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Psychiatry needs a(nother) dose of wellbeing

By Maria Thomas, on 24 February 2020

This blog has been guest written by Rochelle Burgess from UCL Institute for Global Health – prompted by our previous blogs from Prof Tony David (Insight and Psychosis: the next 30 years and What is mental health?)

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Earlier this month, the New York Times published an obituary for Dr. Bonnie Burstow, feminist therapist, professor and anti-psychiatrist. Once discovered, I promptly fell through a rabbit hole of Twitter feeds and debates reflecting on her career, most notably her critiques of a psychiatric care system that situates women’s (and everyone’s) mental health problems in the brain, instead of the problematic worlds where these brains and bodies live. This critique has always resonated deeply with me on many levels – as a mental health service user but also more systematically in my research, studying the mental health needs and treatment experiences of marginalised groups exposed to poverty, oppression and various forms of violence, in high-income and low-income settings. That day’s rabbit hole was full of people confirming the ongoing relevance of her work, viewing mental health sciences as disciplines still grappling with some pretty old problems and a rage that is as robust today as it was in the early days of Burstow’s work.

There are probably many reasons to explain this persistence. But they all converge around a long standing critique of the psy-disciplines, well-articulated by Foucault, R.D.Laing, and more recently, Thomas and Bracken’s Post-psychiatry framework, and some critical spaces of the global mental health world. Essentially, patients don’t feel seen. Not fully. Service users are seen in a partial sense – a way that prioritises diagnosis, biological and neurological mechanisms, over what it means to be in the world with a condition, and to the full range of needs of a person.

This is not for a lack of trying. Social and community psychiatry have embraced recovery paradigms and more recently, responding to calls for social interventions. Each in their own way complicates our approach to supporting a process of being ‘in’ the world and experiencing mental distress. But even in this, mental health feels a little stuck in the idea that a person is primarily their diagnosis (see – recovery in the bin movement), and what counts as treatment remains fairly narrow. We still forget the world where bodies live – in spite of the wealth of evidence we have that highlights the structural drivers of mental illness, the impacts of those drivers on treatment outcomes. But we just can’t seem to shift things, probably because the way we define the problem still doesn’t give enough space to the complex needs of people.

We need a new way. Anti-psychiatry doesn’t feel right, as that in its own way removes complexity – ignoring that there are places, spaces and people who will benefit tremendously from access to diagnostics and medications.

This is where wellbeing paradigms have something to offer. Though seen as a hot new topic popularised (and arguably distilled) by ‘happiness’ studies and indexes, wellbeing paradigms are rooted in classical philosophical concepts of Eudaimonia and hedonia – and reflect our earliest attempts to understand the roots of happiness wellbeing. For me, Hedonic perspectives, focused largely on pleasure, are less helpful here. But Eudaimonic perspectives, which looks at meaning, self-actualisation and the ‘full functioning’ of a person, provide the foundations for more holistic, meaningful and potentially radical mental health spaces – where all kinds of care are on the table.

Sociologist Corey Keys, and psychologist Carol Ryff have made considerable contributions to our understandings of how wellbeing principles relate to mental health and mental illness. Importantly, their analyses place mental health and mental illness as two separate but related spectrums, rather than the opposite ends of a single spectrum. Using a framework of ‘complete mental health’ they suggest that the absence of mental illness doesn’t automatically lead to mental health (though they are often co-related), and for this to occur, we need the presence of social, psychological and emotional wellbeing – defined as the ability to flourish. Most importantly for marginalised groups, flourishing encapsulates social wellbeing concerns beyond our relationships, demanding attention be paid to socio-political structures and the world where we live. It’s a model of person-centred care where addressing social-structural realities is as important as psychological and relational ones.

Imagine a field where this is our dominant framing? Where minds, bodies and the places they live are treated as one? Lately, I feel like we’re getting there. Daisy Fancourt is doing amazing things to push forward an evidence base for the importance of social prescribing and community networks to positive mental health, and for the biological dimensions of wellbeing. In communities where I work in the global south, a wellbeing perspective has driven the exploration and testing of intervention models that combine, within treatment programmes, psychological and community development support. Early findings from my recent pilot study of collective narrative therapy for women with complex trauma in South Africa suggests there is a positive booster effect when a focus on how to tackle problematic social environments is included in the intervention.

Burstow wanted a psychiatry/psychology that was as much about the brain, as it was about the world. This is entirely possible – all we need is a healthy dose of wellbeing.

Photo credit: MARCH network – Groups

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