The following interview with Eleanor Longden, who is well known for her Ted Talk and her activism in the psychiatric survivor movement, is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that I’m currently conducting on my Psychology Today blog Rethinking Mental Health. To see the full interview roster, please visit http://ericmaisel.com/interview-series.
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Interview with Eleanor Longden
EM: Can you tell us a little bit about your story and your journey?
EL: When I was a teenager at university, I began hearing a single, neutral voice that calmly narrated everything I was doing in the third person: “she is going to a lecture,” “she is leaving the building.” Only the messages didn’t stay passive for long. That day was the beginning of years of nightmarish voices, visions and bizarre, terrifying delusions that drove me to self-harm in desperation, and led a psychiatrist to remark that I would have been better off with cancer because “it would be easier to cure than schizophrenia.”
Essentially I was diagnosed, drugged and discarded by a system that didn’t know how to help me. A major turning point was encountering individuals from the Hearing Voices Network, who were willing to acknowledge and understand the experiences of trauma and abuse I’d endured as a child and young adult, and how these horrors from the past were still being enacted in the present. It was a long, torturous journey, but once I started to interpret my terror and despair in terms of what I’d survived, I could begin to recover: that my so-called symptoms of schizophrenia weren’t random products of a chemical imbalance, rather meaningful messages from my mind about the unbearable things I’d gone through.
I now have an exciting, enjoyable life as an academic and international speaker, have no contact with mental health services, and haven’t taken medication for nearly ten years. Although I still hear voices, I now accept them as part of myself. And just as I’ve come to terms with them – the experiences they represent and the messages they were trying to communicate – they have transformed in character. Today they are guides and allies, not tormentors.
EM: You advocate for “recovery-oriented approaches” to dealing with so-called “serious mental illnesses” and with trauma. What do you mean by a “recovery-oriented approach”?
EL: Recovery is a fundamental human right, and while there remains a great degree of pessimism about the capacity of people with ‘serious mental illness’ to recover, the evidence shows that this is simply not true.
A recovery approach, from my perspective, is holistic, person-centred, solution-focussed, and an ongoing journey rather than a fixed goal or endpoint. I think it’s also very important to broaden the focus from clinical recovery to incorporate the concept of personal recovery: factors like hope, identity, empowerment, subjective meaning and the ability to fulfill one’s individual goals.
In my own personal journey, I spent many years stuck within the limitations of a coercive ‘cure’ response, which emphasized factors like compliance, sedation and silencing. In contrast, understanding, exploring and engaging with the emotional meaning of my experiences was the recovery response. As Ron Coleman says, cure is something that’s done to you – recovery you do for yourself.
For many of us, an important part of personal recovery is the transformative process of making sense of your experience on your own terms, and using this knowledge to guide and inform genuine healing and growth. Finally, it’s also important that the concept of recovery is not used in a punitive or judgemental way. Complex factors like stigma, isolation, and hopelessness are major barriers to healing, and we need to recognise this and never blame someone for an inability to move forward in their recovery journey.
There should be a profusion of compassion, support and material and emotional resources for those that need them; yet there should also always be hope. To quote Pat Deegan, another well-known figure in this field: “It’s important to meet people where they’re at, but not leave them where they’re at.”
EM: Can a person suffering from the sorts of emotional and mental distress currently called “serious mental illness” engage in this recovery work himself or herself or is “outside” or “additional” help needed?
EL: I think survivors must always be the authorities and authors of their own recovery process, but undoubtedly that journey becomes easier when you have allies to guide your way. There’s a saying that it “takes a village to raise a child” and in many ways it takes a community to support a recovery story. For so many of us, the things that drive us mad (experiences of loss, trauma, discrimination, or injustice) take place on a silent, shameful, lonely stage. Recovery is the opposite: it’s about reconnection and solidarity. This is why organisations like The Hearing Voices Movement can be so enormously empowering, because although they maintain an unshakable belief in the power and resilience of the individual, they also provide a place for shared support and mutual understanding.
Personally, I was extremely fortunate to have people who never gave up on me – relationships that really honoured and acknowledged my resilience, my worth and humanity, and my capacity to heal. I used to say that these people saved me, but what I now know is that they did something even more important: they empowered me to save myself.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
EL: I probably wouldn’t suggest anything initially, I’d just sit down and listen to their account of what’s happening to them and how they’re understanding it. I’d then make suggestions and offer choices, and do my best to try and help them find a way of navigating how they feel that makes sense to them.
My main priority in the short-term would be looking for ways to help them feel safe and in control, both emotionally and physically, because safety is the foundation from which more long-term therapeutic work can begin. I’d also be aware that their needs and preferences could change as their journey progresses, so I would try to remain flexible in exploring things that could help.
EM: What does the future hold for you?
EL: A favourite mantra of mine is “the best revenge is to live well” and that’s what I ultimately aim for – living well. For me, an important aspect of recovery has been to move beyond surviving my past and instead try to create a peaceful, positive, and rewarding future. Family and friends are a huge part of this, but my professional work is also very valuable to me.
I’ve recently started a job at the University of Liverpool’s Psychosis Research Group, which is absolutely wonderful. It means I get to work with John Read, who’s a true pioneer – his research on the links between trauma and psychosis is hugely courageous, powerful, and inspiring. I’ll continue doing lecturing and public speaking too, and maintaining my links with Intervoice: The International Network for Teaching, Education and Research into Hearing Voices. For me, much of this fit with what Judith Herman calls ‘the survivor mission’; you transform your own personal tragedy by making it a basis for social and political action.
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Dr Eleanor Longden is a researcher, mental health activist and board member of Intervoice, currently based at The Psychosis Research Unit in Manchester, England, who lectures and publishes internationally on the importance of emphasising person-centred, psychosocial approaches to complex mental health problems. She is a former TED speaker and the author of Learning from the Voices in My Head.
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Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at [email protected], visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com.
To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here.
To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, visit here.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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