‘The more you are building infrastructure, you are moving away from the need of the patient.’

Last night I visited the Gulbenkian in Canterbury, Kent, to view a first time viewing of the documentary of the ‘The Healer and the Psychiatrist.’ This 20 year in the making documentary created by Dr Mike Poltorak is a anthropology study of a Psychiatrist and Healer in Tonga. It was a thought-provoking and inspiring documentary that focused on the different treatments for ill mental health and the routes the Psychiatrist and Healer took. However, the undertones of the documentary are what struck me the most. The focus on recovery from the Psychiatrist and Healer with limited resources and without infrastructure but still the basic human needs were met to add the recovery. The Psychiatrist explained that the more infrastructure that was put in place, the more the focus becomes about the infrastructure and the process, rather than the patient and human being needs. The Healer’s approach was different, but actually, the core elements very similar to the Psychiatrist. The Healer believed that the plants were healing the patient and had a holistic approach to how the ‘therapy’ took place, the rituals that followed, and the support that came with the therapy. I could see that many of the things the Healer was doing took place in psychotherapy today in the western world (without the plant-based medicines).

Interestingly the Tonga people believed more in Healer’s approach and diagnosis that ‘evil spirits’ have a huge part to play in the mental illness of the patients. I wondered if being able to blame their mental illness on the evil spirits was part of the success of the recovery process. It is the blaming of the spirits in Tonga that also cuts out the stigma of the mental illness. With the Psychiatrist explaining that going to the Tonga Healer for therapy didn’t seem to carry any stigma but going to the psychiatric unit had a considerable stigma. We know in the western world today, it is the stigma that ill Mental Health carries that prevents people from getting the right support at the right time. Is it that we view mental illness as a responsibility of that person, something that they did to themselves, that they broke their mind that causes the shame and stigma that goes with that? If we viewed it differently if we could ‘blame’ something else or someone else would it be ok to get help and support with your mental illness, would this save lives? Is this the difference between fractured bones and a fractured mind? Is it that a fractured bone can be blamed on falling down the stairs, an accident perhaps? Is it with our limited understanding of mental illness, we blame the person for breaking their mind? Can you imagine the feelings of shame and stigma if we treated the physical illness the same? Would we be walking around forever with fractured bones deteriorating further?

Each approach was different; each believed various factors caused Mental illness, but in each approach, there were similarities. They were valuing the human and seeing the human before diagnosis and creating an environment that attended to the most basic human needs, with love and care. They both believed that what the patient was going through, they trusted them, they listened, they supported, they gave them hope, they helped them to recover and survive.

I talk about this to organisations, I deliver this in training, to support ill mental health we need to believe the person, non judgementally. It is real for them and even if you do not understand them, it is their reality, it is their pain. Find a way to support that, find a way to listen, value the human being in front of you. We are so focused on the infrastructure around ill mental health and that we don’t have enough in the UK (even though this is more than the rest of the world). We are focused on where we can take people to be ‘fixed’ from suffering from ill mental health, we are missing the human being right in front of us and the basic human needs.
Interestingly the outcome of the documentary was to have ‘better communication in health care,’ and essentially, this is what all my mental health training covers. Let’s talk, let’s support, let’s focus on the Human being in front of us, let’s save some lives. Let us be more Tonga!

Author: Hannah Smith; The eric.

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