Is there any truth about the benefits of Classical music?

Is there any truth to the commonly accepted notion that listening to classical music improves mental capacity? Somehow it has been accepted in modern society that classical musicians have larger frontal cortices, better mental reasoning powers and perhaps intelligence quotients. Over the last two decades or so this idea has fuelled a rise in the number of pregnant mothers listening to classical music – whether or not they like it – and parents enrolling their children into music classes. The music of Mozart, in particular, has enjoyed a resurgence as its classical form is deemed to be more logical and organised, compared to music of other periods, assisting in triggering patterns of organisation in the brain amongst its listeners.

How did this idea about Classical music come about? In the 1990s scientists conducted a series of experiments where one group of students were played one of Mozart’s piano sonatas before a spatial reasoning test, while another group sat in silence. The group that was played the music beforehand performed better on that task than the control group. The effect on the control group was temporary and only lasted fifteen minutes, meaning that after the fifteen minute mark the disparities between the results were minimal and statistically the same. The results of the group found also that while music primed the individual particularly for mathematical tasks, after an hour of listening to Classical music, the effect on the brain was lost.

That piece of research was pounced on by the media and other individuals and seemingly perpetuated to promote the listening of Classical music. One governor of the state of Georgia even decreed that newborn babies be given a copy of a CD of Mozart’s works upon leaving the hospital. The Mozart Effect, to give it its common name, was written about in newspapers and magazines, and this began the spur of Mozart-related sales of music as well as the trend of mothers playing such music to their children in and out of the womb.

The most important question we need to ask is whether there is any truth in such research, and whether it can be corroborated.

We know that some forms of music has a soothing, calming effect on individuals. Playing the music to the students may have calmed that so they were not nervous, allowing them to perform better on the task. However, relaxation need not take them the form of Classical music. Any activity that promotes calm before a task – reading a light magazine, playing computer games, talking with a friend – can also hence be said to have the same effect as the classical music that was played.

What if the students in the group had read a joke book or comic beforehand, been less worried about the test and scored better? It might have prompted a deluge of articles claiming “Reading Archie (or The Beano – insert your own title here) improves your IQ”.

Or if the students had been offered a protein drink beforehand, it would not be inconceivable that someone would latch to that piece of research and declare that “Protein Drinks not just good for your body, but for your brain too”.

Mozart’s music has been said to embody the elements of classical music as we know it. Organised formal structures, chords and harmonies through related keys, use of contrasting tunes, contrasts in volume all feature in his music. But the music of other composers have such features too. Imagine if the composer Josef Haydn had been the lucky beneficiary of the experiment and his music had been played instead. The sales of his music catalogue would have hit the roof!

Subsequent scientists all found that listening to music of any form caused improvements, and the genre of music – whether rock or Classical – was irrelevant. But studies today still quote Mozart.

Is it ethical that the media promotes unsubstantiated research by reporting without closer scrutiny? As we have seen in previous blogs posts, the media reports on things without necessarily scrutinising the evidence, and entrusts so-called experts to corroborate the evidence, while it fills column inches and air time with modal auxiliary verbs? Huh? In simple terms, it means that if there is a sniff of a link between A and B, the media reports that “A could cause B”. Never mind whether it does or not, there is always the disclaimer of the word “could”.

In this instance, students performed better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to Mozart; hence the headline “Mozart could improve mental powers”. Diluted over several recounts, you could get “According to XXX newspaper, Mozart improves brain power” before arriving at “Mozart improves brain power”. Unfortunately, this is when the headline is then pounced on by anyone who would stand to profit from espousing this theme.

Who would profit from this? The Classical music world – performers, writers, musicians – can use this “research” to entice people into taking up lessons and buying CDs and magazines. If you read any music teacher’s website you may find them espousing the benefits of learning music; it is rare if you find one that advises it is a lot of effort.

The media will profit from such “research” because it means there is an untapped well of news to report and bleed dry in the quest for filling column inches and air time. News exclusives will be brought out, and so-called experts will also profit for appearing on the news and programmes, either monetarily or in the form of public exposure.

