The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Chene Walz
EM: You work as a counselor with the Savannah College of Art and Design Counseling Services. Can you tell us a little bit about who you serve and what you offer?
CW: I am one of several licensed mental health clinicians in the office of Counseling & Student Support Services where we provide a range of services to our undergraduate and graduate student population.Our service menu includes individual and group therapy, creativity coaching, crisis intervention, consultation and referral, outreach programming, deaf services, student accommodations (under the Americans with Disabilities Act) and counseling for people with disabilities.
We have students from over 100 countries with about 15% of our student population being international. The college offers more than 40 majors with over 70 minors and certificate programs. There is an e-Learning option that includes full programs and degrees, and we have locations in Savannah, Atlanta, and Hong Kong as well as a Study Abroad opportunity in Lacoste, France.
SCAD strives to lead the way in creating the best art and design education, in part via employing talented faculty and providing advanced learning resources, and also by living a mission that is truly student-centered. This mission includes support services such as those offered through my office. I have been a therapist in the SCAD counseling center since 2001, and I am hard pressed to imagine a better “job” than supporting talented creators in their academic and life endeavors within an institution that values the creative process and cares about both academic and personal success.
EM: What are some of the special emotional and mental health issues of young artists?
While there is not an abundance of clinical research in this area, my work with artists/creators tells me that generally speaking, they tend to have a great need for—and sensitivity to--making and finding meaning in life and through their creative work specifically.
Creators as a group seem to have a more deeply felt experience (and freer expression) of emotions as well. Taking these broad ideas into consideration, it’s not a far leap to predict what the potential mental and emotional (and physical) manifestations of disruption in this meaning-making process might look like: some configuration of signs and symptoms that can include overwhelm, crises of meaning, anxiety, depression, mania, and problems with substance use.
I do believe we see a higher incidence of students with “diagnosable mental disorders” as well as those on the autism spectrum as compared to students at a typical liberal arts college or university. Many students I see for counseling reference their creative work/process as having some direct connection with their presenting concern(s). For instance, a client whose primary issue was trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling) was best served to some degree through addressing the intense perfectionism that was causing her to nearly miss deadlines and fulfill her sense of dread that she would not be able to give physical form to what was in her mind.
Most often when we are able to get to the root of the issue and identify corresponding strategies for accepting and transcending it, the flow of the creative process (along with a meaning-full relationship with the work) returns, and often symptoms (including those that amount to a psychiatric diagnosis) significantly remit or disappear completely. Common culprits disrupting the creative process and contributing to mental health concerns are fear, anxiety and perfectionism all tangled up in various areas of creative life, including: experience of meaning, artist identity, knowledge about navigating the career landscape, procrastination (often because the work can never be good enough and can never be truly “done”), fear of failure, fear of success, fear of mistakes … the list is limitless.
EM: Do you offer other services, like groups or workshops, in addition to individual counseling?
CW: We offer quite a range of comprehensive support services, including creativity coaching as a standalone service. Students experiencing creative paralysis or a loss of meaning in work can find effective interventions here. On two separate occasions, we have been fortunate to have you, Eric, train our counseling center staff as well as present to and provide a forum for our students and faculty focused on thriving in the areas of creativity and living the creative life. Your initial training with our counseling center staff (2003!) was pivotal in giving a new lens to my work with our students. It put their experience as artists in sharp focus and gave me the tools to support them in ways I had not previously understood. There is a seamless integration and link with many of the (often seemingly unrelated) concerns they bring to therapy. The results have been remarkable and to some degree inform most all of the work I presently do with students.
I facilitate a group that employs energy psychology techniques focused on an approach called acutapping (or Emotional Freedom Techniques/EFT) which can be easily taught and applied to most any issue that is correlated with emotional (or physical) intensity, and I also use this intervention in individual therapy to treat many concerns, especially anxiety and trauma.
Our therapy groups cover many topics, including dating and relationships, perfectionism, substance use, stress and mood management, finding solutions, and the experience of self. There are skills-based groups that include Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), meditation, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and a group specifically for students who identify as being on the autism spectrum. Creativity coaching is sometimes offered in a group format, regularly as a standalone service, and also incorporated into individual therapy by several of our staff. Students can be trained in biofeedback via a program from the HeartMath organization whose institute is doing remarkable research for the betterment of people both individually and collectively.
Finally, we provide outreach (in various formats) to support the college community by raising awareness about issues like suicide, sexual assault, depression, body image and stigma related to mental health.
EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?
CW: This is a tough question in the sense that if I want to have a license, be reimbursed by insurance and gainfully employed (in many settings) as a psychotherapist or professional counselor, I need to be able to operate competently within this dominant paradigm. Like other areas of conventional medicine in our society, the current treatment paradigm for mental healthcare can be so narrowly symptom- and medication-focused that a genuine holistic view of the person is simply not part of the equation.
