Recovery from “Schizophrenia” and other “Psychotic Disorders” — New understandings of the mind and of madness can open doors to full recovery UA-10331854-1
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The book “Rethinking Madness” is now free!


The book “RethiFRONT_Cover_Final (2)nking Madness: Towards a Paradigm Shift in Our Understanding and Treatment of Psychosis” by Paris Williams is now free, in pdf version, at this website.  That’s cool, because the book is a good resource in understanding how psychosis can be understood in a psychological way, and how recovery can be supported.  Paris Williams has thought deeply about these issues, and has a good understanding of both the problems and the possible solutions.

Voices in the Head: A Documentary

I’d like to recommend a documentary show, 52 minutes long, which includes a lot about trauma and psychosis, and includes some interesting bits that relate to the interesting intersection of Compassion Focused Therapy with Voice Dialogue methods.  Eleanor Longden and Charlie Heriot-Maitland both appear in the film, and are leaders in these innovative approaches.

The documentary is in German, but with English subtitles.  (If you click on the “version” tab at the top of the screen, you can also access a version dubbed into French or with Spanish subtitles.)

Here’s the link:

Are They “Symptoms” or “Strategies?”

What exactly are “mental health problems”?

In the mainstream, psychological difficulties are seen as “symptoms” of an “illness” or “mental disorder” and based on this the focus is put on suppressing them, either by using drugs, or shock, or by psychological interventions that also aim to “eliminate the problem.”

Unfortunately, this mainstream approach often works poorly, and too often its main effect is to aggravate the problem, or to cause “collateral damage” as critically important parts of the person are suppressed along with the supposed “symptoms.”

But if we want to replace the mainstream approach, we need a coherent alternative view, which realistically frames both the difficulties people experience and suggests better approaches to resolving those problems.

One avenue to this needed reconceptualization was expressed by Jacqui Dillon, who wrote that  “When you understand your own ‘symptoms’ as meaningful and essential survival strategies, a more respectful and loving acceptance of yourself begins to emerge.”

I like a lot about that perspective and the shift in attitude it suggests.  It helps explain why the traditional approach does so poorly – it’s difficult to heal if we are thinking of essential parts of ourselves as an illness!

There is one possible complication with this perspective though: if we think of disturbing patterns of experience or behavior as being “essential” then we might also feel stuck with them just as they are, with no alternative but just learning to accept and respect them no matter how much trouble they are causing.

One way out of that bind is to think of “symptoms” as meaningful strategies that do fit and are indeed essential in some kinds of situations, but which also are often put into action unconsciously or without much thinking or in mistaken ways.  That is, at times they may be truly necessary for our survival, at other times they only seem necessary to some part of our psyche that activates them, while in reality they may be “going too far” and backfiring with destructive effects.

Defining them this way allows for more ambiguity, and suggests that each strategy etc. must be looked at in context, to sort out what really is essential or at least helpful in a given situation from what is well intended but misguided, and may be currently destructive.  From that perspective, what we need is not wholesale suppression of what disturbs us, or complete acceptance, but rather an increase in discernment about what strategies are working or not, in particular situations.  A strategy that truly was lifesaving during a traumatic situation, for example, may be extremely damaging when carried on into everyday life:  but if we can appreciate the way it saved us at one time, we may also be better able to “let it go” in a present that no longer requires it.

To clarify this reconceptualization, what I would like to do now is to outline some of the major categories of psychiatric “symptoms” and describe how they can be reframed as possibly helpful, though often harmful, strategies:

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Psychiatry: Worth Keeping If “Slowed Down”?

The faults of modern psychiatry are numerous and profound, and many readers here know firsthand about its destructive force.  But are these faults so vast that there is nothing worth saving?

Bonnie Burstow has suggested that facts lead to “the inescapable conclusion that psychiatry has no foundation and should be phased out”  Elsewhere she has written about “psychiatry’s utter invalidity” and suggested that reform cannot work, as it will be inevitably coopted.

Philip Hickey has also supported an “anti” psychiatry perspective, suggesting that psychiatry is now “so rotten and flawed that anti is the only appropriate stance consistent with human decency.”

I am sympathetic to these arguments, but I am also concerned they may be too extreme to be practical in a world that could still benefit from a medical specialty focused on mental and emotional problems.

Of course, I don’t mean at all to say that mental and emotional problems are typically “medical” in nature, as I believe they more commonly are simply reactions to difficult events or environments, which can in turn be worked through with some human understanding and non-medical assistance.

