Excerpts from New Paradigm, June 2000

New Paradigm is published by VICSERV which is the peak body for Non-government Psychiatric Disability Support Services in Victoria.

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The theme of the June 2000 edition was "What is mental illness? What is mental health? Exploring definitions and points of view"

These excerpts are merely the "highlights" that appealed to me. To read any of the articles in full, you'll need to contact VICSERV.

The opening article by Susan Rowland was "Mental illness and mental health - exploring definitions"

Here is a brief excerpt -

'Language constructs the meaning of events and also constructs the person's 'identity' within, and interaction with, the situation. The power inherent in the description, classification and categorisation of phenomena such as mental illness cannot be underestimated, since the way in which language frames or depicts human experience has implications for everyone so depicted.' (Barker et. al., "The concept of serious mental illness: modern myths and grim realities" in Journal of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing, 1998, 5, 247-254)

The definition of mental illness can be very controversial and subjective, something highlighted by the anti-psychiatry movement over the last few decades. ... In this New Paradigm are represented a wide range of responses to the questions 'what is mental ilness?' 'what is mental health?', including those based on the lived experience, the legal definition, and the medical model. Each has their place in a patchwork of opinions. As the Quakers say, 'everybody has some of the truth, but nobody has it all'

To attempt a definition of mental health is even more challenging. Is it the absence of mental illness? Or is it more than that? If so, how much more, and what more?


Some of the writers in this issue see mental health within a paradigm of personal and spiritual growth, a concept well expressed by John Watkins, 'cultivating true mental health ultimately involves the challenging, and at times scary, task of becoming fully human.'

There was a small excerpt from a poem of mine, called Schizophrenia. Click here to read the full version.

Mental health: What is it? Who has it?

A Personal Reflection by John Watkins

When I was first invited to write something on the topic of mental health, a wide range of disparate thoughts passed through my mind. I felt excited and challenged by the task and was aware of a sense of rightness about it. "This is an important subject that is paid far too little attention, is rarely discussed, and is certainly very poorly understood", I thought to myself. A number of ideas for how the topic might be approached flitted through my mind. I was aware at the same time of a feeling of trepidation. "What do I know about this?" I wondered, and was keenly aware that I had to admit to myself that I felt the task would have been so much easier if the request had been for something which focused on 'mental illness'. Then I found myself pondering - not for the first time - the rather discomforting fact that I really had no idea where to begin, which is rather strange given that I describe myself professionally as a mental health counsellor and educator.

I'll begin with some reflections on the way we use words. For a long time I've felt the term "mental health" is used in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way to mean what the person using it wants it to mean.


It's long been obvious to me that in certain ways people diagnosed with "mental illness" are sometimes far more "mentally healthy" than are many supposedly 'normal' individuals! Many of the people I meet as a counsellor, for example, have an openness, honesty, integrity, and sensitivity which I find extremely appealing.

I wish more people, including me, possessed these qualities in greater abundance. In saying this I am not suggesting that diagnosed persons don't also have very real problems and conflicts but simply emphasising the fact that mental health and mental illness always co-exist.


According to Buddhist psychology, the ego itself in the form of a convinced sense of separate, self-existent "I" is the fundamental pathology to which all human beings are naturally prone. In simple terms, anyone who firmly believes that he/she is self-enclosed and therefore separate from the rest of life (including other human beings and the natural world), and whose primary motivation is to preserve and strengthen this belief, is already seriously deluded and mentally and spiritually unwell. The basic "symptoms" of this universal "mental illness" are a compulsive desire to acquire and accumulate material possessions and an addiction to self-aggrandisement in its various forms (egocentricity, lack of humility, a constant concern with "I, me, mine") - underlying which is an aching spiritual hunger and pervasive sense of emptiness, disconnection and disatisfaction. Whether they are extremely gross or quite subtle, the inevitable behavioural and social consequences of these symptoms are obvious for all to see in the form of self-centredness, competitiveness, greed, aggression, violence. When they are manifested on a small scale, these symptoms prevent or disrupt harmonious relations between people and replace love with fear, envy, anger and hatred. On a larger scale, they result in social inequity and fragmentation, chaos, interpersonal aggression and, ultimately, war.


