3 Major Reasons a Paradigm Shift in the Way We Think About Mental Health is Required

by Dr David Spektor

For a long time now, our society has had a tendency to medicalise people’s misery. We have looked at suffering, and drawn a conclusion that people who suffer emotionally must be ill. Just writing that, it seems implausible. Implausible that someone loses a child and we can diagnose them with persistent complex bereavement disorder, or that someone witnesses or experiences a horrific crime and we call them disordered when they have post-traumatic stress. Implausible that we don’t label the thing they witnessed or experienced as disordered. We have it so backwards, and it means we lose our compassion for people and the amazing fact that by suffering, we are simply showing the beauty of our humanity, as well as our capacity for love. This latter sentence may seem bizarre but that in itself demonstrates why a paradigm shift is desperately needed.

1. The beauty of our humanity is lost in the current paradigm

Often when I am sitting with a patient, and they are in deep suffering, I am in awe of them. I am in awe of their capacity to love and their capacity to feel. Sitting with a depressed patient, I do not experience the individual as ill. I experience them as deeply loving and in suffering as a result. For example, I have patients who were abused, neglected and/or tortured and consequently they live life in fear of connection and attachment. This seems rational, predictable and logical considering their experience. They often go about the world in a depressed state, and how do we understand this depression? Do we medicalise it, or can we see it as a state they needed to go to survive their early life. All of us are born with an instinct to attach to our caregiver and we do this via our love. We do whatever we can to maintain this attachment. We depend upon this attachment to survive. When the attachment figure is the abuser, it does not pay for us to express anger, it pays us to spare the loved figure our anger so we can maintain the relationship. Instead we learn to turn the anger inwards on ourselves. And consequently, what should be “they are bad” becomes “I am bad.” There is a sadness in this, and a life of suffering ahead, but when looked at in a non-medicalised fashion, there is also beauty and strength in this. The individual has such a deep love for the attachment figure that it spares them their anger, and instead turns it on themselves. Witnessing this “gift of love” is truly awe-inspiring and demonstrates the internal strength and capacity of the person I am working with.

In therapy, we have to heal in love what was damaged in love, and to truly do this, we need to be able to see people’s suffering for what it actually is, and that is very simply — just a human response.

2. We lose sight of what we all share

3. We label disordered that which is most human

A solider returns from war, after witnessing the worst of humanity. On arrival, he finds it hard to acclimatise to civilian life. He experiences flashbacks, nightmares, increased startled response, avoidance of anything related to his experience. There is overwhelming guilt and a desire to distract via destructive means. This is labelled as abnormal, and the individual is seen as disordered. What he was sent to do, and witness is not labelled as disordered — he is labelled as disordered. I would argue his response is clear evidence that humans are not supposed to see such atrocities, and his response is his humanity, and his love for his fellow man. And yet, we call him disordered.

Dr David Spektor is a clinical psychologist. He’s the director of Psychology Care and a lecturer at the University of Melbourne