Monthly Archives: May 2010

who gets to talk about mental health?

on may 18, i asked here on this blog, on twitter and on facebook what you think i should talk about at the upcoming mental health camp. this ended up being the winner:

who gets to speak up about mental health?

in the process of coming up with a useful definition for mental health, we also realized that there are different ideas who “gets” to have a mental illness and who doesn’t. depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder – all these are “accepted” mental illnesses. but what about the mental health of people with addictions, brain injuries, aspergers or ADHD, just to name a few? are they taken seriously when they speak about mental health? and what about the perceived hierarchies among mental illnesses – from anxiety being “better” than schizophrenia to binge eating disorder being more “noble” than a crack addiction?

so i thought today i’d do a bit of thinking out loud about the topic.

it occurred to me that this whole topic is not just about who, but also about when, why, how and what. today, i want to talk about “who.”

who is perceived to have the authority to speak up about mental health? a story comes to mind told be a clinical psychologist who has supervised and taught other psychologists on an international level. “i used to give talks at hospitals,” he said. “often, afterwards, someone would walk up to me and the first thing they’d ask me was whether i was a psychiatrist. when i told them no, i’m a psychologist, they immediately dismissed me and all that i had said.”

it’s almost funny that even at that level, you can’t win; there is a pecking order wherever you go.

so here’s part 1 of the “who” question:

who gets to talk about mental health? mental health professionals, and if yes, what kind? professionals (or “simply” workers) in the helping profession? people with “serious” mental illness; people with any sort of mental illness; people with addiction, etc.? people whose loved ones are experiencing mental illness? everyone?

part 2 is: who do we get to talk about?

ever been to a psych ward and overheard a nurse yelling across the hallway to another nurse, “you better watch your step with joe, he doesn’t want to take his meds again!” that brings up the interesting question of subject and object. who gets to be the subject – the doer, the talker, the actor – and who gets to be the object – the done-to, talked-about, acted-on? can these roles be interchangeable?

in the next few days i’ll talk about the other parts – when, why, how and what. in the meantime, i’d love to hear your opinion, especially:

do you think that in order to talk about mental health (or mental illness), a person needs to be qualified? if so, what are the qualifications?

mental health: get thee to a spa!

a little guest post by anne from creative fusion about the perhaps unlikely-seeming connection between mental health and spas:

get thee to a spa.

so a friend of mine ordered me several weeks ago.

driving in incessant toronto traffic, organizing mentalhealthcampTO, putting in volunteer hours on another committee, keeping up with the never-ending to-do list of home chores and business administration, and helping to provide care for family members ” all beyond an active work life – had left me spent. let’s just say i had less than ¼ left on my energy gas tank.

the irony of all of this is that i actually work with a spa. i have seen people go in looking tense and emerge looking relaxed, rejuvenated and refreshed. but we don’t always take that time for ourselves.

i have written and communicated about mental illness and treatment issues for 15 years now, so i know that pampering ourselves does not prevent some serious issues from developing.

but being good to ourselves can certainly help to reduce the stress that can build up with everyday living.

kudos, then to your wellness dayâ„¢, an event put on by CMHA vancouver-burnaby branch and the MPA society, and just as many kudos to the companies such as kulture shock who recognized the mental health needs of their staff and supported them by giving them one hour off with pay to attend a spa/salon treatment at one of your wellness dayâ„¢ spa or salon partners.

psychologists, mental illness and stigma

today please visit over at brainblogger, where i talk about research on how some psychologists view people with mental health issues, especially those with schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.  interesting points that are being discussed in the comments are the place of diagnosis and the importance, or limits of, of objectivity.

tony schwartz: the way we’re working isn’t working

the following is an interview with tony schwartz, who you may know as co-author with donald trump in the art of the deal.  tony just came out with a new book which i think everyone who has ever worked (so about 90% of the adult population) should read.  it is called the way we’re working isn’t working.  in susan lyne’s words

for two decades, tony schwartz has been observing and teaching the fundamentals of great performance.  his new book looks at why working harder doesn’t translate to working better.  backed by research and his own case studies, he offers a path to better results and higher rewards that should be hugely valuable to individuals and organizations alike.

isabella: you say that a good way to make deep and lasting change in your life is to create new rituals.  can you give an example in your own life where you have done that?

