A New Age of Enlightenment

I was talking to a colleague the other day, and he was telling me that he had been reading about world history recently. He said that from what he had read, it appears that the United Kingdom missed The Enlightenment. This started a new train of thought for me and made me think more about world view concepts and how parts of the world adopt ideas and make them real.

I had also just watched a documentary film called Behind the Curve, which follows the apparently rapidly growing flat earth movement. People who believe that the world is flat and that governments lie and fabricate evidence that we are a round planet within the solar system. This is a film that is great for making you think about beliefs, why and how we formulate our beliefs, what and how we trust. It is also interesting in exploring the idea of delusions and realising that rather than classifying a delusion as a symptom of psychosis. It is fairer and safer to accept that some people have beliefs that others don’t share. That often it is not the idea that is problematic, rather why it is there, the passion and desperation with which it is held.

Watching the film and thinking about the Age of Enlightenment interests me, as I am someone who believes that we have wrongly followed a belief that human distress is a health issue. That instead of seeing people’s feeling and experiences as symptoms of mental health problems. We would help more people if we saw their distress within the context of their lives. Asking what has happened or is happening to you, not what is wrong with you. That human distress is, therefore, a social issue, not a health one.

Behind the Curve and lost Enlightenment challenged me to re-examine my beliefs. It required me to ask myself, why do I believe what I do? Where is the evidence? Who do I listen to? Where do I get my information from? And, importantly am I more interested in being right than finding the truth?

In fact, what has happened is that I have felt galvanised, and further exploration has given me greater focus. This was further helped when I was invited to take part in a radio show for BBC Suffolk. Mucha Murapa, the presenter, had read something I had written in a blog called, “Finding Clarity Through Clutter”, and asked me to appear on an expert panel.

The show was exploring how people can become overwhelmed in their homes by their possessions.

In the show, the two other experts both said that they felt that the creation of a diagnosis of a Hoarding Disorder was a good thing. They felt that this might raise awareness and result in getting people more help. For me, while I recognise the compassion behind the reasoning, I can’t agree that classifying distress and problems as a disorder is ever helpful or fair. Or will result in receiving the help that will actually be helpful.

The people I meet who are overwhelmed in their homes by their possessions already have many labels and problems. They are already facing challenges in relationships, their health, what has happened to them in the past, in their social situations, with money, discrimination, loneliness and isolation. My observation and opinion, having listened to many people’s stories, is that the situation with their possessions is related to all that they already have going on. Therefore classifying them with a disorder called Hoarding only serves to remove the focus from the reality of their lives, the uniqueness of their stories and who they are.

What I have found, is that the reality is, that to really help people requires spending time with them to hear their stories, being in their home to understand the scale of the practical challenges that they face. To acknowledge what they have experienced and to relate with them as people, that every person is unique, their stories are unique and the help they want and need has to be unique.

Of course, this is true for us all. We all need to be heard, we all need to be validated, we all need acknowledgement of our experiences, and we all need people to be able to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture being the social, cultural, economic and political landscape which we live within.

However, this is not what happens; this is not what professionals do when we ask for help. It is not what people talk about on the news; it is not what people campaign about; it is not what doctors say and how they interpret our pain when we go to our consultations. They see a problem as being something wrong with us, they form a judgement based on a diagnostic manual, and they prescribe something to numb our pain or to eradicate our experiences.

So I wonder what happened to our enlightenment? How and why did we, in the western world, adopt such concepts? Why do we go along with ideas that are counter-intuitive to our natural understanding and recognition of emotional pain and suffering?

Why are we denying the noses on the end of our faces, what is making us ignore the bloody obvious and believe in things that deny reality? Why do we work within and accept systems that have the same scientific validity as the flat earth society?

For me, the evidence is clear, that when it comes to emotional distress and unusual experiences, we experience them because of who we are and what has happened to us. That how people feel about their feelings and experiences is shaped by how they are viewed within their culture and society, who they are, where they come from, and what they have learned from their experiences.

We need to explore beliefs and how they can be formed around certain issues and then perceived as illness. One clear example of this is that of homosexuality. It was considered a disorder/illness until relatively recently with men receiving inhumane treatments in hospitals. Yet now, such a concept is, on the whole, considered unacceptable. However, homophobia is now a recognised disorder! A 180˚ change, so what changed? Did psychiatry have an enlightenment? Of course not. It was a civil rights struggle and gay activists that made the concept of a disorder absurd and redundant.

