Mental Health: A Broken System?

Today I've chosen to write about a subject that has been on my mind tirelessly for a long time, and with increasing persistence in recent weeks and months: the mental healthcare system in America.

I would like to start by saying that I have a deep respect for Western medicine, and the theories of psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung that still inform much of the basis for Western psychology today. In fact psychodynamic theory is my preferred modality, personally, as I see the deep implications of symbolism and emotional patterns highlighted in psychodynamics and psychoanalysis as clearly intertwined with understanding the speaking of the Soul - in symbols, pictures, and patterns - a topic which deeply interests me and which I feel to have great significance in our continued development as a conscious species.

Much like my feelings toward religion, my concern is not with the principles of Western medicine themselves, but rather with the system of delivery. It is in this area of service provision and practice where I believe we have much to learn from Eastern medicine, and the wisdom gained from centuries of healing work.

Here is the distinction as I see it: Western medicine takes a reductionistic approach, while Eastern medicine takes an integrative approach. Western medicine and the scientific method aim to understand a being by understanding the parts that make up that being, the parts that make up those parts, and so on.

In many ways Western medicine deconstructs the totality of something in order to better understand it, piece by piece. The problem lies in the fact that Western medicine is not yet good at taking this incredible depth of knowledge of each piece back to the whole, and it's obsession exclusively with what is measurable limits scope of practice to the material field only.

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Eastern medicine, by contrast, aims to understand first the totality of a being, and takes into consideration both seen and unseen forces that may be impacting a person's life, health, and vitality. Emphasis is on understanding all of the multi-systemic factors impacting the individual (this is often what we mean when referring to an approach as 'holistic'). From this, we have much to learn.

So what does this mean for mental health? I believe that unfortunately the application of Western medicinal ideology on the provision of mental health care in America has resulted in a mental health system that deconstructs the individual as a means of understanding, and emphasizes "pieces" and the treatment of those pieces, producing an approach to mental healthcare that ceases to recognize or validate people in their entirety. 

Through an almost exclusive focus on diagnostics and "symptoms" we have effectively pathologized many natural aspects of the human experience and marginalized large numbers of people at a time when they are in the most need of help, support, and someone to mirror their wholeness.

Through this compartmentalized understanding of the complex nature of human beings, we are significantly less effective in guiding a person in his or her work toward mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Additionally, in the tradition of "separation of church and state," that underlies so many American procedural standards and professional protocols, we have left out the Spirit entirely. 

This is where I feel we have the most to learn from Eastern approaches to health and wellness. 

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It is my personal belief that, at our core, we are Spiritual Beings. Call it Spirit, Soul, Higher Self, The Universe, God, Holy Spirit, Source, The Great Mystery, Divine Nature, Buddha Nature - whatever name resonates for you. The point is not what you call this part of yourSelf, but that you know in an intangible but very real way that it is there

As a civilization I believe we are becoming more conscious, more aware of our connection to each other and to All That Is. The Spirit is where we feel this connection, and when we are disconnected from our Spirit, we feel that disconnection deeply. This is an important part of mental and emotional health for many people.

The thing is, there are so many amazing practitioners in the mental health field. People who really care, and who want to make a difference. But we have to change some things in the way we go about it - the system, as it stands, is not supporting our best work or the best interests of the individuals we support. 

I wish I could end this post with a clear call to action and definite vision for what that change needs to be. I don't have that. But I do have questions. Hard questions - not just as individual practitioners, but as part of the mental health system as a whole (and we are each a part of that whole):

  • Is what we are doing in the field of mental health helping or hurting?
  • Are we practicing recognition of the value of every precious human life?
  • Are we helping others step into the fullest expression of who they are, and not who we need them to be?
  • Are we facilitating healing, or simply symptom management?
  • Can we do better?
  • How?
  • What needs to change?
  • Are we willing to change it?

And if we keep asking ourselves these hard questions, without fear, without ego, being willing to see what is at times difficult to see, and being honest with ourselves about what is sometimes difficult to know, then I think we are moving ever closer to a space of connection with the answers.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Please comment below, and let's have a conversation. Engaging with one another is the only way to start the meaningful work of facilitating change. The wisdom of the whole community far exceeds the knowledge of one.

Looking forward to your thoughts, have a beautiful week.

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