Education versus Experience. Which is the better teacher?

Since becoming a registered psychotherapist and published author with lived experience of mental illness, I have been asked which has been the better teacher, education or experience? If you haven’t caught on by now, my dualistic questions result in a dualistic response: both. Is it possible to have one without the other? Certainly yes. Does having both result in enhanced value: yes. Let me ask you this, if you were to have surgery, would you rather have a surgeon preform it who only has text book knowledge of how to preform the surgery?  Or, years of experience? Chances are you would want both, but if left with no other choice, you would likely pick the one with experience and who has a history of proven results. That being said, education and experience are not mutually exclusive. Both are necessary. Just like a surgeon would not have education without practical experience, so to do therapists & mental health professionals. What enhances our knowledge base is the years of personal, clinical and professional experiences that we develop. Education and experience have their value and meaning but are undefined until paths intersect. Wisdom is ultimately the result. The two must work together. How you do this in any practice is both an art and a science.  My book, When Lightning Strikes Twice is a collection of our family experiences journeying through the ups and downs of mental illness. It is our intention that others will find hope in the struggle. Wisdom is a gift meant to be shared with others so that we can all grow collectively. What are you doing to enhance your education and experience?

Are you running on fuel or fumes?

A car cannot run on empty.  The same principle applies to people. If you were preparing for an adventure to an unknown destination, you would want to start with a full tank of gas. For those fortunate to have electric cars, you would want to start out your adventure fully charged. But how do we do this?

We’ve all heard it before, self-care, self-care, self-care. What is it and why is it so important? Self-care, simply defined, is our ability to care for our body, mind, and soul. So, what makes it so easy to say and so hard to do? Some people may say self-care is selfish, or that they would do it if they just had more time, or for a multitude of other reasons are able to justify allowing themselves to run on empty. Our society almost applauds how much people can do in less and less time, and yet more and more of those people find themselves in doctors’ offices, counselling offices, or the ER, looking for solutions to ailments of all kinds in hopes of a quick fix.

Do we consider the result of such self- neglect? Are we paying attention to the early warning signs of potential compassion fatigue (burnout) or depression? Have you ever considered the fact there is an indisputable correlation between our mental and physical health, and further, that there is a correlation between how we take care of ourselves and how capable we are of taking care of others?

We can’t give what we do not have. In the same way, ignoring our basic needs can cost us, and we run the risk of becoming overwhelmed, exhausted, and resentful.

So how do we safeguard against these risk factors and build on protective factors? It has been said that charity starts at home. Therefore, giving to others begins with giving to yourself, which is an act of love. Find ways to fill yourself up and keep on re-charging.


Is Mental Illness on the Rise? Or Has it Existed All Along?

Is mental illness on the rise or has it existed all along is a commonly asked question to which the answer is yes. Mental illness is on the rise and has existed all along.

Throughout the ages, mental illness has been largely viewed as a problem to contain. Asylums, isolation, and electric shock were amongst first responses to treat persons with mental illness.  Society has moved away from using these aggressive interventions to using much more effective approaches that diagnose, treat and integrate people into community. Of course, this is a work in progress.

Statistics reveal that mental illness are commonly diagnosed between the ages of 15-24 but affects people of all ages and does not discriminate against education, income levels and cultures. It is no wonder then that our college and university students are being affected at such alarming rates. Never mind pervasive societal norms and rising trends that add pressure, insecurity and anxiety making it more difficult on our health, both psychologically and emotionally.

It is imperative that as a culture we to adopt healthy change and work at making families healthy one person at a time. Regardless, of whether mental illness has increased, decreased, or existed all along, it’s worth our attention for every person to get the care they need. Conversations help reduce the stigma and that’s worth talking about!

Mental Health System Wish List

I wish that diagnosing a mental illness was an exact science, as simple as getting a brain scan.

I wish that finding the right medications was like taking blood work-once- and know precisely what doses are required so that patients aren’t always guinea pigs of doctor’s best guesses.

I wish there were no side effects to medication-period.

I wish that inpatient and outpatient services worked more collaboratively to expedite processes and eliminate errors.

I wish that all outpatient services were all in one place.

I wish that treatment was provided for the whole family and not just the person with a mental illness.

I wish that outpatient services were available when they are needed rather than when they are offered. One year wait lists and beyond….really?

I wish that all counselling services were free and accessible for everyone.