One must question the ethics of incorrect reporting. Unfortunately unsubstantiated research leads to more diluted misreporting, which can then form the basis of new research – research that uses these claims as the groundwork for investigation.

It is scary to think that all the medical research that has been done into effect of music and health could be biased because of the so-called effect of classical music. Could musical activities such as learning the piano help reduce Parkinson’s disease? Could listening to the music of Beethoven reduce the incidence of higher cases of Alzheimer’s disease? Could it all be wrong – have we all been sent down the wrong tunnel by an avalance of hype reporting?

It may be fair to say the human impulse is to buy first and consider later, because we are prone to regret. If we have missed an opportunity to improve the lives and abilities of our children, then we will be kicking ourselves silly forever with guilt.

So if you are still not convinced either way about whether classical music – either in the listening or the practice – really does have any effect, you could at least mitigate your guilt by exposing your child to piano music, for example that has predictable patterns in the left hand. Sometimes, listening to structurally-organised music such as from the Baroque may be useful, but it is also good to listen to Romantic music because the greater range of expression arguably develops a child that has more emotionally subtlety and intelligence.

You may find that ultimately, any truth in the research about Classical music and its mental benefits is not due to the blind passive listening, sitting there while the music goes on around your children. It is in the child’s inner drive to mentally organise the sounds that are heard, the trying and attempts to organise background sounds that really triggers the mental activity in the brain. It is more the practised ability in the inner mind to organise musical sounds that causes better performance in related mental tasks.

A smart person thought up the mental improvement products

The trail of human evolution is littered with gadgetry that have outlived their usefulness. We can add devices such as the fax machine, walkman, mini-disc and tape recorder to the list of machines which seemed clever at the time but have now before obsolete. Those of us of a certain age will remember newer additions such as the PocketPC, a palm sized screen which was used with a stylus that tapped out letters on screen, and the HP Jornada, a slightly bigger tablet sized keyboard and phone. And who could forget the Nintendo Brain Training programmes for the DS and Fitness Programmes for the Wii?

Launched in 2005, Nintendo’s Brain Training programmes claimed to increase mental functioning. Nintendo’s premise was that the concentration required in solving a variety of puzzles, involving language, mathematical and reasoning, increased blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain, which at least maintained brain functioning or helped improve it. After all, since the brain is a muscle, exercising it by bombarding it with mental exercises would keep it active and healthy, right?

It is the idea of keeping the brain active that leads many to attempt their daily crossword or Sudoku. The latter in particular has seen an surge in interest over the past decade and is now a feature in newspaper back pages and magazines. There are even publications exclusively filled with Sudoku puzzles, and even more complex versions where each traditional puzzle forms a square in a bigger and complex three by three grid. If you thought doing a Sudoku puzzle was hard, imagine having to work on it in relation to eight others. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

Is there any truth about the positive enhancements to the human life that these objects or activities bring? Nintendo’s claims about the Brain Training programmes were doubted by leading neuroscientists, who doubted the tenuous links between the increased blood flow to the brain and the vaguely described positive effects to life. It is akin to making a blanket statement saying chess grand masters or academics are the happiest people around. Unfortunately it is yet another case of a company creating a product and then engineering the science around it.

Manufacturers of beauty products do it all the time. Whether it is skin care or facial products being flogged, you will find an aspirational theme within the first five seconds of the advertisement (“Look beautiful! Stay young!”) which is then followed by a pseudo-scientific claim, preferably involving percentages (sounds more authoritative) and a small sample size (easier to corroborate, or disclaim, depending on the need).

“Live young forever. XX skin lotion is carefully formulated to retain your natural moisture, so you look and feel twenty years younger. 86% of 173 women noticed a change in skin density after using it for three months.”

There you have it. The secret of beauty product advertising.

Unfortunately, if there was any display of mental acuity, it was by the marketing team of Nintendo. In pitching a product to adults, using the retention and improvement of mental agility as a plus point, they not only convinced adults to buy what was essentially a toy, but to buy one for their children as well. The DS alone has since sold over 90 million units worldwide, and when you take into account the cost of games and all that, you will have to concede that someone at Nintendo had the smarts to produce a tidy little earner.