tony: wow! i actually have a life filled with rituals. i start every day by working out. that’s a ritual.  i begin my work day by doing the most important thing first, for 90 minutes, and then take a break. i take a break every 90 minutes throughout the day. i ritualize 8 plus hours of sleep. on saturday mornings, i sit with my wife of 32 years and we talk: she first, usually, with me listening, and then me, with her listening. building rituals that serve my life well has transformed my experience. my  rituals assure that i do what’s important to me, no matter what else is going on.

isabella: one of your tongue-in-cheek headers is “what do you want, and what will you do to avoid getting it?” i think this is a central question for everyone, whether at work, in relationships, in personal goals or anywhere else.  asking this question point-blank raises people’s hackles; have you found a way to ask this question so that people will actually reflect on it?

tony: well, interestingly, i think that it turns out you’re often better to start by helping people to build behaviors that serve them well ” the sort of rituals i’ve described above.  and then, almost inevitably, they’ll run into unexpected roadblocks and resistances.  that’s the opportunity to start exploring what’s getting in their way, because then you’ve got the energy of a person’s frustration working for you.  this helps explain why i believve that enduring change is ultimately a blend of many approaches: deepening awareness, cognitive work around the stories we tell ourselves, and explicit work aimed at changing specific behavioraa.

isabella: the idea of rhythm and balance (e.g. spending/renewing energy; work/rest; right/left hemispheres) is central to your book.  it reminds me of one of the seminal early new age books, george leonard’s the silent pulse. are you familiar with his book, and if so, could you touch on one or two areas where you have similar or different views?

tony: george leonard had an intuitive sense that building a rhythmic life rather than a linear one was the way to go.  he  was a lyrical writer, not a researcher.   what i’ve tried to do in the way we’re working isn’t working is to really lay out the multidisciplinary evidence for the fact that we’re designed to be rhythmic  and to really show how this works across all dimensions of our lives. physically, we need to balance rest and movement, eating and not eating, waking and sleeping. cognitively we’re at our best when we learn to move flexibly between left and right hemisphere dominance. spiritually we need to balance taking care of others with truly taking care of ourselves.

isabella: you propose that awareness has three dimensions:  “how long is your perspective? how wide is your vision? how deeply are you willing to look?”  how did you develop the idea of these three dimensions?

tony: most of us have a very narrow, superficial, short-term perspective built around avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. it’s our evolutionary inheritance. we want, above all, to survive, and reproduce, and not to be in discomfort.  awareness ” consciousness ” is an evolutionary leap, and it’s a capacity that separates us from every other species. we’re the only ones with the capacity for self-consciousness — reflection about ourselves. with that in mind, the question become “how spacious and embracing is my awareness?”

there are only so many ways to answer that. you can have a wider vision, which means more inclusive. you see your connections to others, and you’re capable of empathy.  you can also have a longer perspective, meaning the ability to see beyond your immediate needs and preoccupations. that’s possible only when you learn how to delay gratification, which is an extraordinary ability, and also the key to doing almost anything enduringly meaningful in your life.

and finally, there is depth.  most of us live at the surface, focused on the external world and how we’re managing it. depth is about interiority isn’t it? it’s about the willingness to look within, to peel away the layers, to overcome our infinite capacity for self-deception.  the whole journey really starts with depth, because depth is about working your way towards your ground, past the layers of conditioning, and reactivity, impulsivity and rationalization, defenses and blaming.  depth is what makes life rich. it frees up the ability to take a broader and a wider perspective.

isabella: below are two other quotes from your book that i found interesting.   do you have any wise words on them that you may not have been able to include in the book?

“we tolerate extraordinary disconnects in our own lives, even in areas we plainly have the power to influence”

tony: this goes back to our instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  one of the shocking truths about a really satisfying life is that it necessarily involves pain ” the pain of growing, of pushing past our limits, of seeing through our delusions, illusions and premature conclusions.  when the researcher anders ericsson studied violinists at various skill levels, all the violinists agreed on one thing: practice was not only the most important single thing they could do to improve as violinists, but also the most difficult and the least enjoyable.  that helps explain why so few people achieve greatness.

