Creative Mental Health: Ireland

    Creative Mental Health Author Roberta McDonnell, information card for proposed network, Creative Mental Health Ireland.

Something of a paradigm shift is underway in the mental health field, as I discussed in a recent post  about new thinking in psychiatry. Though not a psychiatrist, I have many years of experience as a mental health nurse and health researcher, some of which were spent with people suffering in acute wards, at other times alongside those struggling to invoke recovery in a community setting. These experiences, along with many other studies, can be read about in my current publication Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014). Without exception I observed honest, courageous people using many creative means to rebuild their lives and a strengthened sense of self, finding to my amazement and delight that many other researchers and service user activists were describing similar findings and experiences. It was, then, with further excitement, that I came across the work of Professor Ivor Browne in Dublin and beyond.

Professor Ivor Browne

In Music and Madness, we get a tremendous insight and an engaging story of how life experiences, in combination with with a very creative and fearless thinker, brought the somewhat maverick but highly effective psychiatrist to carry out the extensive work of support, reform and community development that he has accomplished in Ireland and beyond, a legacy which is still vibrant and still very much in the making. As a citizen-wide mode of mental health promotion, community development is essential and shifts our thinking away from a culture of individualised pathology and into a sense of the relational nature of humans – we make each other and we make ourselves, it’s a dynamic, two-way process. I am planning future posts that will be based on interviews with people involved in community arts, mental health promotion and recovery support. In the meantime,  enjoy Professor Browne’s work through his books and some interesting programmes from RTE on the history of mental health care and treatment.

 

image of book cover

Music and Madness by Professor Ivor Browne

How we can improve the mental wellbeing of young people

Anj Handa at Anj Handa Associates writes about the need to improve on the mental wellbeing of young people. I couldn’t agree more and would add a few points: I worry though that society is focusing too much on diagnosing and medicating young people and not enough on dealing with the social conditions that could have an impact on growing the positive mental health of citizens. Very interested in positive mental health promotion, especially for young people and I believe it to be bound up with strong self-esteem and a vibrant society full of opportunities for people of all abilities.

Anj Handa

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A shocking report published recently by The Prince’s Trust revealed that one in five young people is suffering from mental health issues. Tragically, it also highlighted that long-term unemployed 16 to 25-year-olds are twice as likely as their peers to have be on anti-depressants and believe they have nothing to live for. This number equates to around three quarters of young people.

Now, leading Mental Health charities, such as Rethink Mental Illness, the Mental Health Foundation and Sane have joined the debate, saying that not enough is being done on mental health for young people and that lives are being put at risk. They have called for more training for teachers and GPs and for awareness to be raised among parents and teenagers to be able to spot the signs.

Personally, I feel that awareness-raising is crucial, but that we also need to equip young people with the tools to…

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Breaking Real: Reflections on complexity and paradox in ‘Breaking Bad’

Promotional image in a threatening stance of the two main characters Walt and Jessie in the television drama 'Breaking Bad'.

The image above is referenced from a post by Leonard De Lorenzo on the Notre Dame University blog, an indication of the extent of interest and depth of debate going on about this deeply engaging drama, even as far reaching as theological circles.

We received the box set of ‘Breaking Bad’ Series 1-4 as a Christmas gift and it has turned out to be the biggest time bandit of my life this decade. I am no stranger to excuses to procrastinate the evening away but our nightly sessions with ‘Breaking Bad’ have turned into something of an addiction! And none of the kids even bother now to book the television after 7.30 pm as they know Mum and Dad will be glued to the screen. So I keep asking myself, WHY???? Why has this drama gripped my imagination to the extent that I am throwing all my time management habits and new year resolutions out the window? There are several possible answers to that question.

Lorenzo’s analysis of the draw and relevance of the show cites Pride as a major theme, leading to increasingly elaborate schemes of lies, deception and self-pity. He goes on to point to the other two main foci as Responsibility and Social Connectedness – no one is an island and Walt’s dilemma is continually re-enacted in his conflicted concerns about his own standing vis-á-vis the needs of his family. While these points are certainly valid, I feel there is more to the alchemy of the show and of course I will suggest that a Depth Psychology perspective can open this up.

Depth of Character

Firstly I think it is the depth and complexity of the characters. They pull on every emotion and frailty as well as strengths and attributes. Unlike the sometimes superficial, uni-dimensional figures in some of the material presented to us through the media, who are either a good character or a bad one, we can identify with the chaos and muddle of many of the players in Breaking Bad. Fear for the welfare of our children  and a desire to do the best for them may sometimes conflict with meeting our own perhaps long unmet needs and secret desires. It is this kind of existential crisis that sparks off the whole rollercoaster ride of Walter White’s descent into a world of deceit and scullduggery, not to mention extreme danger. For me this points to a potential understanding of many of the social issues that are, in the mainstream mentality, seen to be located in the ‘disordered individual’ or ‘criminal mind’. Not making excuses for evil-doing such as aggressive drug pedalling, and drug addiction is certainly a social ill, but perhaps if we understood the root causes to be more social and cultural than individual, we might be more effective at primary and secondary prevention?