I wish that the ER would take patients at face value and have unlimited space to accommodate a potential break down of the patient or their family system.

I wish medical passports existed whereby the most pertinent information was provided on spec to eliminate the telling and re-telling of your history and current symptoms and concerns.

I wish that every hospital had their own full-time psychiatry staff.

I wish that there were care units that group patients with respect to their condition (does one have to be in the same ward where a patient is screaming all night that Martians are invading the world?)

Ultimately, I wish that mental illness didn’t exist and that none of these services would even be needed.

Help is a Phone Call Away…or is it?

When dealing with mental illness crisis, it is a comfort to know that help is a phone call away…or is it? Are they responsive to the help you need? I know the frustration of utilizing various help lines including 911 only to be disappointed with the help they have to offer. Is my expectation too high or are their resources too limited? Perhaps it is a bit of both. Are they still invaluable resources? Yes. They each serve a purpose, provide assistance and can save lives.

Let’s backtrack a minute. Let me give you a recent example. I have a 17 year old son who has bipolar disorder and is medicated and monitored regularly by a psychiatrist. Against all odds, his disorder reared its ugly head temporarily overtaking parts of his body or at the least his mind. In short, he was inconsolable, unpredictable and increasingly aggressive. First attempt at hospitalization was denied-not bad enough, second attempt, call 911- a home visit by the police but ultimately not their problem (a referral was made to the IMPACT team who evidently do not work on statutory holidays). Third attempt, four days later, a phone call to a help line that wasn’t helpful at all.   I ended up taking matters into my own hands, and hospitalization followed.  I know myself and my child and what was needed at that time. Sometimes we need to follow our gut and not take no for an answer. It can be really hard to keep your cool when you feel frantic and your child certainly is. It is important to stay composed in order to take charge, take action and be your child’s best advocate. When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

So what happened next? My son was admitted to the General Hospital and 12 hours later transferred to the Child and Adolescent Inpatient Program (CAIP) a children’s psych ward.

Mentally Ill & in Good Mental Health

Mentally ill and in good mental health may sound like an oxymoron, but its not. Think about it, just as it’s possible to have poor mental health but no mental illness, it’s entirely possible to have good mental health even with a diagnosis of mental illness. Mental health exists on a continuum. Everyone has good and bad days. What’s important is how we handle them.

Good mental health applies to us all. It is about our ability to take care of ourselves emotionally, physically, mentally and relationally no matter what kind of day we are having. It’s about managing our daily stressors and keeping them in perspective. Mental illness on the other hand affects a fraction of the population- stats reveal one in five people. There are many different illnesses, and they have different symptoms that impact people’s lives in different ways. For example, when you have met one person with bipolar disorder you have met one person with bipolar disorder.

The practice of good mental health requires us all to tend to our changing needs. This will call for different actions at different times. Perhaps going for a run or listening to your favourite music playlist or both, will provide a mood boost. Other actions may include, retreating from or engaging with others, taking medication regularly if that is what is required, and not to mention taking care of the basics like diet, sleep and exercise.

So, no matter where you are on the spectrum of mental health, know you are not alone. There is so much that can be done to optimize your well being. Know your limits and live within them.

The Gifts of Mental Illness

The gifts of mental illness are perhaps a concept we don’t often- if at all- consider. How could something good come out of being diagnosed with a mental illness? At the time of diagnosis, shock is a common response while for others it may be relief or some other emotion. Either way, there begins one’s opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons. It’s not about what happens to us in life, rather how we respond to life’s challenges. Remember, you are so much more than your label. You are still the person you have always been, challenges or not. Its important to eventually move away from disempowering questions like why me; to more empowering questions like what now? What can I control? How can I move forward despite my challenges? Who can I call on? and most importantly, how can I help others?

Here begins the heart work of mining for gems. It has been said, the longest journey in life is from your head to your heart. Once past the initial shock of diagnosis, one can work on connecting head information to heart emotions which effects change. With an honest self-assessment, and willingness to see things differently the gifts of mental illness emerge. Perhaps its crediting yourself with self-awareness and the ability to learn new things about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t have so early on in life, perhaps its your new-found ability to relate and empathize with others, or to take a more non-judgmental stance because you never know what’s behind someone’s bad day or mood. What about the opportunity you give others everyday to be more compassionate? More than this, how can you express yourself? Through words? Art? Music? It has been said that all the ‘greats’ have had a streak of madness that made them who they are. So what about you? How has your illness gifted you?