(For those who were more concerned with retaining their physical functioning, the Nintendo Wii Fit programmes performed that function and filled in the gap in that market.)

The improvement of mental functioning is always a good basis for marketing any product. You can find a whole plethora of products huddling behind it. Multi vitamins, activity puzzles, recreational activities involving multi-tasking – all supposedly give the brain a workout, but more importantly, tap into the fears of missing out or the loss of mental function in the human psyche, that makes people buy not out of potential gain, but fear of lost opportunity and potential regret.

The loss of mental function can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is currently no cure. With 30 million people worldwide suffering from it, this presents an endless river of opportunity for people researching the disease, as well as people developing products to improve mental function in the hope that it can stave off the disease. Like the Nintendo Brain Training developers realised, it is not so much about whether these scientific products work that makes people buy them – the evidence that is produced is biased and not independent – but it is the fear of missing out and retrospective guilt that compels people to make the purchase. Buy first, examine the evidence later, is the apparent dogma.

Unfortunately we are at the stage of modern society where it is not just the product that needs scrutiny, but whether the scrutiny itself needs scrutiny for evidence of bias, either in the form of financial ties or expected research outcomes.

Mental improvement is an area that product developers – whether the products be vitamins, books or applications – will continually target because human beings will always seek to improve mental prowess, both in themselves and their children, in the hope that somewhere down the line it offers an advantage, or prevents the mental degeneration associated with the aging process. And the compelling reason to buy lies somewhere in the meeting points of being seduced by the aspirational ideals the product offers, the fear of missing out, and the assumption that the underlying evidence is empirical. The greatest mental sharpness has been displayed by the one who has understood the sales psychology of mental health improvement products and used it to his or her advantage.

Set aside time and space for your own mental health

Work places huge demands on modern living. It goes without saying that over generations work demands have increased. For example, generations ago the concept of a traditional job for most people was a five-day working working week. The song “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton more or less captured the essence of work at the time. (Unfortunately, it is still fairly often played, to the point that people in non-Western societies assume we still only work eight hour days, five times a week, and spend our free time sunning ourselves on the beach.) Nowadays people have to work longer hours, and travel further for work. The total time spent each day traveling and working each day could easily amount to twelve hours, and it is not like the commute is down time – we still have to catch up on emails, admin, and type away busily on the laptop. We could easily spend sixty hours doing work-related things.

And the weekends? Forget the weekends. These days there is no distinction between a weekday and a weekend. Work has steadily grown its talons and where an hourly-rated individual used to get 1.5 or two times the normal rate for working on a weekend, these days it is the same. Employers realise that in an economy with job shortages, they can get away with offering less rates but will not be short of takers.

The problem with all this is that we don’t really have much of a choice when it comes to establishing our work boundaries or exercise or rights when we realise we are being pushed beyond our work boundaries. We’re made to feel that in these times, we are lucky to hold down a job, and if we complain about the increasing demands of it, and how higher managers try to force more work on us without increasing our pay, we might get told to take a hike and end up in a more difficult situation of having no job, commitments to uphold and having to start out again. There are lots of people trapped in jobs where they have to take on more and more as the years go by, and have every ounce of work and free hour extracted from them for little pay. This places increasing mental demands on the individual not just in having to cope with work demands, but the possibility of being made redundant if he or she shows weakness by having to admit an inability to cope any more. It is a no win situation.

Is it a surprising statistic that mental health illness is on the rise? Hardly.

Nowadays people are working more to live and living to work more.

What can you do to preserve some semblance of mental health?

The first thing you can do for yourself is to establish boundaries within the home. Establish a space where work does not intrude. A good idea is often the bedroom, or even have a rule that you will not work on the bed. If you end up working on your laptop in the bed, it will not do you any good – keep at least a certain physical space for yourself.

