A survey of public opinion shows that while about 4 in 5 people have a favourable opinion of psychology as a field of study, most people do not believe psychology is a hard science. Another study found that only 26-50% people believe that counseling does any good and that it typically takes 4 months before people show noticeable signs of improvement. Putting the pieces together it would appear that the vast majority of people have a positive opinion of the study of psychology, they see it as a useful and worthwhile pursuit. However, the dysmal appraisal of the people actually working in the profession is of serious concern. Imagine if medical doctors had a reputation of only helping their patients 26-50% of the time and typically it took 4 months of treatment before one started to see improvement?
From my experience, working with autistic children as an ABA therapist, I’ve come to expect to see noticeable weekly to fortnightly improvements with all of my clients, yet I know people who have seen psychologists regularly for years and shown little or no improvement in their depression or other anxiety disorders. Furthermore, as a scientist, if it took someone four months to show improvement from a psychological trauma then I’m inclined to suggest it was more likely that the patient naturally got more used to the stressor or the stressor diminished because of other factors.
But why does my work with autistic children work, but psychotherapy in adults not? The main difference is that the children I work with have 15-25 hours per week of therapy, while most people might get 1 hour per week or fortnight. This is extremely important, because a lot of people mistakenly believe having an epiphany solves people’s problems. Well, most people do have epiphanies where they figure out what their problems are, but still they fail to recover from their depression or mental health problems. The problem is that understanding the problem, while helpful, is not enough to fix the problem.
Most psychological problems are caused by bad habits in how people think. Habits are notoriously difficult to change, one needs to constantly practice new habits to unlearn the old habits. Let’s use a comparison with dancing. Say you have bad co-ordination so you take up dance lessons. How well will your co-ordination improve with a single 1 hour dance class per week as compared to have five 1 hour dance classes each week? In actual fact, a single hour of dance practice each week is going to have a barely noticeable impact on your co-ordination, but daily dance practice will lead to very rapid improvements.
So the current treatment model for adult psychological problems is fundamentally unsound. Why does it continue then? Because it suits the therapists’ lifestyles.
Therapists get paid a lot of money, typically $100-250 per hour, but thanks to generous government subsidies they can sometimes charge amounts up to $500 her hour. Now, in a profession where most people only come for a few sessions and then flake out, you get concerned about how you’re going to make a regular income, so if you have a patient who isn’t getting any better what do you do? The honourable thing is to stop taking their money and tell them you are sorry, but you’re just not helping them. What typically happens is that psychologists fall into the trap of simply taking people’s money for years while the person makes no progress at all in their mental health. This provides the psychologist with a regular income, but it severely damages the public perception and trust in psychologists as a profession.
Hence, I am working on developing a practical and effective approach for treating mental illness that is professional, effective and can be assessed for it’s effectiveness scientifically. If you’re interested, stay around, read the articles on this website, tell other people about this and support Four Birds Education.
Attaining mental health is not a simple task. Just as we live in a world full of germs and parasites that can infest and harm our bodies, we also live in a psychological world of relationships with other people which are often full of psychological germs and parasites that can damage our mental health. Consider the public school environment: it is hard to imagine a single day without being exposed to bullying, put-downs, oppression, humiliations, peer-pressures, misinformation or other psychologically harmful elements. Often work and family environments are no better. When we consider protecting our bodies from infectious disease it is often a good idea to sterilise or clean our living environment to keep ourselves safe. However, as important as this is, without an immune system it is only a matter of time before one succumbs to infection and dies. So avoiding harmful psychological environments is not enough, one needs to develop a psychological immune system.
Some psychologists and even schools of psychology, believe that people are not able to take care of their own mental health, they need other people to direct them how to solve their mental health problems. My view point is that a psychologist’s role is not to heal people, help people to heal themselves. Interestingly, most psychologists would agree with what I have just said, but fewer would actually practice it professionally. Consider that a medical doctor does not heal a person’s body, they merely assist the body in healing itself. Therefore a psychologist should spend their time with their client informing them about things they can do to improve their mental health by themselves and if necessary breaking those steps towards self-management into the smallest possible steps needed for the individual person. That is, their role should be as a teacher and to be a teacher they can not simply repeat information they read from a textbook, they actually need to understand that information so they can teach their clients. Too many psychologists are book smart only and any public funding assistance to their profession is merely going to make this trend worse as it removes natural pressures on them to make sure they know their craft, not simply memorised it.
Another factor is how psychologists shy away from difficult but important challenges like defining what mental health actually is. As a scientist and a psychologist I understand the enormous philosophical challenge that is presented by the problem of what is mental health. In 1973, the practice of psychology and psychiatry suffered a humiliating blow from the Rosenhan experiment, when it became clear that determining the difference between a sane person and an insane person was highly problematic. In the aftermath of this psychology as a field has not rallied to the challenge and has instead lost confidence in itself and has all but given up on defining mental illness and instead focuses on describing the symptoms of mental illness. If you get the chance it is worth reading a few sections of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to appreciate this point. Mental illness is purely described by its symptoms and not by its causes. This is a bit like opening up a medical textbook and reading the symptoms of a broken arm: loss of movement, inflammation, pain, sweating, etc… without mentioning at all that the problem is a broken bone! The reasons for this are complex and are concern with how the scientific method works and the desire of many psychologists to adhere strictly to the scientific method. However, the result is a mental health profession that is embarrassingly unable to define mental illness or mental health and what separates them. On this blog I will be offering my insight into mental illness, and I urge you to keep this in mind.
When approaching this project I realised that I needed to have a hypothesis that I could use to test my ideas and their validity. So I have develop the following hypotheses on mental health. I keep this in mind constantly and plan to test and modify them scientifically at every available opportunity. I welcome all feedback and suggestions regarding them as developing them into a working theory of mental health would take the field of psychology out of the dark ages of self-doubt and into modernity.
Mental health: The degree to which a person acknowledges and honours their full spectrum of emotions. The more a person inhibits, stifles, blocks, dismisses or ignores their feelings the more mentally ill they are. The more a person values and appreciates their emotions and takes responsibility for them, the more mentally healthy they are.
Insanity: When a person ceases to care at all if there is a difference between perception and reality.