The qualities and characteristics listed below might be thought of as "symptoms" of mental health -

honesty with self and others

gentleness, humility, patience

respect for the feelings and needs of others

compassionate concern for self and others

spiritual awareness and sensitivity

loving kindness and generosity

openness, flexibility, tolerance, non-judgement

reverence for the natural world

I find it interesting to note that Buddhist and other spiritual philosophies consider many of these "symptoms of mental health" to be qualities that are inherent to human beings, though they tend to be covered over by greed, selfishness, pride, and so on in emotionally underdeveloped or wounded individuals. In line with this view, the cultivation of mental health involves uncovering and nurturing natural human qualities. ... Since developing true mental health is a mutual human endeavour and an essentially collaborative exercise, Psychiatric Disability Support Workers who are themselves actively engaged inthis process on a personal level have much to offer those they work with, just as diagnosed persons who are committed to their own personal growth and recovery have a great deal to offer workers. Far from simply being concerned with removing the symptoms of "mental illness", cultivating true mental health ultimately involves the challenging, and at times scary, task of becoming fully human.

John's thoughts remind me of an excellent article by Lama Yeshe on Buddhism & Mental Illness. Interestingly, the Lama suggests to "make your mind an ocean", which ties in very nicely with Dennis Halliday's article later on ...

What is mental illness?
A compilation of consumer / survivor views
edited by Ria Strong

Mental distress in all its forms is a bio-socio-spiritual condition

Biological factors are involved in every human experience. The question is whether it makes sense to explain those experiences in biological terms. If I appreciate a piece of music or a beautiful sunset, there are neurochemical processes going on, but describing the experience in those terms would be a pointless exercise. When trying to make sense of my experiences of madness, I have found the neurochemical explanation to be totally meaningless and counter-productive. The idea that doctors believe such an important episode in my life was just a symptom of disease resulting from a broken brain fills me with horror.

At the extreme, cases of attribution to biochemistry can be likened to attributing the sobbing of a wife mourning the loss of her husband of fifty years to a change in her biochemistry. And if one were able to take samples from her (blood, brain tissue etc.) at the time of the loss and shock of mourning, one would likely find changes in biochemistry. But to attribute this to biochemistry would be heinous. Yet this is precisely what psychology / psychiatry is attempting to do and more.

Among the Plains Indians, for example, religious leaders were EXPECTED to hallucinate. if they didn't have visions and weren't somewhat eccentric, they didn't become, by tribal Consensus, shamans or advisors.

In India, there are Sufi mystics who self-induce psychosis. They are regarded as holy people and given community support. They are not excluded, incarcerated, driven out or forced into hiding and isolation. Their communities support them and consider housing, feeding and learning from them to be a great honour.

In parts of South America, people still practice cultic goddess religions that involve transcendent states, known to Americans as 'psychosis'. These altered states of mind are times of learning for the experiencers, who are never mistreated or punished for valuing an alternate consciousness.


And we are saying that psychiatrists are in the barbaric vanguard of the culturally impoverished ... Because confining, degrading, drugging and devaluing the consciousness of a person in stressful crisis is nothing short of barbaric. It isn't medicine. It's torture endorsed by bigotry. By attempting to force that person into "normalcy", mental health workers are basically sending the message that whole chunks of human experience are invalid, unwholesome, unreal (to whom?), inconsequential and subject to medico/police intervention.

Biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual factors constantly impact on each other - they just can't be separated.