But I would propose there are three legitimate roles for a medical profession specializing in issues related to the mind and behavior:

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Getting Back to Dialogue – The Core of Healing!

When people are “mad,” they are often insisting that certain things are so, and frequently seem unwilling or incapable of appreciating or learning from other perspectives.  Yet when the supposedly “sane” mental health system approaches those who are mad, it typically does the same thing – it insists that its own view of what’s going on is correct, and seems incapable of appreciating or learning from others, whether they be the patient, the family, former users of services, or anyone who understands madness in a different way.

So what’s going on with that?

One way of understanding it is to reflect on the very human tendency to narrow one’s perspective when feeling threatened.  When people feel threatened, they tend to narrow their focus down to what they believe may avert the threat, and to shut out other perspectives that seem “wrong,” or that could lead to doom.

That works fine when the threat is relatively straightforward, and a solution can be arrived at which reduces the sense of threat.

But what about when it can’t?

When individuals are facing situations where there seems to be a dire need to solve a problem, yet no solution nor path toward such a solution is apparent, the person naturally enters into a state of conflict.  On the one hand there is above mentioned drive to narrow attention in response to the threat, but on the other hand, there is a drive to expand awareness and experiment with unusual ways of looking at things, so as to possibly find a pathway to a solution that otherwise appears impossible.

It may be that it is the collision between the two tendencies, the narrowing of attention to focus on threat, contrasting and conflicting with the expansion of awareness while seeking to control what otherwise appears uncontrollable, that is responsible for the wild states we call psychosis, or madness.

So we see people who seem creative in some ways, often coming up with very imaginative interpretations of reality, yet who also seem very unimaginative and closed minded when it comes to seeing any down side in their point of view or being able to follow how and why others see things differently, or seeing how to negotiate in a world where others do see things so differently.

Those who are “mad” can then seem difficult to communicate with – their attention seems narrowed and entrenched in their point of view.  We might say they are stuck in “monological thinking” and have difficulty with dialogue, with really appreciating and reflecting on the views of others and learning from them.

Unfortunately, these difficulties can be so intense that those around the “mad” person typically enter into their own kind of threat response, and narrow their own attention, and become stuck in their own “monological thinking” in an attempt to cope.

In the monologue of the traditional mental health system, a “solution” for the problem of madness is outlined.  The mad person is simply experiencing an illness, one that has a name and a clear treatment plan, organized around attempts to suppress that “illness.”

The great thing about having this sense of a “clear path forward” is that it helps professionals and those around the mad person not feel mad themselves.  That is, rather than feel there is a problem that urgently needs solved yet for which there is no identified path forward (the bind that could lead to madness), it is now possible to feel there definitely is a path forward – just narrow down one’s thinking and doing to the medical style approach, and no doubt or further reflection or inner conflict is required!

But now we really have two clashing and very imperfect monologues – that of the “mad “person, and that of the mental health system and those persuaded by it.  And what happens when two fixed views confront each other?  Research shows the tendency is for people who feel confronted to dig in and get more entrenched in their views – and the possibility of dialogue, of reaching across the divide, and of healing, becomes more remote.

But fortunately, there are better approaches!  They are less simple, and involve deliberately accepting uncertainty, and taking some risks, while also attending to safety concerns.  These methods emphasize dialogue, and fight back against that tendency for narrow thinking in response to threat.  Instead they embody a wisdom that recognizes we all best face complex issues when we are willing to be wide and open enough to hear all the voices, and that “sanity” is most likely to emerge through this sort of dialogical process, when it takes place not just within the “mad” person but also within the social network and treatment team.

The Hearing Voices Network makes really important strides in this direction – emphasizing for example changing relationships with voices rather than defining them as illness or suppressing them.  There are now some forms of psychological therapy for “psychosis,” such as the style of CBT for psychosis that I teach (online as well as live) which emphasize relating in a dialogical way.  But it is Open Dialogue, and the dialogical practices it has inspired, which have uniquely framed mental health work as being fundamentally about encouraging dialogue, and which often achieve amazing results just by aiming to support dialogue on all levels.

I was inspired to write about this now because I have been publicizing an “online meeting” or webinar with Mary Olson, titled “Introduction to Dialogic Practice.”  This meeting has already happened, but you can listen to a recorded version of it at this link.  (It may take a couple minutes to get started, so be patient!)

