I was attending Dr. Peter Breggin’s Empathic Therapy Conference: Bring out the Best in Yourself!
So I wheeled into Non-Violent Communication; Increasing Empathy in Private and Institutional Settings: Mel Sears, RN MBA. Mel turned out to be a comfortable-looking older woman. Her room had about twice as many people as Building a Private Practice had, and they weren’t coerced into sitting in a circle.
Coming into a meeting halfway through it is at least difficult. The presenter was going around the room eliciting words from people. At the end, it appeared that she led the group through creating two lists: one was “feeling” words and the other was “need” words. As best as I could figure out, the theory was that emotional distress consists of feelings that arise from unmet needs. We were to practice making statements: “Are you feeling ______ because you need ______?”
One participant related her employment in a financial market and that it was really upsetting her. Various people tried various versions of the are-you-feeling statement. The participant would respond (basically, with “you’re getting warmer” or “you’re getting colder”) and the presenter would chime in with clarifications and redirections. It was a bit of a mish-mash, which is exactly what learning should be. This is not about rote memorization of precepts; this is about exploring a new way of relating.
I offer “Are you feeling stressed because you are in a contentious situation and need harmony?” Later, I comment that one of the benefits of this are-you-feeling do-you-need way of relating is that it sends a clear message that the therapist wants to meet you where you’re at—if she can just figure out where that is. At one point the presenter picks up a wolf hand puppet and makes a reference to something previously said and, again, puts on a pair of giraffe ears and refers back to something about a “screaming giraffe.” I cannot imagine what a giraffe would scream about, and for sure wish I’d joined this group at the beginning.
Later, in the hallway, the presenter approaches me and asks how I came to know about this empathetic form of communicating. I am not wearing a name tag; without the labels, the patients are indistinguishable from the therapists: we are all learned people. I stumble around trying to figure out how I arrived at where I’m at and finally say, “I’m an activist, which is a fairly violent thing—it’s confrontive—and in recent years I’ve been looking for opportunities to learn a kinder, gentler way to get the job done.”
Mel relates that she has worked inpatient with some very violent people and this kind of interaction is a very calming approach. I remember what the recovering psychiatrist told me about nearly being killed on inpatient one night, and then asking me if I saw Governor Cuomo’s statement last week about reducing the prison population.
The way it works is this: traditionally, men who violate society’s norms are sent to prison; woman who violate society’s norms are sent to inpatient psychiatry. One way or another, aberrant behavior gets you locked up, and men are more apt to be violent than are women. Mental illness does not make you violent. Studies show that if you were violent before you became mentally ill then you will continue to be violent. However, if you were not violent before you acquired mental illness then you will continue to be nonviolent after you become mentally ill. Violence is a guy thing, not a crazy thing.
The inpatient who nearly killed the recovering psychiatrist was a political placement. He was in the prison system and the hospital got a call from the state capital that they were to accept the guy. He was a violent felon, not a psychiatric patient. Governor Cuomo’s announcement was that the prison population will be reduced. That means that inpatient psychiatric workers are now going to be confronted with an increasing number of violent felons.
I ask the recovering psychiatrist if the felon actually had a mental illness, and he replied that anybody in prison can be diagnosed with a psychiatric illness. He rattled off a list of diagnoses, including aggression disorder. I was in CPEP with a convicted killer who claimed an aggression disorder. A nine-year-old boy was locked up with us. Maybe we should ignore this hypocrisy of psychiatric disorder versus criminal conviction and just lock people up based on whether they’re violent or not.
My next stop at the conference is A Well-Being & Healing Approach to Mental Illness: Susan Schellenberg, Rosemary Barnes PhD. They have written a book called Committed to the Sane Asylum. (To be continued)