Sunday, March 21, 2010

People who are critical probably don't belong in support groups

If I wanted to bowl I'd join a bowling league. If I wanted to golf, I might join a golf club and read Golf magazine. If I wanted to meet more people with my interests while developing and improving my skills I could do any number of things. One thing I am not inclined to do is to join a support group for family members of people who are labelled somewhere on the mental health spectrum.

I thought it was a good idea once. It is what people are supposed to do, isn't it? You join these support groups and you learn to cope, hopefully you learn greater compassion for your relative, you meet other people in the same boat so you feel you are not alone.

I would not make a good support group member because I want my relative (a.k.a. my "son") to relinquish his label, not to embrace it. I don't want to perpetuate his problems, I want to help him get over them and get on with life. I'm willing to admit that I am part of his problems, and I'm working on that, too. My experience with attending what passed for a support group for families opened my eyes to the fact that support groups perpetuate illness, just like bowling groups perpetuate bowling. Except in the second case that's a positive, and in the first case, it's a negative. There used to be stigma surrounding mental illness. Stigma does serve one useful function and that is to make some patients and some families damn anxious to get rid of the problem. Acceptance of a condition that you believe is a biological illness doesn't have this galvanizing effect.

One thing most support groups do is tell you that medication is important to your functioning. There has been a whole slew of articles recently that medication prolongues depression and turn something episodic into something chronic. See this one from Beyond Meds. Schizophrenia is no different.

Oh, how I suffered whilst faithfully attending the support group. Everybody in the group was suffering. The mothers were tearful, the fathers were stoic. Everybody was scared. If I felt depressed, how was my son supposed to feel hearing his particular condition discussed so gravely and clinically? What was probably a coming of age crisis for him was turning very rapidly into something chronic and maybe even contagious, judging by the fact the room was full. The support group included several psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, psychologists and art therapists in addition to the stricken family members.

This kind of support group perpetutates suffering and turns the sufferer into a chronic patient. I never learned from the support group that all I had to do was to believe my son was well, to take some personal responsibility for the crisis and time would take care of things. The doctors seemed to be the people taking personal responsibility for the outcomes. All questions were funnelled through them, and of course, they dispensed the medications. It was always about the meds, never about how Chris and I could improve on the mistakes of the past.

I might want to join a support group that took an entirely different approach (buck up, you're fine, maybe you might want to consider exploring certain kinds of non-drug therapies, talk, really talk with each other) because the outcome would be to leave that episode in your life where it belongs - in the past.


  1. IMO, these so-called support groups support only one thing: their members' pain body, to use Eckhart Tolle's term for the drama- and misery-loving side of the ego.

    I left this comment at one of the posts about "depression" at Jonah Lehrer's blog (and I'll probably post it on my own blog, too): A strange phenomenon I observe time and again, virtually everywhere where "mental illness" is discussed, is that a whole lot of people immediately react with an outcry of resentment as soon as anyone dares to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the whole situation isn't quite as bleak, that maybe, just maybe, recovery is a possibility, and that maybe, just maybe, all the suffering isn't only horrible but has some value to it in terms of this recovery. I try to imagine someone with a somatic illness, who's told they have a good chance to recover, shout and scream: "No no no! It's not true! I can't recover! It must not be true! I'll be suffering most horribly for the rest of my life, and don't you dare to tell me something else!"

    What is so attractive about pain and suffering that makes letting go of it almost an inconceivability, and everyone/everything suggesting that it can be overcome, a threat? That it provides an identity? "I am mentally ill"? "I suffer, therefor I am"? Mind-boggling.

    The "I suffer, therfor I am" is as well applicable to relatives as it is to the "mentally ill" individual him-/herself. I always feel like asking these people: Who/what would you be without your suffering? But I guess the mere idea would throw most of them into agony...

  2. Inasmuch as antidepressants are cited in the progression of depression from an acute to a chronic condition it can also be said with confidence that antipsychotic medications are responsible for the progression of psychosis to a chronic state of schizophrenia.

    One need only review Harding's long term follow up studies in order to deduce this as plausible. All individuals who recovered fully from their label of schizophrenia, in the follow up studies, did not take medication.

  3. Anonymous: Of course neither "depression" nor "schizophrenia" nor any other "mental illness" are chronic by definition. "This too shall pass" probably applies even more to the mind than to a somewhat more solid form like the body. Not even psychiatry itself regarded "mental illness" a chronic condition before the drugs caused an increasing number of people to actually become chronically ill.

    But it's not only the drugs. It's also that a whole lot of people happily identify as chronically "mentally ill". To be "mentally ill" provides an identity in a time where nothing much really makes sense anymore, where people have great difficulty finding out who or what they are, in a time where we don't tell stories anymore, and have lost our sense of belonging. We've successfully deconstructed everything that once provided us with an identity, and we desperately try to fill the gap.

    Psychiatry was at the leading edge when this development was about to get out of hand, back in the 1970ies. Because it was facing the threat of losing its identity, and thus its raison d'être itself, deconstructed by, among others, David Rosenhan. So, psychiatry made a deal with society: we offer you a range of pseudo-identities to fill the gap with, and in exchange you secure our survival.

    Why do so many people, consumers as well as professionals, react with such an amount of aggressiveness whenever someone mentions the possibility of recovery? Why do they often instantly attack the person? ""Fear she's the mother of violence." (Sorry for the detour, just couldn't resist the temptation :) ) People know very well that their "mental illness" is a pseudo-identity, a house of cards. That's what they need the drugs for, to suppress this knowledge. If the ego can't be this or that, "mentally ill" for instance, it can't be: identity crisis. And instead of facing and overcoming their fears, or their Fear, of the unknown, unpredictable, of a life in freedom where everything is possible, and the sky is the limit, people then turn their identity crisis into their new identity, with the help of psychiatry. It's their last resort before existential freedom - or total annihilation in as far as they're identified with their ego - becomes inevitable. So, hold on to it, chronically, so to speak, and don't let anybody take it away from you!


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