Also try to set aside a time each day for yourself if possible. It is possibly unrealistic to say an hour each day in the modern life climate, but something like twenty minutes to half an hour would be a good idea. Use this time to wind down in your personal space doing something you enjoy, that is different from work. You may think you cannot really afford that time, but it is important to disassociate yourself from work for the sake of your long-term longevity. Think of it as enforced rest. If it works better for you, take your enforced in the middle part of the working day. You don’t necessarily have to be doing something, use it to rest or catch a power nap.

Every now again, such as on a weekend, do something different from work. Do a yoga class, learn an instrument like the piano, or play a game of tennis. The possibilities for leisure are endless. But don’t bring your work approach to your leisure. Don’t start charting your tennis serve percentage, or do anything that makes your leisure activity appear like work in a different form. The only thing you must do with a businesslike approach is to meet this leisure appointment so that your life does not revolve around a continuous stretch of work.

We can moan about it but the nature of work will never revert back to how it was in the past. Those of us who long for the good old days will only make our own lives miserable with wishful thinking. Those of us who insist on working five-day weeks will find it is insufficient to maintain modern living in the twenty-first century. We will all end up working longer and harder in the current economic climate, and even if times improve, employers will be unlikely to go back to pre-existing forms of remuneration if workers have already been accustomed and conditioned to work at a certain level, because it is more cost effective to hire fewer employees who do more work than have the same work done by more employees. Employees have to recognise that adapting to increasing work loads are a working life skill, and that taking steps to negate increasing pressures will also be an essential part to maintaining our own mental health and well-being.

The quest for fitness may be detrimental to your long term mental state

We are often told how we should aim to have, and maintain, a healthy lifestyle. After all, being physically fit allows your body to function both in physical and mental aspects. Healthy body, healthy mind, right?

The only difficulty, if you can call it that, with exercise is that the first thing that we would normally consider is running, but it is not for everyone. Going forward for a certain distance or time has little meaning for some people, especially children.

The thing about running is that it has to have some appreciable meaning, so unless you have some derivative inner joy of measuring your progress using statistics, it is unlikely to hold your interest for the long term. A better form of exercise is though group sports, as the mental boredom of tracking fitness levels is negated in favour of the social dynamic.

Common group sports such as football  have a large following in England. The football season for example lasts from August to May and provides a welcome distraction during the cold winter months. It is also a simple game that can be improvised using other materials and played on all surfaces. No goalposts? Use bags or some other markers. No football? Use a tennis ball. It is often interesting to see children turn up at a field, establish the boundaries of play using trees and creates goalposts using caps or other loose materials and these are often sufficient for the game; at least until there is discussion about whether the “ball” hit the post or went in the goal after it flies over a set of keys intended to represent the goalpost.

There is increasing concern about the link between dementia and football. The pounding of the ball against a soft surface of the brain, when the ball is headed, over time can cause the destruction of cells and cell function. This is of particular concern in the case of children, whose brains and bodies are developing. This has been of significant interest as members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad have found to have developed dementia in their later years. Some of them cannot even remember being there in 1966!

It is not just the impact of ball on head that is concerning, but when the head is moved through a range of motion too quickly. Even though there is no impact on the head externally, internally there is damage as the brain is hitting the sides of the skull supposed to protect it.

It is not just football that we have to be concerned about. There is plenty of head and neck related impact in rugby and American football. In fact, in American football, the head related injuries for offensive and defensive linemen, who every forty seconds start a play by ramming into the player on the opposite side of the line,  and the list of dementia sufferers is growing continually. Some players have even sued the NFL for injuries suffered during the game.

Will the rules of football change so that heading the ball is banned? Don’t bet on it. That would change the fabric of the game so much as to ruin it. When the ball is swung in from a corner, what would you do if you couldn’t head it? The game will not change, but also don’t rule out a consortium of players in the future filing lawsuits for work-related injuries. Perhaps in the pursuit of fitness, it may be wiser to choose less impactful activities for the sake of long term health.

Why mental health problems will never go away

Many people will experience mental health difficulties at some point in their lives. As people go through life the demands on them increase, and over a prolonged period these can cause difficulty and ill health. These problems can manifest themselves both in mental and physical ways.