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Why Trying To Suppress Voices Often Backfires, and What To Do Instead

When people are distressed by voices and the impact that hearing voices has on them, it isn’t surprising that their goal often becomes getting rid of the voice and suppressing whatever message might be associated by the voice.  The mental health system often takes the same perspective, seeing the voice as itself representing a mental disturbance or disorder, and defining health as no longer having the experience.

But what if attempts to suppress experience in this way are actually likely to increase disturbance or disorder?

I created an 11 minute video which explores how and why problems emerge when people try to suppress experiences such as hearing voices, and which identifies strategies that are much more likely to be helpful.  The video is called “Reasons to be wary of attempts to suppress “hallucinatory” experiences” and up until 3/16/16, it’s available as a free preview within the online course CBT for Psychosis.

Just go to this link, and you will find the link to preview this video, as well as some other free previews.

The online course itself is also available for a 67% discount, only $29, up until 3/16/16.

“Schizophrenia Breakthrough” – Or a Case of Ignoring the Most Important Evidence?

Last week, the headlines were blaring: Schizophrenia breakthrough as genetic study reveals link to brain changes!  We heard that our best hope for treating “schizophrenia” is to understand it at a genetic level, and that this new breakthrough was now getting us really started on that mission, as it showed how a genetic variation could lead to the more intense pruning of brain connections which is often seen in those diagnosed with schizophrenia.  We were told that this study was very important.  “For the first time, the origin of schizophrenia is no longer a complete black box” was one quote.  And the acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) described the study as  “a crucial turning point in the fight against mental illness”.

But is all this hype justified?

A “back story” to this article is that the NIMH has a long history of bias toward biological approaches to understanding mental and emotional difficulties, with an accompanying tendency to ignore even the most obvious evidence that these difficulties often relate to problems in living experienced by people.  For example, even though numerous studies confirm that adverse childhood experiences make a later diagnosis of schizophrenia much more likely (more so than do any particular genes), the NIMH, on a website about the possible causes of schizophrenia, claims it’s “unknown” what kind of psychosocial factors might contribute to putting people at risk.

But it really isn’t a mystery.  To people like NYU professor Brian Koehler who have been following both the biological and the psycho-social research for decades, it’s clear that the real story is that the biological differences we often see in people diagnosed with disorders like “schizophrenia” are often the result of stressful life events, not something that requires specific genes (even though it may be true that some genetic variations increase vulnerability to some limited degree.)

Below (with his permission) I am quoting a recent email from Brian Koehler, where he shared some of what we would be hearing from the media if the medio were being given the whole story.  (His writing will make more sense to you if you understand that microglia are the type of brain cells active in the synaptic pruning that was being discussed, though only in reference to possible genetic causes, in the articles about the recent “breakthrough”…..) [click to continue…]

Madness and the Family: What Helps, and What Makes Things Worse?

Families are often very important for people encountering severe mental and emotional difficulties.  but how can family members really know what is helpful, and what is likely to make things worse for the person having problems?  Similarly, for those who want to help families, how can they know what will really be helpful for those families, and what will make things worse?

H. L. Menken wrote that “There is always an easy solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.”  In the case of madness and families, there are a number of such easy solutions, all, unfortunately, also quite wrong.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be real solutions.  It just means that we might have to reject the simple, formulaic solutions in order to search together for the humanistic, complex, and individually tailored solutions that might really fit particular people and families.

Paris Williams recently wrote a 3 part series on Madness and the Family, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.  If you found those interesting, you might also appreciate hearing a 45 minute talk he gave on the same subject, which you can view by going to

One of the trickiest issues in just thinking about families and madness is the whole question of whether or how much to “blame” families for the madness that seems to be located in a particular family member.  Biopsychiatry and NAMI of course would say families have no responsibility, other than most likely to have passed on what are presumed to be bad genes, while at the opposite extreme, there have been those who thought the existence of madness was proof the family had essentially created the madness.

But when we step outside the world of biopsychiatric or other sorts of dogmas, it appears that issues are much more complex, even perhaps “diabolically” tricky.

As individuals, we try to make our lives better.  But sometimes our efforts to make our lives better makes other parts of our life get worse, or even way worse.  And if we don’t recognize what is happening, our whole life can spiral out of control, can spiral into “madness.”  Similarly, even well intended families can do things they hope or believe will make things better, but these things may really cause problems for family members or make existing problems worse, in ways that may not be recognized.  And then of course the mental health system and other outsiders can also come in and try to make things better, but really make things worse, in ways that may not be recognized.

So, at all levels, even well-intentioned efforts can become part of a “storm” of madness, and while this storm often appears centered as a “disorder” in one person, really the confusion of many can be playing a part in the chaos.

