“I believe [negative thoughts] can be recognised as the sometimes random ticker tape message of the brain”
The following interview was carried out between myself and a Psychotherapist named Dan. I ask Dan about his ideas surrounding issues in mental health, and he responds with his own understanding and experience of such issues, as well as his views on how they might be tackled; through the arduous yet beautiful task of letting feelings flow.
The conversation on mental health has come a long way, but there’s still a lot more to do. How do you suggest we can best move forwards?
I believe that the conversation has to incorporate more than just a narrow, medically-based interpretation of mental health difficulties, which is what we have at the moment.
Although the medical framework can be helpful, we need to understand more about mental health in terms of human experience and start a frank conversation about the difficulties of existence as a human in an imperfect world, using a brain that sometimes behaves in a difficult way.
What does stigma mean to you? How has it affected you?
There was, and still is stigma within my family around mental health, and although I feel I can rise above this largely, it is sometimes difficult to escape the gravity of family-held beliefs.
What is the most common mental health stigma you have come across?
I feel that a big stigma relates to mental health difficulties being seen as ‘people’s fault’ when they experience it, and I think this really increases fear in people experiencing difficulties, but also in society more broadly. I believe that stigmatising in this way originates from a fear of mental health difficulties within those who stigmatise (e.g. ‘It would never happen to me …’)
How can we work together to normalise mental health?
I believe we need to promote the idea that everyone is on a mental health spectrum and that, just like physical health, we will all inevitably be subject to difficulties at some point in our lives.
Who are your role models in the field of mental health?
Paul Gilbert (founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation), who I believe has a good and thoroughly researched grounding in some of the mechanisms and difficulties that we can experience with our, in his phraseology, ‘tricky brains’.
Professor Green has also done some fantastic TV work in being open about his own mental health difficulties and exploring this issue generally.
The UK is currently in a mental health crisis. What are some ways we can help tackle it?
I believe that this lies in firstly addressing mental health funding, which seems to be only paid lip-service in terms of will to address by the current government.
Amongst other things, I believe that the more complex task of addressing inequality and social support would also help things drastically, as inequality drives up societal stress in general as the middle-classes scramble to hold onto their position and the most vulnerable feel the full force of the lack of a safety net, with huge widespread mental health impacts.
What are the most important factors in combatting and preventing mental illness?
I believe that the most crucial factor is in an approach that tries to do the opposite of combatting, as I believe this leads to a narrow, fearful based existence in which we are trying to only experience emotions that we like – not very realistic!
Accepting the complete range of our experience – including some of the most difficult emotions – is key.
How do you go about practising self-care? How did you learn to practise self-care?
Meditation / mindfulness as well as focussing on allowing feelings to flow when occurring. Learnt through therapy, but the mindfulness method through my own trial and error, finally discovering a way in which I could ‘let go’ mentally and physically.
My belief is that the methods need to be different for each person, particularly in trying to ‘let go of thinking’, which is extremely tricky.
How can one combat negative thoughts?
I don’t believe that they can be ‘combatted’ as such, but I do believe that they can be recognised as the sometimes random ticker tape message of the brain, and that we have a choice about how much significance we attach to any thoughts that arise.
How do you suggest one can provide helpful support to someone struggling with mental health problems?
I think that listening, and simply being there as much as is possible, is the most important factor. I believe that people experiencing mental health difficulties can often feel disempowered or shamed by the sometimes panicked ‘overload of advice / help’ reactions of those around them, even if these are well-meaning. It can be very powerful to ask someone calmly about their experience and help them to explore their options for help.
What would you say are the best things to do for someone distressed or on the verge of a panic attack?
Grounding (i.e. focussing on the body and/or physical objects within the environment) and controlled breathing can be very effective, especially if pre-rehearsed as a ‘mental drill’.
Also, access to psychoeducation so that the person knows that it is their body’s threat system kicking into action, and that, contrary to thoughts or bodily signals that might arise, they are not in danger.
If you struggle with a mental illness, what is something you wish people would say to you if you told them?
It will pass.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the most common form of talking therapy in the NHS. What are your views on CBT?
Like most approaches it has some incredibly effective uses, however used in the wrong hands it can be reduced to a shame-provoking experience with people coming away with a map of their ‘dysfunctionality’. All therapeutic approaches are open to misuse!
Where do you stand on the use of online therapy?
I think it can offer individuals who might not be able to access face-to-face therapy (for a variety of different reasons) an opportunity to experience therapy. Obviously the questions of confidentiality and safety take on a different slant with this medium.
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular as a therapeutic method. What is your experience with mindfulness? How has it helped you?
Mindfulness seems to be a crucial component of our mental health, and I believe that this is borne out by research into its effects on the brain. Paul Gilbert speaks more broadly about the ‘Soothing Compassion system’ as a major emotional mechanism, and I believe that mindfulness taps into it. I have personally found it extremely helpful for myself.
My one concern is of its use for groups (e.g. in schools) by people untrained in mental health and trauma. Although well intentioned, a ‘bit of mindfulness’ as a group exercise can potentially trigger those with PTSD into flashbacks and terror, and the person leading the exercise needs to know how to help these people deal with this.
What helpful and unhelpful mental health advice have you come across?
I believe that the most unhelpful advice always stems from the camp of ‘positive thinking’ and ‘stiff upper lip’ (sometimes combined), which revolve around ignoring feelings.
The most helpful involve feeling feelings – allowing them to flow – and knowing how to do so in a safe way.
What advice might you give to someone struggling with their mental health?
Talk to trusted people and seek advice – knowledge and sharing can go a long way to helping reduce fear and stigma.
I am currently researching and writing articles exploring further the ideas and topics which Dan has talked about here. If you have any questions, comments or relevant stories you would like to put forward, please comment below or send me a message.
Picture credit: Anthony Gerace