Western psychiatry is the most important barrier to healing in our world today. That sounds insane - because it is insane that it is true! I could write a book on this. Maybe I will. But for now, I’m going to approach it from one angle: the power of belief and suggestion.
Here’s a less controversial example: A young boy in school does something that gets him labeled as “bad”. His parents and teachers begin giving him messages that he “won’t ever be worth anything”, that he’s stupid, and that there’s really no hope. What happens? Well, this has been studied extensively and the outcome is exactly what you’s expect (check out the phenomena of Stereotype Threat). The child begins to take on the identity that the world has reflected to him from every angle. When the boy is “dreamed up” to be a bad kid, that is the person he becomes.
We can also easily see this in our personal relationships. What happens when we approach someone with aggression, rather than with kindness? If we are angry and accusatory we get an aggressive or defensive response (surprise!). We have a great deal of power to influence others to identify with some parts of themselves over others, in every moment.
Now let's switch to mental health with another example: A high school boy has a panic attack at school. He associates it with school and is afraid to go back. His parents take him to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist gives him a "diagnosis" of panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder, or whatever happens to be popular that year. When asked for clarification about what that means, he says that the boy has a genetic malfunction. Something intractable has occurred that is out of his power to control. The doctor describes that, at best, he can hope to "manage his symptoms" with drugs, which he claims will rebalance his faulty brain chemistry. The boy hears this loud and clear: he is broken.
Now, with each subsequent experience of anxiety his mind will be oriented into that framework of disease. He now believes that “anxiety” is an experience in its own category, different from the normal ebbs and flows of love, joy, sadness and calm. Anxiety is a problem, a thing he has, and a thing he cannot get rid of.
This amplifies the experience of anxiety. Every time he has it, he now resists it. One vicious cycle after another ensues, leading to more panic attacks - panic about feeling panic. And yet anxiety is not something he is supposed to feel so he clamps down, his body racked with tension. Through implicit messaging he feels embarrassed, as if through some sinful means he’s contracted an STD, showing that he lacks moral fortitude and purity. And when he finally returns to school, he feels too embarrassed to be honest about what has happened. He feels utterly alone and isolated in his experience, which necessarily furthers his experiences of anxiety. Worse yet, his teachers joke about people that are anxious needing to take a “chill pill”. He silently holds that he is one of those broken people.
As the years go on, he starts to avoid situations in which he feels anxious. Vicious cycles continue to perpetuate his distress. He develops a hyperfocus on it, a kind of phobia to feeling anxiety in any circumstance, because it will betray the brokenness he has been told he has.
And who wouldn’t believe the stories given to them by the "experts" at such a young age (or, at any age)? When parents, teachers and even the high priests of Western culture, doctors and psychiatrists, all concur with the same worldview? What kind of child would have the tools to question the framework of an entire civilization? Sadly, this child will become another victim of Western medicine.
Here’s another story he could have been told: “Your anxiety is just an experience that means you are scared. Something is happening inside you that you need support with. It is a gateway to knowing yourself at a deeper level. Hidden behind your anxiety is a more whole experience of yourself. We are here. We love you - no matter what you feel, no matter who you are”.
I invite you to really, really just sit for a moment with those two stories, and see how differently they feel to you on a visceral level. Without needing to cite any "evidence", which story feels more true and more humanizing to you?
The reality is that Western medicine is creating a mental health epidemic. It does not mean that people do not come to psychiatrists in distress. What it does mean is that when they do, they get a prison sentence, the most powerful placebo: a high priest telling them a "Truth" that cannot be argued with. After all, look at these thousands of research studies! So here's some drugs. Come see me in six months.
The problem is that “anxiety disorder” is an arbitrarily defined category, a reification of what is (like all human experience) just one experience in the flow of life. (The DSM-5, the book that describes these "disorders" is a joke, as scientifically verifiable and repeatable as a casino slot machine, but that is for another topic). To Western medicine, emotions and human life are not sacred. They do not have any inherent wisdom, directionality or purpose. This view is soul killing at the most profound level, because it prevents the human person from evolving in the direction it is wanting to, trying to, if it weren’t for so much ideological junk in the way.
To bring clarity to what I'm saying, this would be like a doctor telling someone with a cut that they have "scab disorder", and that the best they can hope to do is constantly put Neosporin on it, and resign themselves to live with a bleeding shin that will never fully heal. It never occurs to the doctor that the viewpoint itself, and all the futzing with it that results, are the actual problem. That love, care and time are all the wound needs.
