After the Asylum: ‘I like my reality now.'
The destructive voices in Michelle Dalton’s head resulted in her being admitted to hospital as a teenager. She now supports others in distress
“Drugs have a role, I think. But recovery depends on community support: having a network of friends and family. Psychotherapy also has a big role for me, looking at your self and drawing on your inner resources . . . but many people don’t have those choices.”
The field of mental health is facing growing questions over the use of medication and the manner is which mental disorders are diagnosed.
Over the past five years, prescriptions for antidepressants, benzodiazepines and sleeping pills on the medical-card scheme increased by more than 25 per cent.
Critics – including patients’ groups and some high-profile psychiatrists – say fresh scrutiny of scientific literature suggests the benefits of many medications have been exaggerated and that in the long term they might even exacerbate a person’s illness.
Further, they say, the medicalisation of “common distress” is serving only the interests of drug companies, which don’t care who is prescribed antidepressants as long as they are prescribed in great quantities.
It’s a challenge hotly disputed by representative groups for the psychiatric profession, who see mental disorders mostly as diseases of the brain that can be treated effectively with medication, along with other therapy. They argue that critics make too much out of often minor technical matters and then ignore an overwhelming body of data supporting the effectiveness of medication.
This debate over medication and how best to treat mental health problems comes at a time when the voices of patients and advocates, especially those critical of the system, are growing louder.
Groups such as Mind Freedom Ireland, Mad Pride and many others are rejecting the labels and language of psychiatry, which views mental ill-health as a biomedical problem.
Instead, these organisations tend to see mental health problems as forms of emotional distress or an underlying vulnerability, and are demanding a much greater emphasis on choice and on being involved in their route to recovery.
For people such as Dr Terry Lynch, a Limerick-based GP and psychotherapist, the debate on how best to treat mental health problems needs to focus more on developing a genuinely recovery-orientated approach.
While he says he is not “anti-medication or anti-psychiatry”, he says the process of recovery requires therapy and time.
“The mental health system doesn’t sufficiently understand the emotional and psychological aspects of mental health problems, nor the importance of exploring in detail the individual’s experiences, whatever they may be.”
Today Michelle is 24. She’s an accomplished artist and concert curator.
She rents her own home on the outskirts of Bandon, in Co Cork, along with Hendrix, her dog, and cat, Lizbeth. The walls of the house are adorned with her paintings. Michelle still has a fantasy world. She hears voices from time to time. They’re not bad or critical. They can, instead, be teachers for dealing with issues in her life.
Until very recently she was using her experiences to help others in the Hearing Voices Network, a support group for people who hear “auditory hallucinations”.
She feels proud that she has turned some very negative experiences into something very positive.
The other day she wrote the following in her journal:
Today, I am thankful to myself for building such a great life. I have more wealth than most people do and it had nothing to do with printed paper.
It captures, Michelle says, how she feels these days.
“It’s not sappy, it’s quite fierce . . . I like my reality now. And I’m quite proud that I’ve managed to create this great life for myself.”