Mental Health Week.

001-copyAt this time of year we remember people who are experiencing mental health problems. This year I was drawn to a television program on the ABC, which was designed to lift awareness on mental health issues by explaining in detail what each diagnosis of a mental dysfunction entailed; and its treatment.    The program was made in the United Kingdom by the BBC where the approach to mental health issues is far more open for discussion than here in Australia, but what struck me was the emphasis on pharmaceuticals and treatments such as magnetic cranial stimulation when there is little evidence of the long term effects of these treatments or whether they are anything more than a placebo. Moreover, where there is the possibility of risk, such as memory loss; there was no discussion at all.

It disturbs me that people experiencing mental health difficulties really have no options.  Many are unemployed and on social benefits, which can be removed if recipients do not cooperate.   The pharmaceutical remedies generate trillions of dollars for the big corporations, whist unless a person is rich it is almost impossible to get respite in a drug free facility under $30.000 dollars.

In the 1960s R.D. Laing, a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, together with and his colleagues, developed the concept of the ‘safe haven’ for mental-health patients, without locks or any anti-psychotic drugs.   Laing and his colleagues were the founders of the UK mental-health charity called ‘The Philadelphia Association’ and they set up a facility called ‘Kingsley Hall’ in Bromley-by-Bow in London’s East End; that was 50 years ago.   The association, which exists today, challenges the accepted ways of understanding and treating mental and emotional suffering; key to that was, and still is, a commitment to conversation as a way of articulating what disturbs people.

All people are born with differences, but it is society that turns these differences into a mental illness.   Economic progress made the  treatment of mental illness an integral component in industrial capitalization.   As the French philosopher Jacques Lacan noted, the human brain is structured by language and language (included in the arts) is the better form of changing obsessive and damaging behaviours.  If money is to be spent on mental illness it needs to be linked to causation; poverty, abuse, trauma, competition anxiety and the rest with treatments that offer an understanding of causation.

In its favour, the program mentioned above did include some cognitive behavioural therapy, which works for some providing they have good levels of concentration.

Art therapy teaches mindfulness; which comes automatically when someone is being creative.  That said, the program in question made the only link between art and madness from a very negative perspective. To wit, all artists are a ‘little manic’.


Art Therapy.

Digital Camera When I was younger art appear to be no more than a personal indulgence; or in my case, a luxury occupation.  It did little to improve the world’s serious socio-economic and political problems.  That view changed for me when I started producing political art and it changed again when I was studying psychoanalysis and therapies.   Freud placed a great emphasis of the importance of dreams for unravelling the contents of the unconscious.  Art penetrates the unconscious and replicates the imagination and dreaming.

We know today that what the eye sees is not what the brain plays back to us after the many neurological signals are sent to various parts of the brain in order to carry out various tasks.  With this knowledge in mind, the real purpose of art is again being challenged.

Historically art has helped people to explain the world.  The most perennially popular topic of art has been the beauty encapsulated in a landscape or in the image of a person of outstanding merit and demeanour.    Scenes that replicate beauty offer a general optimism and cheerfulness towards life.   Beauty, helps to soothe the daily stresses of everyday family relations, work and life’s obvious limitations.  However, the portrayal of beauty has never been value neutral.  We cannot look at a beautiful landscape with reference to ownership of something that might never be possessed in the real world.

Historically, it was the task of the landscape artist to hide the implications of property relations, either directly or indirectly.  The English artist John Constable for example painted beautiful landscapes at a time when agricultural labourers were being transported off their lands and into the newly established industries; in particular the dark satanic mills.  These deeply anguished people were never portrayed in Constable’s works; such a depiction would have been far too radical.  However, the paintings were political in the sense that pretty landscapes also equated with conservation, a stance that was of immense value to the wealthy aristocracy who prized hunting and landscape over the ownership of a factory or coal mine.

In addition, Constable’s pretty works served to soothe the temperament of the proletariat because the pretty painting had another very important function; it aroused the emotions of sentimentality. Even today, the Constable images of vast verdant estates can be found in many homes scattered across the urban setting and this is because pretty art has traditionally provided a view of what most people cannot possess in a real world, to this end, beauty upholds the important purpose of sentimental dreaming.
Sentimentality and dreaming also gives clues as to the true purpose of art, which has been traditionally to feed the fell-good emotions.    Sentimentality draws the mind away from the world’s complexity.    Today, sentimentality confronts us discursively as a method of swaying public taste and opinion.  Sentimentality blurs the rational faculties of the mind and floods it with dopamine and body exhilaration.  The method has been used in advertising and political discourse, but now it has something to offer in healing the problems of world complexity.   In art therapy, sentimentality can be used is a soft entry into confusing personal and psychological problems.

Having once created a pathway into the real dilemmas of life through sentimentality, one can move towards creating a solution through optimism and hope.