“meaning and significance are a unique source of energy that ignites passion, focus and perseverance”

tony: well, meaning is a big subject, but there is a simple answer here.  when something really matters to us, we bring vastly more energy to it.  many of us spend our lives trying to please others, or live up to some external standard.  that’s not nearly as powerful a source of motivation as simply loving something for its own sake, regardless of what anyone else thinks.  i feel exactly that way about all of the ideas i’m talking about here.  it gives me joy every day of my life to engage with them, and to share them, and to believe that they have the power to improve people’s lives.

help me! what should i talk about?

raul and i are gearing up for vancouver’s second mental health camp, the conference about the intersection between mental health and social media.

i’m hoping to give a presentation there. last time the topic of my session was blogging yourself home – using blogging to find a voice, a place, a community.

would you help me decide what i should talk about this time?

we have a topic – it s “breaking our silence. setting us free.” the idea is that silence is a form of stigma, and in order to break free from it, we need to speak up.

with that in mind, i have come up with the following topics:

12 steps online and anonymity
12-step programs are an important part of many people’s recovery. there is alcoholics anonymous, gamblers anonymous, overeaters anonymous, alanon and naranon (for people in relationships with people who drink or take drugs), etc. there are many strong online 12-step groups. the backbone of the 12 steps is anonymity. in their case, it is silence about certain things that sets them free. how does that work? what are the drawbacks?

mental HEALTH – are we silent about it?
there is mental illness, and then there is mental health. in a recent blog post, we started making some inroads into investigating what “mental” health means. one definition we came up with was that mental health is “authentically felt wellbeing in all aspects of one’s inner life and behaviour.” the practice of working towards this wellbeing is something that is alluded to here and there but no-one takes it really seriously. people are constantly encouraged to work towards their physical health through activities such as taking up jogging or eating healthy foods. but when has your boss asked you lately to get a yoga teacher to help you destress or stop drinking coffee to improve your anger management? it’s just not happening. as bloggers and social media people, we often write about great ideas to manage our mental health, but what’s happening in the real world?

is all this social media really setting us free?
social media requires quite a bit of time and commitment. would people with mental health issues be better off using their time away from social media?

bloggers break the silence
for this session, i would survey and report on some mental health bloggers to see how they have broken the silence, and how that has set them free.

who gets to speak up about mental health?
in the process of coming up with a useful definition for mental health, we also realized that there are different ideas who “gets” to have a mental illness and who doesn’t. depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder – all these are “accepted” mental illnesses. but what about the mental health of people with addictions, brain injuries, aspergers or ADHD, just to name a few? are they taken seriously when they speak about mental health? and what about the perceived hierarchies among mental illnesses – from anxiety being “better” than schizophrenia to binge eating disorder being more “noble” than a crack addiction?

action!
this would be an action-oriented workshop, similar to the social justice session at northern voice. what can participants do within the next little while, concretely, that will create more “voices” for people with mental health issues, or make those voices more effective?

okay, people, help me! which presentation should i make?

may 2010 buddhist carnival

callirgraphy: zen art

it’s a day late but here it is: my monthly buddhist carnival, serving up interesting little tidbits from the buddhist blogosphere.

we always start with a poem.

how bitter, how blue is the anger!
at the bottom of the light in april’s atmospheric strata,
spitting, gnashing, pacing back and forth,
i am asura incarnate

this is the lament – or perhaps just observation? – of kenji, one of japan’s most celebrated poet. he was a staunch follower of nichiren buddhism who has been accused by some of seriously fanning the flame of japanese imperialism during world war ii. this article by hiroaki sato at the asia-pacific journal provides an interesting insight into japanese culture and history and its connection with buddhism. a great article, and also one that dispels the idea that all buddhists are gentle and ever peace-loving. in addition, this essay is also a thoughtful reflection on the difficulty of translating japanese poetry into english.

buddhism and mental health: PTSD

since this month is mental health month, i’d also like to refer to at least two posts that talk about buddhism and mental health. at wildmind, we find this:

in northern india, the tibetan government in exile has been taking care of monks and nuns who have been brutally tortured by the chinese before they managed to escape to safety in india … there is no ability to provide the years of psychotherapy that might be necessary. the only hope for these people was to create a program of relaxation and meditation that could be taught in a group setting.

… the tibetan program was so impressive to researchers that a group from columbus, ohio, decided to try it out with women who had experienced domestic violence and other similar traumas. the group worked with the institute of buddhist dialectics and devised a program of short lectures and twice daily meditation. the results? significant reduction in overall PTSD symptoms, increase in positive emotions and reduction in fear, shame and sadness. many of the women continued to experience an overall benefit 365 days after the program ended and also experienced improved overall functioning.