Interestingly, what also changed is that what psychiatry had listed as “symptoms” of homosexuality became less and less common. This was because they could be recognised not as “symptoms” but as the consequences of having an experience that others considered unacceptable. Experiences such as; low mood, isolation, fear and worry, sleeplessness, suicidal feelings, anger and frustration. It would be interesting to explore how many other people who are diagnosed today, are feeling many of the same feelings because they may be different or are unable to express who they are and what has happened to them.

Unfortunately, there are too many disorders in need of a civil rights battle and an age of enlightenment. Rather than tackling them one by one, perhaps we need one big movement and to take them all out at the same time?

Unfortunately, the current list of disorders is a very long one, whether you look at the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) Version 5 or the International Classification of Disorders (ICD). All human emotional suffering is in there and classified as a disorder or illness. You can be diagnosed if you are sad following a bereavement, if you are angry about injustice, if you challenge authority or if you worry about your future.

In his wonderful book Cracked, Professor James Davies interviewed the lead authors of DSM 3 and 4, Professor Spitzer and Dr Allen Frances. In his interview, Professor Spitzer told James Davies that the disorders that went into the manual were agreed via consensus, as opposed to being based on evidence and research. He acknowledged that there was no scientific evidence of the existence of any of the disorders he was entering into his manual. Dr Allen Frances acknowledged that his edition had been responsible for three worldwide false epidemics!

So, as part of a new civil rights movement, what I propose is a new diagnostic manual, the manual of human emotion and experiences. In my new manual, I will have just two official disorders; The first, IBO – Ignoring the Bloody Obvious disorder and the other PDD – Power Dysregulation Disorder. Both being exclusively reserved for professionals who are tempted to forget, ignore or deny the reality of people’s lives, or who start believing that what they think is more important than the people that they are helping.

The rest of the manual will be reserved for the acknowledgement that feelings are neither universally good or bad and an acceptance that lives can be challenging, unfair, cruel and unjust. That individuals who have experienced cruelty, injustice, trauma are not responsible for this. That as people, we need relationships, a sense of meaning and purpose.

My manual will tell people that human beings have the capacity for incredible love and compassion, but also cruelty and destruction and everything in between. It will explore cultures around the world, where people have collectively and individually found ways to offer helpful and loving ways of addressing emotional pain.

My manual would seek to offer people hope, to let people know that their distress is part of being human and offer them some possible pathways to help themselves or to help others. It would aim to enable professionals to harness their natural human abilities in order to help others. It would also ensure that they acknowledge inequality, poverty, abuse and discrimination as the real issues to fight and campaign against and to raise awareness of. Rather than label and blame the people who are affected by such things and then campaign to raise awareness of their “mental health problems”.

My manual would encourage us all to reject mental health awareness campaigns and days and instead fight against injustice in all forms, making people aware of the link between injustice and distress. Encouraging us all to stop diagnosing ourselves with fake disorders and employ compassionate curiosity to the feelings and experiences that worry us. So, instead of concluding I have depression, why not wonder what is happening to make me feel so sad. If not OCD,  what is causing me such fear and worry. Not I must be schizophrenic, but what do these voices mean and what are they really communicating about me.

I completely understand that emotional distress in incredibly painful and overwhelming. My manual would stress how important it is that people have expertise and resources available to help them. I believe however that it could help to herald a new age of enlightenment that helps to stop people feeling so isolated, stop believing that there is something wrong with them and that the problems are all theirs. That in doing so, the intensity of the pain would not be increased by the stigma and terror of the impact of their feelings on their lives and those of their families and friends.

At the very end of Behind the Curve, some of the believers in flat earth conduct an experiment to disprove curvature in the earth. However, much to their surprise, they do find a curve, which is a real oops moment! I think that we need to make more people aware that, in the world of psychiatry, there have been so many oops moments. So many that it is incredible, and it is shocking that it is still the most common world view. We need to explore what makes us hold such beliefs, how helpful is it to maintain them and to liberate ourselves from them.

We can have a new enlightenment; we can create a beautiful round, blue concept that we are part of the vast and complex universe. We can stop calling ourselves and others names when we are struggling with how we feel, and we can engage our qualities of compassion, curiosity, kindness and truly be helpful.