Putting Mind and Soul into Mental Health Science

In the West at least, we have a materialistic view of the universe which subordinates mind to matter and splits mind from body. This is bad science and leads to the false assumption that the brain is the “objective” key to our understanding of mental health and that the mind itself is “subjective” and therefore scientifically unreliable. Even some physicists these days, however, are beginning to recognize that mind is at the root of all scientific observation and needs to be factored in rather than factored out of calculations about how the universe behaves. It would be arrogant for a true scientist to assume that all that we call “mind” is somehow a by-product of human brains and not a much greater energy or dimension of the universe which we tap into along with time and space. After all, in a truly physical universe why would the brain need any by-product that wasn’t physical? In truth it is only because of mind that we even know that we have a brain at all. In the East, there is a greater awareness that as scientists we need to observe the universe from the inside (mindfully) as being part of it, rather than falsely trying to step outside it and look at it as if from the “outside in” (mindlessly).

Once we recognize that mind is at the core of good science and not an embarrassing variable to be “factored out”, the universe looks more interesting and exciting. It becomes possible in particular to (re)connect science with art and religion. We can see at once that all or most of our artistic and religious activity throughout history (and no doubt pre-history too) constitutes an attempt to measure our universe from the inside which is the dimension where we experience our “selves” as living.

In mental health it should be clear enough that the meaning of a person’s life is what causes distress and happiness. For example, even simple grief is not a set of external “symptoms” but a personal reaction to the loss of a person and what they meant for us. Meaning can never be reduced to matter, though it can influence it. Look at just how many people physically die of sheer grief. Mind can, of course, only be measured by another mind in a state of empathic attunement. Mental health is therefore primarily a matter of relationship where the detail of person to person communication is sacred.

No amount of measurement from the “outside in” of what is going on in the brain can tell us what it “feels like” for another human being. Just looking at the stories of people who present with serious mental health problems in the NHS and the voluntary sector, it should be clear enough that is early failures of empathy, relationship and attachment (childhood abuse, trauma and neglect) that damage the developing human personality. Equally, where people do “get better” it is only through therapeutic relationships (with doctors, nurses, therapists, other professionals, friends, priests, teachers and the rest) that can gradually repair broken hearts, develop trust and build self-worth. In Michelle Magorian’s “Goodnight, Mr. Tom” it was experiencing love, a home and a secure attachment to a father figure that helped William Beech to develop into a mentally healthy boy. In that story, treatment by a psychiatrist in a children’s home was offered as the “evidence-based” intervention of the day, but wisely rejected.

How sad, then, that at the heart of our mental health care systems to this very day, care-giving relationships and attachments are still so rarely honoured and recognised as the means of improving mental health, even though all the evidence is staring us in the face. People who come from “broken homes” and whose mental health problems are rooted in problems of love and relationship in the first place need a sense of family and belonging to a set of stable relationships. Instead they are often moved around the mental health care system like so many unwanted children in yet another “broken home”. The need for staff too to be part of a supportive, “professional family” is often ignored, so that our most damaged citizens are also often seeking help from people who are themselves stressed, burned out, overworked and exhausted. By moving therefore from a medicalised to a mind-based, soul-based and relationship-based scientific model of care in our mental health services, we would improve not only mental and spiritual wealth but also economic health and performance. As a society we have not yet got or have lost the wisdom of how to look after ourselves. Ignoring the soul only creates a “soulless” society increasingly addicted to money, sex, food and the internet. Who really wants that?

Martin Seager, Consultant Clinical Psychologist / Adult Psychotherapist

[email - martin.seagar [at] swyt.nhs.uk]
Martin Seagar, 20/06/2012