(i’ve abbreviated some of this, hope that’s ok, wildmind people)

buddhism and mental health: the pros and cons of meditation
here is a mental health blog from singapore. it’s always nice to find blogs from non-western countries! he offers three different points of view on the usefulness of meditation when dealing with mental health challenges: meditation is definitely useful; meditation retreats can be harmful to some participants’ mental health; and meditation is useful, as long as it is undertaken with the help of a mental health professional.

the neurology of dualism

from mental health to neurology, not too much of a jump. travis eneix makes a very good point about accepting the concept of dualism for what it is:

the neurological structures of the brain are specifically evolved to give us the sense of being separate from our environment. it is an actual felt experience that what you feel as you is separate from things beyond the sensate barrier of touch, and therefore not-you.

with this simple knowledge, hard won by dedicated and caring scientists over the years as knowledge itself evolves, we can immediately take that feeling of separation into account not as a mistake, but as a useful tool for navigating our lived experience. instead of trying vainly to be rid of that sense, which if you listen to the non-dual teachers none of them are, you can view the sense as simply that, a sensation.

open source buddhism

something that travis and i have exchanged a few messages about is open source. the idea of open source has fascinated me for quite a while (actually, i’m surprised i haven’t written much about it. a little bit is here) so i was interested to find this site on open source buddhism. here they explain what it is:

a key component of open source is peer production. this is a form of joint collaboration by groups of
individuals. it relies on self-organizing communities of individuals who come together to produce a shared outcome, result, or product.

this same style of organization, as well as the philosophy behind it, can be applied to buddhism as well. we are living in an era where we have access to extant forms of buddhism and the records and documents of many forms that do not survive in a living form today. for those of us who are converts to buddhism, we do not have a vested national or cultural reason to embrace a specific form of buddhism over another. if one is thai, for example, it would make sense that the thai form of theravadan buddhism would be embraced and followed as a practitioner. …

as a european american, it does not necessarily make sense to embrace a very culturally entrenched form of buddhism. people do this and, for example, take tibetan names, where tibetan clothes, and generally embrace a culturally specific form of buddhism. this is definitely one possible path. an alternative to this is to look at the various forms of buddhism, evaluate the teachings and practices of them, and to work with those aspects that make the most sense within a non-buddhist culture without the history and relationship to buddhism that other nations and peoples already have. …

this is not a call to abandon traditional forms of buddhism but is, rather, a decision to not necessarily be limited by boundaries or practices simply because the form of buddhism practiced in a specific region or period had these limitations.

more about buddhism and open source here.

how important is enlightenment?

all of us who have spent some time hanging out with the ideas and practice of buddhism have thought about the place of enlightenment in our lives. here’s how one buddhist teacher, amaro bikkhu, talks about it

we developed a tradition of having a winter retreat during the cold, dark months of january and february. about three weeks into one of these early retreats, i was working very diligently and was extremely focused on the meditation. i wasn’t talking to anyone or looking at anything. every lunar quarter we would have an all-night meditation vigil. this was the full moon in january. i was really charged up and was convinced, “okay, tonight’s the night.”

want to know the rest? go here.

the importance of immediate response

from inexhaustible things:

someone said, “if you give a man a fish, you’ve fed him for the rest of the day. if you teach a man to fish, you’ve fed him for the rest of his life.” whose idea is this? does it match your own circumstances right now? is this piece of wisdom the rule for every instance? how would you behave if it was?

regardless, i responded: if you see someone who needs to be taught to fish, teach him to fish. if you see someone is hungry, feed him.

life can be this simple.

i don’t know what to add.

zen and calligraphy

having started with a poem, let’s end this edition of the buddhist carnival with another view at a creative endeavour: calligraphy.

on sunday chozen-roshi, co-abbot of great vow, gave a wonderful talk pointing out the variety of lessons we can learn from brushwork. the main point that stood out to me was how a skilful calligrapher is attention to each brushstroke, finishing each cleanly and starting each freshly. there isn’t regret, “oh, that stroke was all wrong. i should just give up.” in a similar way a student of zen is attentive to each moment. she also pointed out in calligraphy the delicate nature of various pressures. at times only the thin delicate tip of the brush makes a mark. at other times one presses the whole brush on the paper. in a similar way to live our lives skilfully we learn when to press harder and when to let up.