I was contacted on one occasion to conduct an assessment and consult with a family in regards to their son who was in his early twenties who had been involuntarily committed by his father to a state mental hospital. As I entered the facility, wondered how any in this place could not feel worthless, depressed, and mad. I entered to meet John. He appeared somewhat lethargic because of the cocktail of psychiatric drugs he was being given, but he greeted me warmly and with a smile. John began to immediately speak and told me how he was an African American infant who when he was around two years old was turned white. (John was quite pale in complexion). He then proceeded to tell me about the mind control he felt he was experiencing, that his freedom was taken away, he could no longer think for himself. I asked him who he felt was controlling his mind. His answer did not surprise me- it was his father. I later asked the mother if John’s father was a racist and if John had been abused. The answer was yes to both; the father had been linked to racist organizations. The abuse began around the age of 2. It was clear that John had a powerful message, though surrounded in metaphor. To the person only wanting to categorize behavior and ignore experience, would they have known what John was seeking to communicate?
I encountered a young man, around 12 years old, who was hearing voices. Prior “treatment” included: prescribing psychotropic drugs to suppress the voices or telling him to ignore the experience. During my consultations with him, I sought to journey with him, to build a connection where he would feel safe to share his experience. The young man heard two voices, one male and one female. And as he began to relate his past experiences and the recent loss of a relative, it became obvious that these voices filled a need in his life. His issues with grief had never been processed and information had been concealed from him; family dynamics are often shrouded in secrecy. He had been very close to this relative. Therefore, it was obvious that he needed to hear from this relative in some way, to know that things were okay. And that is exactly what the young man told me, that this was the voice of that relative. The other voice represented his mother.
In another case, a woman came to me with the thought that she was Mary Magdalene. Many in the mental health system would dismiss this thought, labeling it delusional and recommending that she be placed on an antipsychotic drug immediately. My approach: I wanted to know why this person felt she was Mary Magdalene. What is it like to be Mary Magdalene? Why the need to be Mary Magdalene? Over time, I learned that this woman had used illicit drugs and supported her use through prostitution. Later, she had a religious revival, and felt guilt about her past. Over time, she came to realize why she felt the need to connect with the story of Mary Magdalene; and over time she came to a greater awareness of her experiences and ultimately of herself.
A 16-year-old young man came to see me at the clinic. He was in immense suicidal despair. He explained that his father had been frequently absent from his life, making promises, and then leaving. His father always disappointed him. The father was now being released from jail, and the young man was conflicted as to whether he should once again embark on that path of building a relationship knowing the past precedent. The young man said that his father was a failure and by default, he also was a failure. He had earlier been psychiatrically hospitalized and this only made him feel more worthless and disempowered. The young man told me he went to see many therapists before but he never could be genuine with them or open to expressing his feelings. He said that he felt some spoke condescendingly to him and did not truly care about his experiences. I could understand his sentiment as under the medical model, treatment is about ‘doing’ things to a person, even by force or coercion, to somehow correct an unseen chemical defect in the brain. But to me, treatment is about how we treat others. Treatment is based on interaction, on values, on dignity and compassion. I discussed with the young man his strengths, the absurdity of life at times, the courage he has shown in the face of adversity. He told me that no previous therapist had been so encouraging while also causing him to think and reflect. He entered with gloom; he left with a smile, and with a sense of hope.Another of my clients, related to me about his prior time at a residential treatment center. He said that many of the staff would call him and the other children by obscene names, that he often felt bullied, degraded, and “like I never was a human being”. The father of this young man told me that “you have done more for him in a few weeks than many did in years.” This was a kind compliment, and I was pleased that I was able to make a contribution to this boy’s life; but beyond that, I began to think what exactly was different in my approach with this young man that has allowed a connection to blossom forth to help him progress in a short period that was contrary to what he had received in years of prior ‘treatments’. I found the answer to this in what I sought to create, and I believe this is the key to any genuine emotional healing relationship. I radically tore down the barriers that would separate us. I tore down the hierarchy. I did not bully him or seek to use my position to force or coerce. From the beginning, I informed him that he was in a safe place to be his actual self, a place where he could feel comfortable to express whatever he chose without judgment or hostility. It came to be that whenever crises arose, he would often seek me out.
Many treatment programs today are based on staff being in positions of power over the person and seeking to modify the way the person thinks and feels by a system of manipulations. Those who conform to this are said to be ‘improved’ and are discharged. But I have never seen any real progress come from such ‘treatment’. This is because it was never based on genuineness, it was never authentic. We know that residential treatment facilities are costly and we know that the ‘success’ rates for such programs are very low.
I believe that one role of the therapist that is basically forgotten today is to be an activist. If we truly want to see people happy and free from mental anguish, then we must take a role in championing the basic rights and dignity of all human beings. This activist role has been lost because the current medical-pharmaceutical model in the mental health system would tell us that everything is a chemical problem in the brain of the person. If this is the case, then there is no immediate need to change our environment, or the way our society operates. But it is oppression that truly is at the root of distress for many, and we must address it.