What kind of demands do people experience? One of these can be work-related. People may experience  stresses of looking for work, having to work in jobs which do not test their skills, or be involved in occupations  which require skills that are seemingly difficult to develop. Another common theme with adults that causes stress is having to work in a job which increasingly demands more of them, but does not remunerate them accordingly. In other words, they have to work more for less, and have to accept the gradual lowering of work conditions, but are unable to change jobs because they have already invested so much in it in terms of working years, but cannot leave and start afresh because the demands of a mortgage to pay off and a young family to provide for means they cannot start on a lower rung in a new occupation. Over a prolonged period, this can cause severe unhappiness.

Is it surprising that suicide affects men in their thirties and forties? This is a period for a man where work demands more, the mortgage needs paying, and the family demands more of his time and energy. It is unsurprising that having spent long periods in this sort of daily struggle, that men develop mental health problems which lead some to attempt suicide. But mental health does not just affect men. Among some of the this some women have to deal with are the struggles of bringing up children, the work life balance, the unfulfilled feel of not utilising their skills, and feeling isolated.

One of the ways ill health develops mentally is when people spend too long being pushed too hard for too long. Put under these kind of demands, the body shuts down as a self preservation measure. But the demands on the person don’t just go away. You may want a break from work. But this may not be possible or practical. In fact, the lack of an escape when you are aware you need one may be a greater trigger of mental illness, because it increases the feeling of being trapped.

It is little wonder that when people go through periods of mental ill health, an enforced period of short-term rest will allow them to reset their bearings to be able to continue at work, or return to work with some level of appropriate support. But this is only temporary.

With mental ill health problems, lifestyle adjustments need to be made for sufficient recovery.

Under the Equality Act (2010), your employer has a legal duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to your work.

Mental ill health sufferers could ask about working flexibly, job sharing, or a quiet room, a government report suggests.

The practicality of this however means more cost to the employer in having to make adjustments to accommodate the employee, and unless the employee is a valued one, whom the employer would like to keep, often the case is that they will be gradually phased out of the organisation.

In fact, when an employee attains a certain level of experience within an organisation, employers often ask more of them because they know these employees are locked in to their jobs, and have to accept these grudgingly, or risk losing their jobs, which they cannot do if they have dependents and financial commitments.
And you know the irony of it? The mental ill health sufferer already knows that. Which is why they don’t speak out for help in the first place.

If these employees complain, employers simply replace them with younger employees, who cost less, and who are willing to take on more responsibilities just to have a job. Any responsibilities the redundant employee had simply get divided up between his leftover colleagues, who are in turn asked to take on more responsibilities. They are next in line in the mental health illness queue.

And what if you are self employed? And have to work to support yourself and your dependents? The demands of the day to day are huge and don’t seem to go away.

You can see why mental health is  perceived a ticking time bomb. Organisations are not going to change to accommodate their employees because of cost, but keep pressing them to increase productivity without pay, knowing that they cannot say no, and when all the life and juice has been squeezed out of them, they can be chucked away and replaced with the next dispensable employee.

A ticking time bomb.

An overview of mental health

Mental illness continues to be one of the most misunderstood, mythologised and controversial of issues. Described for as long as human beings have been able to record thoughts and behaviours, it is at once a medical, social and at times political issue. It can lead to detention against one’s will and has its very own Act of Parliament, and yet we really know very little about it.

Societies through the ages have responded to this mystery by the locking up of people whose sometimes bizarre behaviour was deemed dangerous, unsuitable or just plain scandalous. Only within the relatively recent past have the tall, thick walls of the asylum been dismantled and those who remained institutionalised and hidden allowed out into the community.

Little wonder then that mental health and mental disorder remain misunderstood to most, and frightening to many. Recent reports suggest that stigma is on the decline (Time to Change 2014) but progress has been slow. Despite the best efforts of soap scriptwriters, high-profile celebrities ‘coming clean’ about mental illness, and the work of mental health charities and support groups in demystifying diagnoses such as depression, we still see and hear many examples of discrimination and myth.

