I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Matthew Stanford, neuropsychologist, author and co-founder of the Mental Health Grace Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping those who feel stuck in the “treatment box” discover the true process of recovery. They provide personal assistance to navigate professional care and improve personal life management (mental health recovery). Their Mental Illness Recovery Program (THRIVE) and support groups reinforce professional care, reducing symptoms, building recovery and improving personal faith.
Dr. Stanford was one of the plenary speakers at Rick Warren’s Mental Health and the Church Conference at Saddleback Church in California. On today’s program we discuss some key factors necessary to help people understand the nature of mental illness and how best to approach treatment. Here are a few key points to remember:
- Recovery vs. Cure: Many people diagnosed with mental illness ask, “Can I be cured?” Unfortunately, this is a very black and white way of viewing mental illness that sets people up for certain discouragement and failure. If the cause of mental illness was as simple as identifying a bacteria that could be eradicated with an antibiotic, we might used the word cure. However, mental illness usually falls within the spectrum of disorders that require ongoing management of symptoms and signs. Similar disorders would include Diabetes, Parkinson’s syndrome, Heart Disease, and Lupus. When you consider the nature of mental illness, we use the diathesis/stress model. A diathesis is a predisposing factor that makes the acquiring of a disorder more likely. When we use this term, we are usually referring to a person’s genetics or heritability. The stress or stresses are the environmental factors that precipitate and perpetuate a bout of the disorder. These environmental factors include diet, exercise, traumatic life events, upbringing, belief systems, and relationships that generate the “perfect storm” so to speak. It is important to remember that these factors are always in flux and can either exacerbate or improve symptoms depending on the individual’s handling of them. Recovery comes when a person’s symptoms abate and/or the stressors are diminished.
- Resiliency vs. Avoidance: No one can completely escape the pain of life. That is why the second goal of treatment is called resiliency. Our goal is to help clients develop strength to overcome day to day challenges that before might have precipitated or exacerbated the symptoms of their mental illness. Just as diet and exercise enable an individual to overcome obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other such disorders, treatments for mental illness can do the same. Medications are one tool out of a host of options that provide this strengthening. They are not cures and they do have side effects. That is why a holistic approach to treatment that includes talk-therapy, group accountability and social support, diet, exercise, spiritual practices, and educational advancement is vital.
- Reminders vs. Results: Sometimes clients get focused on results and need reminders of how far they have come in treatment. “I feel worse today” is a common statement I hear. It is natural to have ebbs and flows of emotion. At any given moment, we might feel worse and it seems like we are taking steps backward. The encouraging part of what I do is to point out those subtle changes that I’ve noticed occurring in peoples’ relationships and daily life tasks, being a witness to the strength that clients demonstrate during very challenging times. We all need to be reminded that life is hard and full of surprises, but as our endurance builds, we rise to meet those challenges. We can have confidence in ourselves, looking back at some of the hurtles we’ve already jumped, knowing that the ones to come can be taken in stride using the tools we are continually acquiring.
Question: What has given you endurance to keep pushing forward, even when life gets tough?