel Writers Week has such a long, solid tradition. I like the breath of books, genres, and speakers involved. It is of the people and for the people, fundamentally democratic, where writers and readers get to meet and mingle, bringing together those who share the love of books, writing, reading, learning, meeting, chatting, dreaming. Wonderful.

You can learn more about Dr Terry Lynch on his website or through his books.

I hope you enjoyed this interview.


Mental Health, Mental Wellness

It’s not just whether the glass is half full or half empty

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?

From Dr Terry Lynch’s Book, Selfhood

“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:

Dr Terry Lynch Interview Part 1

Dr Terry Lynch Interview Part 2