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Mapping the mind

Carol Harper explores how the HG approach can help us to adjust our perspectives and better understand both ourselves and the challenges we face …


Amongst increasing warnings of a mental health crisis, it’s been reported that over 6m people in England were prescribed antidepressants in the three months to September alone.  Lockdown, bereavement, uncertainty and the loss of freedom and control against the background of the wider impact of the pandemic on a global scale have created high levels of anxiety in a population that was promised different outcomes, ill-equipped to cope with the lives they are living now. The same is happening in many other countries around the world.

In recent years, the emergence of mental health difficulties from behind the screen of stigma has been hailed as progress - as indeed it is.  Many thousands have been grateful for a diagnosis to help explain the darkness and distress they experience.  Now, with a mental health service buckling under the pressure, the recourse to prescription medication seems inevitable. 

When we understand mental health deeply in the context of Human Givens, the first truly bio-psychosocial model, it can help us know ourselves, those close to us and our clients.  I recall my astonishment at an early HG seminar I attended, taught by Ian Caldwell (then director of Hartlepool Mind), in which he dismissed psychiatric diagnoses and all they entailed.  Instead, quite simply, we ask: how well are this person’s emotional and physical needs being met in healthy balance; and are they able to access the necessary resources to facilitate this?

"The economic narrative of unending growth ... is at odds with the everyday lives of millions and has left us ill-equipped to manage our anxiety in the face of the pandemic."

It is important that we focus on the ‘social’ aspect of the model with which we work. We have lived in an individualistic culture for the past 40 years or so, during which time people have struggled, maybe unwittingly, against increasing inequality and social injustice, somehow perhaps unconsciously feeling inadequate or to blame if they cannot cope.  For many around the world, including in the UK, basic physical needs are severely lacking, leading to increased emotional distress.  In this country the effect of the pandemic is likely to add significantly to the 4 million children living in deprivation. The economic narrative of unending growth, happiness and success is at odds with the everyday lives of millions and has left us ill-equipped to manage our anxiety in the face of the pandemic.  The author Robin Wall-Kimmerer has said: ‘wealth and security come from the quality of your relationships, not from the illusion of self-sufficiency’.  This encompasses all the relationships of our lives and how we connect to our wider communities.

Across the world today, we see people living their lives against the background of loss: for every one of the numbers of people who have died (both with COVID and without it), there are families and friends who mourn.  Those of us who haven’t been directly affected by death still live with the stories of those losses.  Then there are the loss of livelihoods, freedoms: we have had setbacks, the meeting of our needs has been compromised.  Our nations are mourning.  The DSM-V (the American Psychiatric Association diagnostic ‘bible’) equates normal grieving with major depression.  Perhaps by reaching out to one another we can support and inform:  peoples’ lived experience can, to an extent, be normalised and the current suffering seen as temporary. This, too, shall pass.  The third Monday in January is considered by many to be the gloomiest day of the year: perhaps in our communities we could celebrate it as the turning point!

"We live in an age where there is too much information, less knowledge and even less wisdom ..."

Previously in this newsletter I’ve highlighted the many creative ways people have found to pursue their need for meaning and purpose, particularly in lockdown.  The latest I’ve found involves ‘Living Adventurously’ , a blog by Alistair Humphreys.  His latest venture, spurred by curiosity for what’s on his doorstep, and with more than a nod to climate change, involves his local ordnance survey map, and specifically one he has had custom made with his home at the centre.  He is clear that he doesn’t live in a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty - rather his home is urban; city streets rather than country lanes.  His endeavour: ‘To search closer to my front door than ever before for the things that matter to me: adventure, nature, weather, wildness, exercise, surprises, silence, new people, wanderlust, and curiosity’. 

And this seems to me like a great metaphor for how can live our lives: how we may escape the mundane, rediscover the familiar, engage outwardly in our communities and gain new insights and perspectives.  We need to explore the roads which have led to people feeling unable to cope.  Another author, Elif Sharak*, in a profound little book which emphasises our resource to respond to metaphor and story, suggests: ‘We live in an age where there is too much information, less knowledge and even less wisdom’; and this needs to be reversed.  We are emotionally driven - we need our emotions and instincts to drive us towards creativity and solutions - but we also need to understand ourselves and how easily we are manipulated and overwhelmed, causing us to feel disempowered and hopeless.  Stories help us unravel the complexities of our lives, help us understand and come to terms with suffering; they teach us wisdom.  In crisis there is danger and opportunity.  Buddhist philosophy teaches the inevitability and acceptance of suffering: in failing to acknowledge and accept suffering as part of the human condition we exacerbate it. 

This past year has felt to many at best a challenge and at worst overwhelming: un-precedented, unpredictable, unchartered territory.  High emotional arousal has made navigating the many changes to our lives seem at times impossible; we often can’t see the wood for the trees.  Grasping for the familiar, if we insist on re-treading old paths rather than re-interpreting them or finding new routes, we can get us stuck in mental ruts.  Maybe becoming familiar instead with the maps of our minds, understanding and acknowledging the distress we feel, may help us step forward with confidence.  We can scale the steep and rocky path to the top of the mountain and then notice the many other paths available to us.

It is said the map is not the territory - it can act as a guide but to fully engage we have to get out and explore.
 
*Shafak, E. (2020). How to stay sane in an age of division.  Profile Books (Wellcome Collection). London.
 


© Carol Harper, January 2021

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