Oof. Now, if that high school boy was told a different story he would have never developed the “condensed system of experience”, COEX, that Stanislov Grof writes about. This is when an initial experience happens that, when unaddressed but instead reinforced, more and more layers stack on top of that initial crystallization of that first experience. As the years progress, one initial experience of suffering, a panic attack, becomes a whole system of different phobias, adaptations, and beliefs. It is literally creating something out of almost nothing and creating that something for the rest of the person’s life until they are fortunate enough to encounter someone that is able to tell them a different, more true, more real story.
If that high school boy was supported through his panic, he would have discovered something. Maybe it’s that he was experiencing shame and didn’t know it, so he panicked instead. Maybe he was feeling oppressed by the ridiculous things he was having to memorize in school, when his heart called for nature, embodiment and authentic human connection. Maybe he was enraged at an absent parent, or the teachers that told him thinking, and not feeling, were all that mattered. Anxiety is the leading edge of dehumanization. Whatever it was, it was wisdom trying to come through.
And only the sickest of medical systems would somehow convert emergent wisdom into a lifelong prison sentence of suffering.
Fortunately we have a choice of what stories we tell ourselves and those determine outcomes. First we simply need to know what those choices are. This isn’t about wishful, fluffy, positive thinking that ignores reality. On the contrary, this is about the most rigorous of scientific approaches: paying attention to what happens when we do one thing versus another. Because the “interventions” of science are not just the drugs people are given, but the philosophical frameworks and suggestions that begin the moment the patient enters the consultation room. And actually much before, with the messaging from our society, advertising, and even textbooks. So when they tell us what we think we already know, we automatically agree. This is the most powerful of contexts for a placebo effect to occur and has been rigorously studied and demonstrated, yet somehow it is still ignored in medical practice today. When a negative suggestion creates a negative outcome it is called a nocebo, and this is the primary effect of psychology and psychiatry today.
If there is one thing I can guarantee about childhood development, it’s that if you take a group of people with great social power and all have them tell the child they are bad, stupid or broken, you are going to get a self-fulfilling prophesy, because it would be far too dangerous for that child to assume a different identity. It would threaten the very life-sustaining relationships that child needs to survive. This is why all children take on the identity of their caregivers, no matter how sadistic the caregivers may be. In a sane world this would be called abuse and be punished. In our world it is called "science" and is celebrated. But it is the most perverted of sciences, and not long in the future it will be looked back upon as horrific as the long history of abusive military psychological experiments, eugenics or slavery, all with elaborate "scientific" justifications each time.
If there is any disorder to be named, we should understand medical culture on the whole as inducing a universal state of mind and being that could be called suggestion disorder, with all the negative effects described in this essay. We have all been hypnotized in a very, very real sense by the Western medical system. Why would they do this? Well, why would the church send missionaries to murder an entire continent of people that don’t convert to Catholicism? That does have clear answers but is for another essay, another time. In short, it would threaten the high priests and the truth they believe they hold.
This does not mean that people aren’t today in extremely elevated levels of distress. They are. We all need to help each other now more than at any time in human history. The problem is that the very people that claim to help are doing the worst possible thing they could do by telling us a story that is flat out wrong! The messages that are being given guarantee the perpetuation of suffering through the power of suggestion. While the genetic story has been debunked years ago, doctors continue to shut down the possibility of healing by continuing to invoke it. Yet Eastern and indigenous traditions that are thousands of years old have always told a different story, not to mention the alternative approaches that continue to be on the margins of Western culture. The modalities that I practice, especially Somatic Experiencing, operate within that new and ancient story of innate wisdom and healing. And it works. All you have to do is try it.
The sad thing is that with all the pain in the world today people are literally dying to find a way to heal. And it’s already available. Right now. Today. This second. The only thing that is preventing healing on a mass scale from occurring is a belief that it isn’t possible - and the linchpin of this whole complex is the belief systems constantly propagated by the "experts" of psychiatry. They insist that even one experience of mental distress dooms someone to a lifelong “disorder” encoded in their immutable, deterministic DNA.
Again, the good news is that you can choose which story you want to live into, and as a scientist with utmost integrity, you can see what works for your life. And you’ll find, as everyone else does, that once you trust your innate healing process just a little bit, you’ll have to admit that what you’ve been told is false. And then you’ll have to do some therapy on your rage! Because whether you’ve lost a day or a year or decades of your life to these insidious belief systems, you’ll have to admit that important life has been lost, and for no good reason other than the job security and mental comfort of well-paid ideologues. This pattern of coercive power has a striking way of recreating itself in ever new and disguised forms throughout Western history.
The point at which your suffering exceeds your desire to hang on to the old story is the point at which genuine healing can occur. You can’t force this but you will know when you’re ready to break out of the prison of belief that you didn’t consciously choose.