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Creating Places of Sanctuary for Those in Extreme Distress

Taken from the point of view of a mental health professional, Dan Edmunds speaks directly and frankly on “madness” and how those in extreme distress may just need sanctuary from their current environments, rather than being incarcerated or hospitalized.

Creating Places of Sanctuary for Those in Extreme Distress

Published on Feb. 7, 2012 in Psychology Today

A number of years ago, I encountered a young man whose father was drug addicted and abusive both emotionally and physically. The family dynamics were chaotic. The family projected a public image that was far different from what actually was occuring within the home. The young man had also experienced sexual abuse at a very young age. He began to descend into a psychotic state. One evening, after a serious altercation with his father, the young man began roaming the streets. He was returned home and a police officer suggested that maybe this young man just needed a safe place to settle for a time and be free from the distress within his home. I concurred.

His family agreed to allow him to stay for a little over a week with a person who he had built a strong connection with and who I was also familiar with.  Each evening I visited him there for dinner and a therapeutic session to follow. I predicted that his being in this new setting would lead to a decline in symptoms. This is exactly what happened as he seemed to find a period of respite. However, I also thought that once he had to return home that things would unravel again. Sadly, it did.

Once he was aware that he had to return home, he had an explosive outburst. I was asked to speak with him and seek to de-escalate the situation as he refused to communicate with anyone else. Secuity officers tried to intervene but it frightened him more when they came towards him in the night with flashlights. He did not initially recognize me, and swung his fist at me. Once he heard my voice, he apologized and began to calm.

This situation demonstrated clearly the impact of the environment, traumas, and familial communications upon individual well-being. I have seen this vicious cycle play out in a number of clients’ lives. They feel a period of safety and sanctuary, make a connnection, but then are only brought back to the situations and circumstances that led to their ‘madness’ to begin with. We must consider this in the mental health system. Without often realizing it, therapists and others become agents of oppression. Is our work solely leading people to become proper conformists, to do what others are doing? Is our work solely to make people adapt to totalitarianism, to do what they are told to do?

It appears we are failing because we do not provide sanctuary for people; rather, we take them and do things to them, thinking it is in their best interest, we treat them, but often we are only forcing their compliance with oppression and we are returning them to the private hells that led to their distress. Unless we can get to the true root of the distress, and address oppression, our efforts are often in vain.

Edmunds concludes that the root of distress and oppression must be addressed, which is precisely what we seek to achieve here at Mind(ful) Liberation Project. Through peer support and other events where we are able to analyze ourselves, we get to the root of our own distress through a learning process with others. In holding peer support gatherings and other events outside of the mainstream of professional psychology and the institution of psychiatry, we take our well-being into our own hands. Each person is able to define what it means for them to be “well” without the looming threat of a professional defining who we are and what we feel. It is in this way that we question and subvert oppression with our actions.

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