Given the sheer ubiquity of mental illness throughout the world, the stigma and mystery is surprising. The most recent national survey confirms the now well-known statistic that just under one in four English adults are experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder at any one time (McManus et al. 2009). Depression is identified by the World Health Organization as the world’s leading cause of years of life lost due to disability (WHO 2009).

Relatively few of those experiencing mental health problems will come to the attention of a GP, let alone a mental health professional. This is especially so in the developing world where initiatives to develop local mental health interventions are gaining considerable ground after generations of cultural stigma and ignorance (WHO 2009). But even in parts of the world where people have ready access to medical help, many suffer alone rather than face the apparent shame of experiencing mental health problems.

Perhaps part of our reluctance to accept mental illness lies with difficulties determining mental health. We are made aware of factors that determine positive mental health. Connecting with people, being active, learning new things, acts of altruism and being aware of oneself (NHS 2014) have been evidenced as ways of promoting our well-being, but mental order remains rather more loosely defined than mental disorder.

So what are the systems used to categorise and define mental illness? In the United Kingdom, mental health professionals often refer to an ICD-10 diagnosis to refer to a patient’s condition. This is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) diagnostic manual, which lists all recognised (by WHO at least) diseases and disorders, including the category ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ (WHO 1992). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (better known as DSM-5) is more often used in the United States and elsewhere in the world (American Psychiatric Association 2013). These two sets of standards are intended to provide global standards for the recognition of mental health problems for both day-to-day clinical practice and clinical researchers, although the tools used by the latter group to measure symptoms often vary from place to place and can interfere with the ‘validity’ of results, or in other words the ability of one set of results to be compared with those from a different research team.

ICD-10 ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ lists 99 different types of mental health problem, each of which is further sub-divided into a variety of more precise diagnoses, ranging from the relatively common and well known (such as depression or schizophrenia) to more obscure diagnoses such as ‘specific developmental disorders of scholastic skills’.

The idea of using classification systems and labels to describe the highly complex vagaries of the human mind often meets with fierce resistance in mental health circles. The ‘medical model’ of psychiatry – diagnosis, prognosis and treatment – is essentially a means of applying the same scientific principles to the study and treatment of the mind as physical medicine applies to diseases of the body. An X-ray of the mind is impossible, a blood test will reveal nothing about how a person feels, and fitting a collection of psychiatric symptoms into a precise diagnostic category does not always yield a consistent result.

In psychiatry, symptoms often overlap with one another. For example, a person with obsessive compulsive disorder may believe that if they do not switch the lights on and off a certain number of times and in a particular order then a disaster will befall them. To most, this would appear a bizarre belief, to the extent that the inexperienced practitioner may label that person as ‘delusional’ or ‘psychotic’. Similarly, a person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease may often experience many of the ‘textbook’ features of clinical depression, such as low mood, poor motivation and disturbed sleep. In fact, given the tragic and predictable consequences of dementia it is unsurprising that sufferers often require treatment for depression, particularly while they retain the awareness to know that they are suffering from a degenerative condition with little or no improvement likely.

Psychiatry may often be a less-than-precise science, but the various diagnostic terms are commonplace in health and social care and have at least some descriptive power, although it is also important to remember that patients or clients may experience a complex array of feelings, experiences or ‘symptoms’ that may vary widely with the individual over time and from situation to situation.

Defining what is (or what is not) a mental health problem is really a matter of degrees. Nobody could be described as having ‘good’ mental health every minute of every day. Any football supporter will report the highs and lows encountered on an average Saturday afternoon, and can easily remember the euphoria of an important win or the despondency felt when their team is thrashed six-nil on a cold, wet Tuesday evening. But this could hardly be described as a ‘mental health problem’, and for all but the most ardent supporters their mood will have lifted within a short space of time.

However, the same person faced with redundancy, illness or the loss of a close family member might encounter something more akin to a ‘problem’. They may experience, for example, anger, low mood, tearfulness, sleep difficulties and loss of appetite. This is a quite normal reaction to stressful life events, although the nature and degree of reaction is of course dependent on a number of factors, such as the individual’s personality, the circumstances of the loss and the support available from those around them at the time. In most circumstances the bereaved person will recover after a period of time and will return to a normal way of life without the need for medical intervention of any kind. On the other hand, many people will experience mental health problems serious enough to warrant a visit to their GP.