For every human born, there is a specific set of traumas that will trigger any one of a large set of "mental illnesses"

Mental health and spirituality

by Dennis Halliday
Soul in Journey

{I may expand these excerpts later as this was also an excellent article}

Just to focus on my problems is not helpful. Rather, it is better to focus on my sacredness or that which I know to be whole within myself and allow myself to bring my problems to this sacredness. That is why it is so important to detach the "I" form my problems and call out for some help in handling them. It is important to recognise that in today's technologically based society, there exists a belief that logical thinking is a prize to be highly value above other values. It is not. In truth we are oceanic, and oceans have storms so severe and so terifying that at times you can get lost in them. However, living life recognisisng that i am an eternal soul in journey I can better cross the ocean of existence.

From the pit of hell to the joy of paradise

by Susan Tarascio
B Sc, Dip Ed,
Master of mental illness in an experience based learning course called life

The terms mental illness and mental health cannot be strictly defined because they are points on a continuum of which one extreme is the pit of hell, and the other the joy of paradise and full self-realisation. I believe that every person is capable of living any part of the continuum, given the right circumstances. My own experience has taken me a good way from as close to hell as I ever want to get, to feelings of fulfilment, well-being and contentment.


Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, people with a mental illness are forced to depend on the kindness of strangers, and in mental illness everyone becomes a stranger because of the alienation. A person may also be called mentally ill when they lose the capacity to learn and grow.


Mental health unfolds from there with the ability to learn and grow from experience. Thus an individual grows in self-esteem and well-being towards mental and emotional wholeness, which is more a journey than a destination.

Mental Health
by Lorna Cleave

Mental health is what I fear,
As menopause grows ever near
It has a stigma, so stark, so black
Those with that problem, self esteem do lack.

Health services, through cuts, are so strained,
Activities for clients are not retained,
In hospitals, patients minds just rot,
And without exercise they gain weight - a lot.

One in five have mental illness,
Some failies show them little kindness,
Without love, they drift towards the street,
They're odd and aliente those they meet.

Question now what can we do to assist them?
Accept each one - you may find a gem.
Encourage funding of service providers.
Guide us to be one nation - not dividers.

What is mental illness? What is mental health?
A personal perspective

by Sandy Jeffs

Sandy Jeffs is author of Poems from the Madhouse and the forthcoming book Blood Relations, both published by Spinifex Press. She is co-author of Loose Kangaroos, Domain Press.

I am someone who has lived with a mental illness for twenty-four years. My experiences have detrermined what I think mental illness is and conversely what mental health is. Having been on the other side, I am keenly aware of the dualities of sanity and madness. I offer my thoughts as a personal perspective in the pursuit of understanding these issues that have intrigued society for as long as we have known it.

I have spent twenty-four years scrambling on the schizophrenia rat-wheel, lurching from episode to episode, falling from sanity's realm into the miasmic chaos of madness, floundering in its all-consuming fires where its tendril flames sear my soul and render me helpless. When the voices and visions come, I enter a realm of reclusive imagination and invulnerable privacy. There is nothing more harrowing than this wilderness of insanity. There is nothing more devastating than the depressions that throw one into the chasms of the mind's dark recesses where the dark door beckons. I have been taken on a journey to the lands of the lonely and forgotten people; to the world of nightmares from which you cannot wake; to the mindscpae where nothing is as it seems.

I have been engulfed in this mindscape of lunacy, shadowed by the spooks and phantoms of this world of deep ravines and peculiar landscapes. To lose the interlacing of being and become a stranger to oneself, and others, is to lose one's identity. Mental ilness systematically strips you of your identity. With no identity one has nothing within to meet the world without. It is the most demeaning experience and the most personally destructive. To have no identity is to move in the shadows of others and cast none of one's own. I walked as a shadow for years. My many meetings with the precarious moods of schizophrenia have thrown me into unimaginable turmoil often leaving me unreaching and unreachable; lost to a world of unreality; an alien of no substance; a lost soul on a journey I cannot comprehend but am compelled to take by the unseen.


Mental health is to be a person seeking wellness in spite of the shackles of madness.

... More to come ...

I may expand these excerpts as time goes by ...


Last update - 15-7-2000

Some Links

To dance as if no one is watching - excerpts from Nov 1999 New Paradigm

VICSERV - has a great links page as well as loads of other info

Some interesting mental health sites