No-one knows the moment when the tide of life might turn from the ordinary everyday to extraordinary nightmare. From seemingly everyday family life and trivial irritations (such as Walt’s frustrated genius and resulting irritability and like Skylar’s arguably patronising and disempowering style with her husband and son early on – note the scene with the veggie bacon and the conversation where Walt asks her to ‘just for once, get off my ass’)- the drama quickly moves on and each character is thrust into immeasurably scary life events that call forth a whole myriad of unexpected depths: Skylar’s infidelities and shifts in loyalty and occupation; Walter Junior’s struggles with identity, loyalty and the right-wrong continuum; Hank’s macho exterior alongside a deep affection for his family and his own vulnerable psyche and struggles with fear and panic; Jessie’s self-hating loneliness and attempts to curb it through reckless behaviour and substance abuse.

Now all this would be hard to take in large doses if it were not for several other features of the show. As far as humour goes, some of the temper tantrum and irritation scenes with Walt and Jessie are hilarious but I have to lay my vote on the funniest and most well acted character of them all – the colourful lawyer Saul Goodman, whose vocabulary and stock phraseology are unsurpassed. In terms of the background music, again the variety in style and the tongue-in-cheek relevance of many of the chosen songs would justify a thesis of its own. But of all the addictive factors of the drama, I believe it is complexity and paradox as central themes that are, for me, the major hooks.

Complexity of Themes

Where to begin? It’s all there….

– unconscious drives, unfulfilled needs and emotional blindness that lead to the slippery slopes of grasping and denial, as Walter makes one disastrous decision after another, then attempts to justify and distract himself through projection and obsessive rituals (including the chemical process which he seems to worship like a religion). It must be said here that we are only halfway through the third series and thus I am blind as to the final outcome – no spoilers thanks 🙂

-the power of money to enable or corrupt, its role (or lack of one) in human fulfillment and how it can rob us of real meaning-making in our lives, yet we all know we need a certain amount to get by and to raise our children. I love the old adage that goes something like: ‘Money is a good servant but a terrible master’.

-the way in which perception and thinking can gradually become grossly distorted over time. An example is Walt’s wife Skylar, whose first reaction to Walt’s secret drug business is horror and anger, yet she begins to come around to the idea of using the money for Hank’s physical therapy, justified by incorporating a sense of Walt’s initial motivation as being a desire to provide for his family in light of his originally terminal cancer diagnosis.

-the fuzzy boundaries and cultural relativities in concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, and the growing awareness that each individual person harbours potentials for all of these aspects of human behaviour, given any number of possible sets of circumstances conducive to desperation. There is also allusion to certain possible hypocrisies such as violence being justified in one context and not in another. I find myself lurching from sympathy to disgust and back again during the course of the narrative and in relation to all the characters (with the exception of Hank – for some reason I see him as the only really decent person so far, personal opinion and stand to be corrected).

-We are also challenged by these characters and their actions to examine really big issues about modern society and how it repeatedly fails people in terms of nurturing self esteem and opportunities for self actualisation. Social justice and its relationship with social ills such as drug addiction, drug dealing and corruption in high places are deep themes here I think, as is the microcosm of society which is the nuclear family. There are hints that Jessie, for instance, had been labelled and treated as a disappointment at a young age, resulting in a rebellious turn and a lapse into drug abuse, becoming increasingly alienated from his frankly obnoxious parents.

-Essentially I see the story as being all about paradox: humans are complex mixtures of selfishness and altruism, hawks and doves, creativity and destructiveness, all the archetypal forces of the Universe. Jung recognised this as the core of human maturation – making contact with all aspects of ourselves, including the Shadow and the Trickster, reining them in, taming them and channeling their energy into constructive and creative living and relating. The late great Dr M. Scott Peck provided invaluable knowledge and insight on the need to accept paradox and work with it rather than live in denial of our innate humanness, and if we don’t do this we live then in denial and become ‘People of the Lie’. This is essentially where Walt started out on the wrong foot – heading down the path of increasing denial and lies. I’ll be hooked ’til the end, I hope and dread but won’t stop watching.

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Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time.

This post from Mark Dotson’s Depth Psychology blog Soul Spelunker was reblogged on my own blogger site a few months ago, as I found it helpful in my attempts to understand existential and phenomenological psychology (I don’t pretend to have totally grasped it even yet, but I think I’m moving in the right direction!).

Lived experience is a concept gaining ground in mental health research. It is, however, not easy to define. In the post linked above, I found some helpful explanations of Hegel and  Heidegger’s vision of ‘being’ in terms of organic and developmental processes. Rather than the dominant approach of subject/object division, the concept of Dasein reflects a more holistic state of being in the world. From this theoretical stance it is then possible to discuss lived experience as an investigable phenomenon and so drive forward a more humanistic approach to research, evaluation, practice and policy.

Other authors whose work on ‘meaning making’ added to this repertoire included Rollo May,

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

Eric Maisel,

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

and Arthur Kleinman.

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

My motivation for this search for understanding comes from my background in qualitative research and mental health. The concepts of ‘lived experience’, ‘ways of being’ and ‘phenomenology’ or ‘worldview’ were already firmly planted in my mind from anthropology and ethnography. The fact that humans ‘make meaning’ and form cultural matrices within which to affirm and manifest our existence had also taken root, mainly during the interpretive analysis of my fieldwork and other research material.

Most recently I have discovered the work of Mick Bramham in existential phenomenological psychotherapy, work which has really cranked up my understanding of these concepts by at least ten gears. I do encourage anyone interested to visit that site and to look as well at the work of Rollo May and Eric Maisel.

For any researchers seeking a theoretical and methodological approach that focuses on lived experience and making meaning, I recommend beginning with anthropology and in particular with Arthur Kleinman’s The Illness Narratives.

Happy Reading 🙂

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