The majority of people with mental health problems are successfully assessed and treated by GPs and other primary care professionals, such as counsellors. The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme is a now well-established approach to treating mental health problems in the community. GPs can make an IAPT referral for depressed and/or anxious patients who have debilitating mental health issues but who don’t require more specialised input from a psychiatrist or community mental health nurse. Most people receiving help for psychological problems will normally be able to carry on a reasonably normal lifestyle either during treatment or following a period of recovery. A small proportion of more severe mental health issues will necessitate referral to a Community Mental Health Team (CMHT), with a smaller still group of patients needing in-patient admission or detention under the Mental Health Act.

Mental health is a continuum at the far end of which lies what professionals refer to as severe and enduring mental illness. This is a poorly defined category, but can be said to include those who suffer from severely debilitating disorders that drastically reduce their quality of life and that may necessitate long-term support from family, carers, community care providers, supported housing agencies and charities. The severe and enduring mentally ill will usually have diagnoses of severe depression or psychotic illness, and will in most cases have some degree of contact with mental health professionals.

Where Will factors in mental health treatment

If medication is a physical stabiliser, is therapy a mental stabiliser?

If you’ve read the last few posts you might have come to the conclusion that as far as mental health is concerned, the line of thinking contained in this blog is that an approach that is suitable for long-term and lasting treatment is part medication and part therapy. Medication initially works best for more serious cases, and milder forms of mental health illnesses may be possible without the use of prescription medication, but for the long term, it is better to wean patients off the medication. Not simply because the use of medication over longer periods breeds addiction, dependency and causes changes to the body which may be harmful, but for the health service, it is an unsustainable form of treatment that simply continues to deplete the environment of its resouces while contributing to climate change and extreme weather. It seem strange to have to mention climate change in a medical blog, but essentially this is what we can trace it back to.

Medicine, especially for serious cases of mental health, is an effect-suppressant that minimises immediate symptoms while buying time for alternative therapies that promote long-term solutions to kick in. But there are those who consider if medication if even neccesary at all. After all, the body does a pretty good job of healing itself when we get cuts. Those who ascribe to this view hold that given time, the body does what it needs to prepare itself for survival and growth.

The only problem that time is not always an available resource. Sometimes we need results in a short space of time, and do not have the luxury of seeing the effects of mental illness dwindle away over years. Medication provides a higher level of immediacy to treatment. To some, it seems that medication is flooding the body with chemicals it could obtain or manufacture from within, but within a shorter span of time and with a higher concentration. It is giving the body what it needs in an intensive period rather than over a longer span of time that the non-medical proponents advocate.

Some go further to suggest this no-medication approach can be extended to the therapy aspect of mental health treatment. They argue that therapy, counselling or any other cognitive methods of treatment only serve to increase stresses rather than decrease them. While no one would ever advocate a completely non-medicated and non-therapy treament for mental health illnesses, and the current thinking is a part-medical and part-therapy approach to mental health illnesses, there are those who might consider a non-medicated but supported therapy approach. Another variant of this is the medicated but no therapy group. It is this last group which we will consider further.

On the face of it, it seems preposterous to even suggest it. If we have believed that mental health illnesses can only be treated in the long term with therapies such as counselling, then how is it even possible to consider a zero-therapy treatment group?

Proponents of the above idea hold that the therapy causes stress rather than deals with it on a long term basis. What patients really need, it is argued, is mental space to dwell on their lives, reflect on how they are living, then in order to make long-term changes, they have to find solutions within themselves and the will to apply them. Methods such as counselling and cognitive therapy already exist, but as the solutions are arrived at through the meetings within the counsellor and patient, it is felt that certain patients may only view the changes they have to make as being dispensed by the counsellor, and see them as extrinsic factors. Hence the guidance may be less effective. However, if they are given time and space to reflect on what they need to do, having examined their situation in detail for themselves, it is one that they will be more effective in finding the will to put actions into practice.