Of course, when not everyone has great intentions, and when abuse is or has been present, things can get even more complex.  So abuse etc. is important to discuss when it has been present, but it’s also important to not presume anyone has been abusive.  Each story of madness is unique, and better approaches are interested in that uniqueness.

One way of understanding it is that people go mad when they encounter key life issues, binds or double binds, that they can’t resolve within the understanding of themselves and their world that they have put together up until that point.  Madness in a family member in turn creates huge and confusing dilemmas or binds for the rest of the family, and this makes it difficult to respond in ways that don’t inadvertently feed the madness.  But when all of this can be talked about, pathways to healing and recovery for all sometimes open up, even if not easily.

Why Does Mainstream Psychiatry Fear a Balanced Understanding of Psychosis?

Many people are now familiar with the BPS report, Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, and they have appreciated how it integrates both science and a humanistic understanding to convey a fresh and progressive approach to difficult and extreme experiences. But it has come under attack by psychiatrists such as Ronald Pies, who wrote an article accusing it of “trivializing the suffering of psychosis” and of failing “our sickest patients.” Others offer similar arguments, such as Joe Pierre M.D. who suggests the BPS report “romanticizes” psychosis.

The arguments offered by Pies and his allies are often quite slick, and sound reasonable to the uninformed. But they are wrong, and the better we can articulate how and why they are wrong, the better we can advocate for a more humane and skillful response to people having the experiences that are called “psychosis.”

In his article, Pies states that

What is lamentably missing from the BPS report is any deep understanding of the psychic suffering occasioned by severe and enduring psychotic states, including but not limited to schizophrenia. Indeed, I believe the BPS’s attempt to “normalize” psychosis winds up trivializing the immense psychic pain and agony experienced by many persons diagnosed with schizophrenia and related disorders of reality perception.

He goes on to provide a vivid example of a man describing severe distress related to attacks he perceives as coming from others, and he suggests that psychiatrists like himself see this sort of thing all the time, while the BPS authors, he concludes, seem to be unfamiliar with deep difficulties.

But it’s not true that the BPS report fails to include mention of terrible experiences – it includes for example mention of a sense of one’s blood being poisoned, of going to hell, of “the worst feeling I’ve ever felt.” It should also be noted that the BPS report was written for a public trained to associated psychosis with horrors of various kinds. So there was really no need to spend a lot of time letting people know that psychosis could go badly. Instead, the report was aiming to increase awareness of how psychosis could possibly be met with understanding and reasonable hope.

So, we might ask, why is it so important to Pies and to others within mainstream psychiatry that the emphasis is put on what’s awful about psychosis? And why are attempts to understand psychosis as possibly not all that different from everyday human difficulties seen as so threatening?

When people intensely fear something, they look for relief from that fear in a less critical way, and they are happy to give power to whatever offers protection against the fear. Our society gives great power to psychiatry in a very uncritical way because it fears psychosis, it fears madness, and psychiatry and psychiatric drugs seem to offer quick protection. So while some psychiatrists may over-emphasize fear of psychosis simply for the same reason that we all sometimes get overly caught up in fearful reactions, it’s important to notice that psychiatry as a profession is also motivated to emphasize fear of madness because that is what causes the public to give psychiatry its power and prestige, while also inducing that same public to ignore any criticism of psychiatric practices (much like the way a public scared of terrorism will not question the military, spy agencies, or often, even the practice of torture).

Fear of others is promoted when we focus on their differences, their “otherness.”  The ways people are different should not be ignored, of course, but a better idea is to make sure we notice both commonalities and differences, in a balanced way.  Balance in general is associated with complexity and nuance, and not with certainty about a correct course of action: but psychiatric power depends on a clear belief that any “psychotic” state of mind is very very bad, and cannot be understood in an ordinary human way, and must be continuously treated by drugs to suppress it, etc. [click to continue…]

A Spiritual Look at the Question, What’s the Relationship Between Trauma, Psychosis, and Spirituality?

“How can “psychotic” experiences that are both terrifying and debilitating be seen as at all spiritual? Isn’t it true that looking for spirituality within psychosis is just a case of “romanticizing madness?”

That’s the question I take on in this updated post, and what follows is a deep exploration about trauma and loss, madness, fear, and spiritual experience.

I want to thank my friend Naas Siddiqui for prompting me to redo the post a bit so it could appear on a blog she works with, Spiritual Emergence and Other Extraordinary Experiences at CIIS.