Back in the eighteenth century the French Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes wrote a seminal discourse on the separation of the mind and body;  we are still living his legacy and seeing   minds as something ephemeral and beyond change.    95 percent of our brain processes are automated and while conscious thought leads us to believe we are in control of our minds, it is the unconscious that governs consciousness.   We do not know exactly why art therapy works, but we do know, as Freud did that it was a doorway to the unconscious.  We also know that we are the sum total of all that has gone before us and it is perhaps for this reason that art works as a therapy.  After all, it was art that came before language.


What is Love?

0665In many of my group sessions I am constantly asked to explain what love is? We all aspire to find love, but the very term appears to cause a lot of confusion. Here are a few suggestions on how I approach the topic of love.
• Romantic Love Fades.
• Statistically, romantic love lasts approximately twelve months before it dissipates, usually because couples burn out when the high emotions and the physical expectations get too much to endure.
• Some people manage to extend their relationships by becoming more stable, but they are in the minority.
Why is True Love hard to find?
We often seek traits in other people we lack in ourselves; one being perfection.
• Humans and bonding
• The first love is a bonding. It takes place between the infant and mother. Early bonding with the mother will impact on how the adult will deal with relationships later in life and especially how they will deal with relationship conflicts.
• Secure bonding in infancy is paramount to maintaining good adult relationships.
• Children who are deprived of love and bonding will have difficulty in reconciling their emotions in adult relationships.
• However, there is great potential for changing learned behaviours…
Love really comes down to chemistry.
• Human brains run on memory and memories are transported through chemistry.
• Further, the majority of memories are stored in areas of the brain where recall is not always conscious. 95 percent of brain activity is beyond conscious awareness.
• Everyday the UNCONSCIOUS is making decisions, including decisions about LOVE.
• Humans arrive at the knowledge or feeling of being in love because they remember their bonding.
• Love is blind because biologically, love is simply brain chemistry and bonding memories.
• Chemicals in the brain trigger the feelings and emotions in much the same way as they trigger hunger and thirst. These are survival instincts that reside in the oldest part of the brain.
• Love and Lust.
• Lust is a temporary passionate sexual desire involving the increased release of chemicals like testosterone and oestrogen.
• In true love, or attachment and bonding, the brain can release a whole set of different chemicals: pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin.

  • Oxytocin also promotes bonding between mothers, children, partners, close friends and associates in order to protect survival. Oxytocin dampens the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system. Oxytocin is a pathway for rewarding, it feels good and thus it encourages bonding between individuals.

Love and Reward.
When people are in love the reward centre of the brain sends dopamine to the pleasure centre, which then craves whatever it was that was so rewarding. The reward centres are the same ones that become cultivated when people take drugs like cocaine.
The Loss of Love.
• Being rejected in love activates the pain centres (a part of the brain called the insula), which is the same region that is activated when humans experience physical pain.
• In order to divert pain humans are constantly motivated to seek out the source of pleasure, most commonly interpreted as finding love. To feel pleasure, is to avoid pain, but when it involves using someone else for the placation of romantic feelings it can backfire and double the pain.
• Falling in Love.
• Falling into anything can be painful. Falling implies a loss of control, a situation that can cause injury.
• Most people who fall in love are in the grip of a romantic fantasy, which can lead to disappointment.
• Falling in love can also be mistaken for falling into lust.
• When people are in lust they activate the very ancient primal instincts, which sit in the hypothalamus and the amygdala.
• These are the same areas that govern the fight-and-flight responses when the brain signals danger.
The amygdala manages the emotions and it governs the arousal of the body prior to action.
• When the rational mind goes into recess the amygdala takes over using the primal instincts for survival.
• The Fantasy Romance.
• Most romantic love fantasies act like drugs and directly or indirectly target the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine.
• Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure.
• Dopamine energizes activities that feel emotionally positive, this can include applauding your favourite rock star, cheering on your chosen football team or fantasizing about romantic conquests.
• Dopamine triggers testosterone production, which is a major factor in the sex drive of both men and women.
• Memory and Addictions.
• When a human being performs an action that satisfies a need or fulfills a desire, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens and produces pleasure. It serves as a signal that the action promotes survival or reproduction, directly or indirectly. The system is called the reward pathway. When we do something that provides this reward, the brain records the experience and we are likely to do it again.
• Brain Changes by Association.
• Induced changes in the cells of the brain create associations between the first experience and the circumstances in which it occurred. For example, a small child might enjoy playing with a cat, but if a frightening noise occurs at the time of play the child will associate the cat with the fear the noise caused in the child’s mind. This makes all addictions hard to shift as there is generally a hidden association.
• A heroin addict may be in danger of relapse when s/he sees a hypodermic needle, an alcoholic when s/he passes a bar where he used to drink or when he meets a former drinking companion. A sex addict may resume the habit on falling into a mood in which s/he used to engage in the first encounter. A single small dose of the feeling itself is one of the most powerful triggers for further lust/sex/drug experiences.
• Stress is a big factor in all addictions, including love.

So what is real love you ask? To me real love is a commitment to be there when somebody needs you. Real love is not about romance or possession, it is about letting the person go and develop into the person they truly want to be.
My grandmother used to tell me that if you hold on to something too tight, the hands get tired and it will slip through the fingers; good old fashioned wisdom!