Take for example, the caterpillar. Cocooned in security, it makes minute adjustments day by day to prepare itself for the life ahead. To the outsider it looks as if nothing is going on, but this could not be further from the truth. As it is about to break out and emerge as a butterfly, it has to struggles and somehow bridge the gap from where it is, to where it must be. The final trials, as it tries to break out from the cocoon actually help to strengthen and develop its wings permanently. Maturity is arrived at without any extrinsic factors. The caterpillar made it on its own. If someone had helped it, perhaps by thinking to widen the gap through which it must emerge, the lack of pressure and resistance would actually cause the emerging butterfly to have weaker wings and have a poorer chance for long-term survival.

Those that point to a no-therapy solution claim that the guidance of the counsellor, psychotherapist or assisting care individual actually puts a timeframe on what could actually be a non-hurried adaptive process of the mental health patient. A counsellor is paid, either through the mental health patient directly or from a health service. The presence of a counsellor may only impose a time-limit by which progress must be made because health care funds will run out, or perhaps accountability demands that the patient make progress at a speed that may not be concordant with the natural run of things. The pressure to be at a certain mental stage in time may only impose an additional counter-productive burden in the first place.

A common factor in depression is the dwelling on the gulf that exists between where one is and where one wants to be. The prolonged over-emphasis on the disconnect between both disparate worlds is one of the reasons why individuals develop unhappiness and long-term depression. Yet the argument could be made that counselling and cognitive therapy, while aiming to bridge that gap, may not be effective in helping patients develop the skills and will to bridge the gulf in order to take their development forward. Often the development has to follow the patient’s natural timing and pace, and if this important counselling cornerstone is disturbed, then the advice and guidance received from the counsellor will merely be more pieces of information dropping into the gulf and  widening it further.

Some point to a period of reflective solitude as the necessary key to a long term solution. The individual goes at a pace he is suited to, slowly adapting to the needs of his situation and developing the skills for long term recovery. A self-monitoring form of silence and meditation is imposed. The theory behind this thinking could not be any more different from traditional approaches. Where traditionally some form of intervention might be applied to, say, an individual lying in bed and unable to face the day ahead, either through the dispensing of advice such as “Man up! Toughen up!” or visits to therapists, proponents of the reflective solitude theory view the process as the individual resting himself in preparation for the changes ahead, akin to the caterpillar. The belief is that the mere thought of an activity triggers physical processes in the motor nerves, so by resting, the individual is clearing his mind and soul and preparing his body before he can fill it with more useful purpose. It is not a major problem that the resting may  take place over a period of weeks. But the belief is that ultimately the individually will feel compelled to make some changes to better his situation, and the will to do so will have been found.

To take the argument further, and possibly to an extreme, does therapy perform only the role of a distractor or mental substitute? While medication performs the function of a physical stabiliser, does therapy perform the role of a mental stabiliser, stabilising the mood swings and thoughts of the affected individual, before Will, binding these altogether, prompts the individual to leap across the gulf between “where I am” and “where I want to be”?

If you believe that real, long-lasting change can only come about when the mind and body are relatively stable, and given time, an individual posseses the inherent power to heal themselves of mental illness and free themselves from the shackles of the likes of depression, then you might make the case that therapy isn’t as important as it is cut out to be. Is therapy really necessary in this case, and can it be replaced by recreational interests, for example, where parts of the brain that are latent come to the fore, and override the parts of the brain that trigger mental illness?

It would be simplistic to find a direct link between mental health and recreational interests or hobbies. Hobbies do not directly cure mental illnesses. But what they can possibly give is a sense of achievement and empowerment to an individual, subtly developing the mindset and will that change can be attained. The subtle aspect of development is an important one, it is an indirect way of going about developing achievement and staying hidden until the affected individual one day surmises his development and can see measurable progress that could spur him on to make great strides in matters of more concern. If, for example, a mental health sufferer takes up a hobby, such as learning a musical instrument like the piano, the time and energy invested into this may draw excess energy and time away from that invested into unnecessary mental worry, resulting in a greater sense of overall well-being.