Treatment interventions seem to generally stop at symptom management, and many providers point out that this is the desire of patients. While there are psychiatrists (e.g., Bessel van der Kolk, Gabor Mate, and Kelly Brogan) and other clinical researchers and practitioners (e.g., Robert Scaer, Lissa Rankin, Peter Levine, Roger Callahan, Fred Gallo, David Feinstein, and Bruce Lipton) whose pioneering work challenges major aspects of the current status quo, we are a long way from an overhaul.
Gargantuan profits are being made from the promise of a “quick fix” in the form of a pill, and managed care determines treatment rather than the provider of services. Conversely, interventions aimed at finding and treating underlying causes of “illness”--as well as services focused on prevention and health maintenance--are not valued and typically not reimbursed by insurance. Compared to “Big Pharma”, it seems there is no money to be made in going beyond symptom management and certainly not by keeping folks healthy.
The recent ad shown during the Super Bowl about opioid-induced constipation (sponsored in part by two pharmaceutical companies) is a blatant example of putting profit over human wellbeing. I do not believe the intention of the PSA style ad was simply to raise awareness about an issue with which people suffer in silence (as the ad would have us believe). The next logical step is for millions of the targeted population to ask their respective doctors about a pill to treat this now well-known condition.
What’s the problem with this? The widely seen ad completely ignores a potential cause of the symptoms, which is often an addiction to prescription opiates, an epidemic in our society. “Ka-ching!” In a different paradigm, the ad for the same symptom set would be effective treatment for addiction as the primary intervention with the understanding that taking a pill to treat the symptoms is typically a temporary intervention.
It’s logical that relief of symptoms is a staring place, but why would we stop there if we know that in many cases continuing to “peel the onion” is likely to result in change, healing and sustained relief by addressing the cause(s) of a presenting issue? A dream paradigm would be a true continuum of care that: considers the mind and body inseparable to some degree; views human beings as having the capacity for self-healing; and perceives identifying and treating underlying causes of illness and suffering as important and often required for resolution or healing.
I respect the right of individuals to choose (and I sometimes recommend) psychotropic medication as an intervention, and I have seen such medications be life-changing and life–saving. Conventional western medicine at times has played an integral and even life-saving role in my loved ones’ and my own health care. My wish is to see such conventional interventions viewed as simply a part of a continuum of care for the whole person that would also include and value what is currently referred to as complementary and alternative medicine.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
CW: I would first assess the degree and general nature of the distress and choose an intervention or interventions accordingly. If my loved one’s functioning in major life areas was not significantly impaired and she was not a risk to self or others, I might begin by suggesting she apply mindfulness-based skills to the upsetting experience; specifically, cultivating the ability to suspend judgment about the experience and intentionally adopting a perspective of curiosity, compassion, detachment and acceptance in exploring and relating to all aspects of the distress.
Next, I would suggest more interventions (if needed) aimed at bringing semi- or un-conscious aspects of the disturbing experience to conscious awareness. My experience shows this process as often being central in both dissolving the present stress as well as resolving—if present--the underlying issue(s) that is worsening, anchoring, and/or creating the current pain or disturbance. While self-exploration and traditional “talk therapy” can be useful in this context, I find that interventions from the areas of energy psychology (e.g., acutapping or EFT) and applied kinesiology (i.e., “muscle testing”) can frequently identify and provide relief for such issues more rapidly.
A generic case example is that of a woman who struggled with weight for years and through therapy (using acutapping) became conscious that losing the weight and feeling alive and healthy again would mean coming to terms with her underlying discontent in her marriage. When she faced and addressed this reality, the weight was easily lost. Another illustration is a woman who transcended severe agoraphobia only to discover a seemingly intractable phobia of air travel. Her therapist had poor results working with this phobia until the “root cause” was made conscious (with the aid of acutapping): The woman was terrified at the thought of saying “no” and disappointing friends and family who had expected her to travel to see them. Once she dealt with her intense fear of disappointing others and all that meant to her, the flying phobia ceased to exist.
If further intervention was needed for my loved one, I would begin with a referral to a specialty that views the mind-body as a self-healing system, such as acupuncture, chiropractic, body/somatic work, energy psychology, energy medicine, holistic nutrition, yoga or other modalities. I view these services as being on a continuum and readily integrated with conventional medical interventions. I have seen profound healing and change through these “complementary” approaches, and they are most always where I initially seek care and go for maintenance of my own mental/emotional, physical and spiritual health.
Chene Walz is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Georgia and holds national credentials as a Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Approved Clinical Supervisor. She enjoys her work with students at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and her areas of clinical interest include trauma, working with artists, GLBT concerns, clinical supervision, and energy psychology interventions.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
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