Dealing with mental illness can be daunting for a person. The nature of the illness, limitations it imposes on the affected, social stigmas attached to it add to the complexity. However, treatment and recovery from these illnesses are not as unlikely as the widespread belief holds. Dr. Jerome Carson, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Bolton has worked extensively with patients suffering from mental illnesses. Apart from being a renowned academician and researcher in the field, he has worked with psychiatric rehabilitation as well as community rehabilitation. He is also a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and is responsible for a number of psychological interventions that have proved extremely helpful to alleviate debilitating consequences of mental illnesses. As an active practitioner and researcher, he has made several contributions to mental health recovery. On a visit to Jain University, Dr. Carson threw light on the nebulous area of mental illnesses. Here are a few excerpts from the talk.
Q: How did you develop an interest in mental health recovery?
Immediately after completing my Masters, I worked with two hospitals, Kidderminster General Hospital, then at Claybury Hospital for about seven years working in psychiatric rehabilitation. Then I moved to Institute of Psychiatry located in South London in 1992 and took up the position of Lecturer and then a Senior Lecturer. During this period, my clinical work was in community rehabilitation within the Maudsley Hospital Community Service. While working at these places, I realized the miserable plight of patients of mental illness, the way they were treated and one-sided nature of the treatment whereby the perspective of the people suffering from mental illness was severely absent. I felt that there should be something more to it and hence started looking at mental health recovery.
Q: Any particular work on mental health recovery that inspired you?
There was a book written by Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. A clinical psychologist herself, she describes her own experiences with bi-polar disorder in this book. It showed me that often mental health workers also have a history of mental illness. There is a term called prosumers (professional consumers) that is in parlance for them.
Q: What is the scope of the work that you are doing on mental health recovery?
The recovery work that we are doing includes people who have mental illnesses for several years. Most of them are suffering from long-term depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia which is also called psychosis.
Q: What is the most daunting aspect of working people having schizophrenia and how can it be overcome?
The biggest challenge that the professionals have to face is try as we might, we cannot get inside the head of a person having schizophrenia. Normally, we do not have visual hallucinations; we do not hear voices which are not there. These are very frightening perceptual experiences of a schizophrenic person. Professionals can only pursue a course of treatment based on these symptoms. The best possible way to understand the condition is to talk to people who have gone through the same.
Q: What are the means that you are using to spread the message of mental health recovery?
We are trying to use the strength of the services to try and promote the message of mental health recovery. When you are suffering from a long-term mental disorder, it is easy to lose hope because you might not have a relationship, you may have no job. The best people to give you hope are the people who have gone through similar experiences and come out at the other end recovery.
Q: Could you please elaborate some of the work you have done with survivors of mental illness?
I have done quite a lot of work with the actor Matthew Ward. He has described his experiences with mental illness in a paper called My Mental Illness: A Work in Progress. We have taken up projects together where I give a professional talk on mental illness followed by a play enacted by Matthew where he typically uses scenes from Shakespearean plays to make points about mental illness. Besides, Matthew also has a 90 minute solo play. To learn the lines for a 90 minute play is a phenomenal achievement in itself. We have done tours where he enacts the play and then I interview him on stage about his mental illness. It was done in an attempt to change the attitude of people towards mental illness. Another significant work that we have done is with service user and film-maker Michelle Mac Nary. It took her two and a half year to complete the 18 minute film which features four service users who have experienced mental illness. They talk about different stages of their recovery and their hopes for the future. The film was shortlisted for Mind and Media Awards and has been showcased all over the world. We were very careful not to use professionals in the film. We wanted to bring out the perspective of people having mental illnesses in a film made by someone who has experienced it firsthand.
Q: You have also worked on social inclusion of mentally ill. What role does it play in helping mentally ill patients?
If you are suffering from mental illness it affects your confidence and ability to relate to people. This is where in a sense family is very important and in a sense where India is ahead of Britain because the family structure here is stronger. For instance, the brothers and sisters of mentally ill persons can invite them to social gatherings and take them out so that they feel a part of the society. Employment is another facet of social exclusion. In Britain and many other countries mentally ill people find themselves out of jobs. Mental illness affects three core factor required to hold a job, proactive skills- ability to do the job, sociability- your ability to get along with colleagues at workplace and, reliability which again has two aspects, that is, punctuality and sickness absence. The latter is particularly high in case of people suffering from mental illness. Some people including the famous psychologist, Dr. Rachel Perkins believe that we need to change the work environment to make it more conducive for people with mental illnesses to work. My point would be we would need very tolerant employers.
Q: What work are you looking forward to do with Jain University?
We are hoping to start a study on people’s perception of happiness. We at Bolton have data from 1938 which describes how people looked at happiness in that age which we would be sharing. I am also interested in getting some contemporary narratives to compare what happiness means to people today. The expectations of people in 1938 were far simpler than those today.