The story of States of Mind.
I don’t really like mental health events very much, I normally leave feeling quite hopeless or pretty angry. I’m always left with this feeling … it’s a feeling of isolation and it’s a feeling of shock, at how powerful language can be in shaping how we see the world - not for the better, but for the worse. How it can distort the way we see our deepest experience of ourselves and how we trust the stories we are told by others about our own minds. I was at a mental health conference on Monday, this old lady put her hand up to ask a question and she said ‘ I think it’s about time we spoke about the elephant in the room…’ and the psychiatrist who was chairing it said ‘ yeh .. whats that?’ and she responded ‘ Big Pharma’. It was the only person who’s statement he never replied to. He then progressed to talk about how upset he was about all of the people coming forward and talking about their terrible experiences withdrawing from psychiatric medication. How awful that people are having a conversation that exposes something much closer to the truth.
Of course, the last thing that people are going to question is the integrity of a medical system. But, that’s the first thing that States of Mind challenges. It questions the language of disorder, of illness, of the idea that people who are suffering emotionally and psychologically are biologically or genetically different to the rest of society.
The idea for States of Mind began 8 years ago, while I was at school. I had wanted to be a doctor and I had chosen all of my A-levels around this. Then something happened. My best friend broke up with her boyfriend and started to spiral into a dark place that seemed to get darker by the day. As any good parent would do, they took her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist told her it was caused by a chemical imbalance and she was given medication. When it didn’t work, she would go back and they would increase the dose, or add another pill to the mix. Obviously, I trusted the medical profession but I started to to become very sceptical about psychiatry. These drugs weren’t working like antibiotics, they weren’t working like aspirin, they were changing her, not curing her. I remember feeling like the more she took, the further away she got from the person that I knew. At that age, you are highly perceptive, I could see it was the drugs, not her sadness that was changing her.
The simplest way to describe it, was that she wasn’t being cured, she was being numbed to the world. The way that she spoke to me changed. I had been reading psychotherapy books at the time, I was pretty obsessed with them and I realised that the message that she had received, that she was a helpless victim to her own biology, was directly contrasted to what I was reading about in these books, these very human explanations about how people come to experience extreme states of despair and hopelessness. I went with my gut and changed my A levels to study psychology at university.
That’s when I came across Lucy Johnstone. I remember sitting in the lecture hall watching everyone leave. I was shocked that they could just go about their day so easily after what she had just told us. She had talked about the DSM, the book of ‘disorders’ and proved its lack of validity and reliability as a diagnostic system, how it worked differently to every other medical system. She had spoken about the theory of the chemical imbalance and how it had to date, received evidence to support it. She confirmed my instinct to be true, that psychiatrists had been playing a guessing game. As anyone would do in that situation, I began to look deeper into what she was talking about and the further I went the more horrified I became. The obvious collusion with the pharmaceutical industry and their marketing agenda, I wondered, how could a system that I was intended to promote psychological healing and freedom had become a puppet to corporate greed.
What I also began to realise, was that people around me, spoke all the time about the things that caused them pain, they were grappling with a sense of identity, they were struggling in their relationships, they were hurt by the things that happened to them. I started to speak at events and I thought people would be dumbstruck at what I was saying, maybe laugh at me, but then I realised, it’s exactly what they were looking for. It was a message of hope, people would come up to me and thank me for providing them with an alternative way of thinking about their pain. I remembered how that is how I had felt when I listened to Lucy. I realised there was an opportunity here, to work alongside people, to listen to their stories of what had been missing, so that I could work with the younger generation to begin to fill the void between their suffering and the understanding they were looking for.
States of Mind has a very simple model, listen to people and develop ideas for solutions with them, based on their stories and their life experiences. Figure out, with people, what promotes healing in their lives. This is what I have learnt from the younger generation. They want to be a part of the change and they want to have access to new conversations, new ways of thinking and new ways of understanding these part of there lives. They want new models and they want systems that they can access earlier, that feel more relatable and less individualised. The thing that seems really important here is that spaces are provided for young people to do this. So I have just launched a project in schools that works with teachers, to provide these spaces in school, within their curriculum, to discuss the big challenges and provide them with people from lots of different areas of psychology, to work with them to turn those ideas into projects that can be upscaled and shared with other schools. The aim is to create a variety of options for schools and organisations to be able to develop their own youth led approaches to promoting mental health and wellbeing. I guess we’ll see how intuition stands against Glaxo Smith Kline.