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by Family Therapists, Maria Seddio, LMFT and John Mince, PhD
Beyond the costly, tenuous economic lifeline, some good news comes with the recent bi-partisan Congressional bailout. We are talking about mental health parity. Squeezed into the 150 billion dollar mixed bag of “sweeteners” to get the bill through Congress, mental health parity means more Americans will have access to mental health services. It couldn’t have come at a more crucial time because frankly, as a nation, (it’s obvious by now, isn’t it?) we need therapy.
As we experience panic and sit on the brink of an economic depression, now is the time for us to acknowledge and deal with the collective psychological depression that has gripped our nation for almost a decade: Hanging chads, 9-11, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Graib, Columbine, Enron, Katrina... the list goes on.... and now the bailout. We need to grieve what is lost and get back to work in order to thwart this very real and looming economic Depression in its tracks. Right now a sane, innovative and optimistic workforce is critical to national security.
In order to do this, we have to start talking.
As family therapists, this isn’t an advertisement, it’s a clinical assessment. Talk therapy is a crucial part of mental health treatment plans. This is because talking is the first step to acknowledging and resolving problems. Actions follow thought and thought and language are intertwined. The opposite of talking is called denial or avoidance, both of which generally create bigger, more-embedded, self-sustaining problems. (Hey! Wall Street – sound familiar?) After years of working through often painful, personal problems with our clients, we have come to believe that there are very few things that can’t be “cured” by the right conversation. Even the most intransigent problems can be shifted in ways that open up new options for action or understanding. In addition, by “talk” we also mean the internalized conversations that determine our self-worth and the social and symbolic gestures that generate meaning more broadly (one brave individual’s resounding “no” in Tiananmen Square). These also can generate health.
So how do we get our nation focused on talking about and working toward financial health and economic recovery?
Let’s start by managing our fear of the talk so that we can embolden a more inspired conversation about action-based solutions. Over the last year, we have refused to acknowledge what was on everyone’s mind and what each of us knew – this bubble was poised to pop. Maybe we were taking our lead from George W. Bush and others (“the fundamentals of the economy are good”) who steadfastly avoided the “D” word as if, in homage to magical thinking (often a precursor to depression), actually uttering the word would make it so. But denying and avoiding do not make bad things go away, they make things worse.
So then, where is the power these days if we can’t look to our lame duck president, exiting office with our country broke, at war and deeply divided, or to the typical power-brokers - Wall Street executives - who have free-based our economy away?
Well, words have power.
Like overtired, dirty diapered toddlers insisting on attention, the words panic and depression have inserted themselves into the bloodstream of our national conversation. Right now they are power tripping con brio, enjoying plenty of air time as part of the ongoing vivisection and 24 hour news analysis of our overall investment psyche.
Both words are featured in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnostic tool that categorizes psychiatric disorders, providing diagnostic criteria and evidence - based research. Panic and depression are two of the most common diagnoses in the USA. In fact, psycho-pharmaceuticals used to treat these disorders have found their way into our water supply systems as well as our vernacular. So, hey, not to worry - in America, we know panic! We know depression!
The thing is that the DSM treats these diagnoses as individual disorders and we are dealing with a nation-wide epidemic that cannot and should not be personalized or individualized. Hey brother, hey sister, we are finally in this thing together! In times of trouble a relational view of the world can seed a collective and optimistic stance– instead of pulling apart, we can pull together. So what do we know about panic and depression?
Panic is an extreme emotional and physiological response to stress that inhibits our ability to function. In effect, our advanced thinking abilities shut down as the fight, flight, freeze mechanism governed by our more rudimentary brain takes over.
Depression is a mood disorder; it manifests as an insidious underlying emotional state and robs our ability to effect change when we are dissatisfied, sad or unhappy. We see evidence of depression when people complain of a sense of inertia, powerlessness, disconnect and lack of caring. Depression is a crisis of confidence.
So what can we do about it? Where do we start?
Many clinicians believe, and it has been our experience, that both panic and depression are fed by anticipatory or unresolved grief. Deal with the grief – however it manifests - and the problem will begin to resolve. Ignore it and it will feed on itself and undermine and corrode the spirit. One attribute of a good therapist is to create a safe environment for everyone in the room so that heartfelt dialogue and true emotions can be processed. This safe environment, also known as “holding space” in Object Relations therapy, evokes a fundamental trust in the world, allowing clients to acknowledge and deal with destructive emotions and fears. In this way they can experience a greater sense of ease and confidence in the world and new solutions can be imagined and realized. Additionally, mindfulness practices can be introduced independently to extend this sense of safety and to build what psychiatrist Daniel Siegel refers to as the “awareness of awareness.” Intrinsic to this heightened state of awareness is a sense of compassion and connection to others fostering thoughtful, encompassing solutions that extend beyond any one individual, allowing us to deal with difficult issues and manage pain without lashing out on others or turning to self-destructive behaviors. Practicing mindfulness is effective do-it-yourself therapy. It is the hallmark of a wise and compassionate mind and the antidote to knee jerk reaction and blame. It readies us to take on more complex issues and to participate in broader, more inclusive, solution-oriented dialogue with others. This emphasis on dialogue is important.
America, let’s elect a leader who can engage this country in a nation-wide, restorative conversation and get us on the road to health.
If, as we believe, conversation is the cure, our next president will have to get people really talking. He will need to put in place a new architecture for talk so that this quality of dialogue can be fostered. He will need to support this nation to step out of delusion or denial into a clearheaded exploration of what is possible. He will have to address old wounds, heal the rifts and join forces across ideological divides.
As we draw near the election, ask yourself: which candidate is more likely to create a healthy environment for open and inclusive dialogue in this country and around the globe? Which candidate has used his words to inspire you? Which candidate do you trust to deal with issues with a sense of calm and confidence? Who do you envision as able to tap into our collective optimism and imagination? Who can facilitate a new state of mental health and resilience in our nation?
Maria Seddio M.A. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the Founder and President of CorpTalk located at 37 Elm Street, Westfield, NJ 07090 email: firstname.lastname@example.org . John Mince, Ph.D. is marriage and family therapist and former adjunct associate professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Hofstra University email@example.com . Maria and Jay are currently collaborating on a book titled, Toward a Culture of Collaboration: Conversation is the Cure.