Symbols in mental health dec09 seminar

Symbols & Structures – Mental Health Dartington CSP Nov.2009 Over the centuries mental health and illness have been represented in many symbolic ways often depending on the common zeitgeist for health and illness. In particular it is difficult to choose between symbol and myth which become very intertwined in the issue. Clearly Psyche herself is the most sustained symbol/myth and is the point of reference for this particular universe of enquiry. The word is used as a prefix with 93 entries in the O.E.D. ! Yet she fits uneasily with mental disturbance because she was the beloved of Eros. She represents soul, mind, life breath and so on and is usually depicted kneeling with a lamp for enlightenment. Sometimes, too , she is connected with a butterfly or moth. Jung said his patients often represented their psyche with dreams or images of the butterfly. At least she has beauty – unlike the figure often portrayed of Melancholia . But it seems that she has now got lost as symbol and is only powerful in her verbal form . At the Bethlem hospital there were two figures over the portal which seemed to represent mental health and illness, but these are not reported elsewhere. What would the would-be inmate make of those? But we need to take an historical journey. The significant step forward by society in dealing with mental health and illness is represented by the concept of asylum, beautifully depicted by the Quaker Tuke and others as an open spacious environment of gainful occupation away from life’s pressures – the so aptly named Retreat in York. But the pressures of industrialisation soon replace asylum with incarceration. Here the symbol was the key. But not the key that opens the door, rather the key that closes and imprisons. What happened to Psyche there ? In the late19th century in the person of Freud re-introduced the ancient Greek much more powerfully by using the myth rather than the symbol . Not psyche but the dark character of Oedipus and then of Eros and Narcissus as actually representative of the psychological struggles of his patients. His contemporary, Jung, was much more interested in symbols than was Freud. He discovered that his patients often told him about the butterfly as representing their psychological persona. He also discovered (re-discovered ? ) the ancient symbol of the Mandela as representing wholeness. The complete circle of calm and repose which perhaps united the discordant parts of personality. But these symbols and myths have not survived very well in the latter part of the 20th century in clarifying and representing the issues of mental health and illness. Now the competing theories are battling it out with neither having a good symbolic structure to represent it. Psyche and Soma both seek to explain and organise the approach and treatment of mental ill-health. At present in non-psychotic states Psyche is winning with the current governments’ endorsement of the IAPT programme for psychological therapy in primary care. Should these services have an image of Psyche on their notepaper perhaps ? In institutional terms there did develop two symbols following the critique of the older mental hospitals The new regime espoused the open door, as opposed to the locked door as representing best practice. His was followed by some cynics who depicted the new regime as that of the revolving door through which people pass out but would all-too-soon pass back in again. It is probably the contemporary complexity of both system and explanation in mental health and illness which precludes the emergence now of simple symbols to represent this area of human struggle and endeavour. We have already discussed the principle of homeostasis as emerging in the boundary between mental health and the law but this does not have such a compelling symbol to command attention. Perhaps in the current technological era the moving coloured MRI scan of the brain may emerge as the most potent symbol of mental disorder. Modern technology moves perhaps towards unravelling the mysterious workings of the human mind in relation to expressed emotion and behaviour via central nervous mechanisms? Personally I would happily settle for the butterfly ! Douglas Hooper Dec.2009


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