This is the first of a series of blog posts on the context behind my Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system. There is a lot of backstory. So during the editing process, I sent documents to the editor to help explain some of the views I express in the article. I have decided to add them as blog posts.
The Physics World article is focused almost entirely on the psychiatric system. In the original draft, I sent two articles – the second was focused more on the psychotherapeutic system, but was only loosely tied to physics. This blog post summarises my views of psychotherapy.
I don’t think therapy was bad at all. Through it, I became a confident, emotionally aware individual. The problem was that during the process it was abundantly obvious that I was not receiving treatment. I was receiving an education (as someone who has been in education my entire life).
In my view, treatments require the person receiving it to do very little work (usually to lift their arm from the pill box to their mouth), whereas education requires the person receiving it to do a lot of work, in order to learn a skillset.
During therapy, I was undeniably learning a skillset. That is: to understand and become better aware of your own emotions and how they build and lead to the person you are (thoughts/behaviours etc.) and how you interact with others. I’ve even coined a term for it: intrapersonal education. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the quality of this education is pretty poor. There are an abundant amount of different types, with wildly varying philosophies. But just because the underlying theory is poor, doesn’t mean it is useless.
It was the setup, I realised, that gave it its power. It is you in a room, with only one other person (a counsellor). It is a safe environment devoid of any distraction, pretending or fear of saying something “wrong”. You are sort of outside of society – just for an hour a week.
Counsellors are trained to be the best listeners on the planet. When I first started, they seemed to hone in on things that I was confused about, or caused emotional pain, really quickly. Intrigued, I asked my counsellor how they were able to do it. I was told that listening is not a passive activity as most assume. It is active. When counsellors are sitting across from me, they are constantly trying to put themselves in my shoes – that is trying to pick up on all the emotions I was feeling and along with the language I was using. They searched for contradictions, things that I said that didn’t match the emotion I was expressing. Say for example after speaking for a while I said “I was so scared!” in a sort of angry tone (which likely I would not be aware of). The counsellor would note the anger and immediately ask the question “what made you so scared?”. And continue to follow the anger until the emotion matched the words. This is from my understanding anyway.
A counsellor is like a mirror. They try to be as non-judgemental as possible and try not to be reactionary. Always showing a calm and measured demeanour. They allow you to see your own emotions by reflecting them back.
I could not for the life of me figure out why it is globally seen as a treatment – even the counsellors themselves thought they were treating people. I thought this was weird.
I think it does help a large proportion of people with mental health problems, but not because it is a treatment. But that I believe an education will still work as a treatment, though it is much easier to do when used as a preventative measure.
As an extreme analogy: it is like if people never had driving lessons. Only people who were unfortunate enough to crash their car so much that their injuries started to make it hard for them to keep driving, got lessons. It is not that the driving lessons healed their injuries, it is that the driving lessons have helped them to stop crashing so that the injuries that can heal naturally through time do so. But clearly, it is better to have the driving lessons before you get into a car on your own.
In terms of real life, the vast majority of people go through it without needing this space outside of society to feel okay. I’ve had it and I’ve felt terrible this last decade!
But, when I had the energy to deal with every stressor, the chronic pain and keeping the chaos in my head at bay through this constant 24/7 self-reflection process (I see meditation as being this sort of quick way to get into this space outside of society on your own), I was able to do a PhD, my relationship with my supervisor was so good he actually offered me a job at the end of it and I had a social life with a large group of friends, some quite close.
I was a way more efficient worker after my severe reaction (when I had a boatload of counselling) than before it (when I had almost none). I realised how many emotions I used to hold on to and how much it affected my work. If I was annoyed with what my supervisor or a colleague did, sometimes I would hold on to it for days, sometimes weeks. Whenever I saw them, in my head I would think and feel a very small but cumulatively significant stressor related to the thing that annoyed me. After counselling and the Sertraline reaction, given the same situations, I still felt annoyed with the colleague or my supervisor, but using this ‘space’ outside society I was able to process it quickly and usually by the time I saw them next, it was gone.
I guess my opinion is that counselling has been somewhat tainted by this treatment label. I benefited greatly from it. But it wasn’t what I needed most at the time. I needed treatment, not an education. My anger at the psychotherapeutic community is that I realised there are many people like me out there, who are left untreated because the counselling community is not able to recognise when someone needs psychiatric treatment (I mention the tribalness in the second article I think). I was in fact told on many occasions not to get medication, it would “ruin” the counselling sessions and it would be “harder” to access emotions.
For three years I was told persistently that I was making progress and that there was some light at the end of the tunnel. I foolishly believed them. I thought they were experts on the workings of the mind. I was wrong.