Michael Gilbert on It's About Childhood and Family, Inc.
On the future of mental health
Posted April 25, 2016
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 Michael Gilbert
EM: You founded “It’s About Childhood and Family, Inc.” Can you tell us a little bit about its mission and the work it does?
MG: Our mission at “It’s About Childhood & Family Inc.” is to empower families to develop independence in handling life's struggles. We utilize a collaborative and trauma informed framework that is not reliant upon a label or diagnosis. Instead we focus on strengths, resources, resiliencies, and potential for growth.
We strive to more accurately inform parents, schools, and the larger community about issues related to mental health: for example, misuse of diagnostic labels, lack of efficacy with prescription drugs, and factors that contribute to social-emotional distress. IACAF uses a ‘pay-it-forward’ approach and families can ‘pay’ for services by volunteering within their community. We provide individual and group counseling and skill building supports.
Throughout the year we offer workshops and trainings for professionals and parents. In addition, we organize one or two conferences per year on a variety of topics such as trauma informed care, concerns with labels and psychotropic drugs, and approaches to improve the social/emotional/behavioral wellbeing of children. We have brought in national and international experts in the field. Our goal is to provide a more accurate perspective and to have a dialogue about why and how to change the current mental health system, particularly for children.
EM: You are involved with the International Society for Ethical Psychiatry and Psychology. What is its mission and what sort of work does it do?
MG: The mission of ISEPP Inc. is to use the standards of scientific inquiry to address the ethics of psychology and psychiatry. We strive to educate our members and the public about the nature of “mental illness,” the de-humanizing and coercive aspects of many forms of mental health treatment, and the alternative humane ways of helping people who struggle with very difficult life issues.
We believe this is essential since one of the most cherished principles in the mental health field is “informed consent.” That means you should be fully and honestly informed about the problems you are experiencing, and the full risks and benefits of any treatment, before making truly voluntary decisions about your care. Our goal is to fully inform you.
At the heart of our critique is the fact that “mental illnesses” are not literal illnesses like diabetes and cancer. Despite popular media portrayal, decades of scientific research have failed to demonstrate any biological pathology that causes “mental illness.” For this reason, they should not be considered medical problems and traditional medical treatment is not a solution. In particular, psychiatric drugs only temporarily mask emotions. Not only does this masking prevent people from understanding their problems and making important life changes, these drugs carry with them a whole host of dangerous effects that typically are not explained to the user when they are being prescribed.
The experience of “mental illness” is a natural human reaction to extraordinary and painful life circumstances. To help those who are experiencing these problems, we advocate various forms of psychotherapy, support groups, self-help programs, and help with employment, education, housing, exercise, nutrition, and other issues of living. We also urge the ruling out of literal diseases that can mimic psychological problems.
Sometimes the biggest form of help comes from just knowing you are not abnormal and there are others willing to listen to you, understand what you are going through, and appreciate you as a fellow human being. The only way to restore one’s humanity is through humanity.
EM: You advocate for non-medical, non-labeling approaches to helping families with children exhibiting social, emotional and behavioral challenges. What are some of these approaches?
MG: We believe that families should ultimately be in charge of the care they receive and that youth need to have choices in the types of supports they are willing to explore. Therefore we encourage and provide access to a variety of approaches - such as mindfulness (e.g., meditation, yoga, etc.), physical activity (e.g., running, martial arts, boxing, etc.), expressive arts (e.g., painting, pottery, photography, writing, music, dance), and relationship building (e.g., Nurtured Heart Approach, Peace Circles, Service Learning, mentoring, volunteering, etc.). In addition, we ask families to rule out potential factors that might be contributing to the concerns. This would include examining sleep patterns, nutrition, exercise, computer and television screen time, potential traumatic events, family dynamics, peer groups, educational demands, and other factors.
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?
MG: “And how are the children?” This question ends each greeting among members of an African tribe and communicates a belief that the health and welfare of the community's children is a reflection of the larger community. Imagine if we had to answer this question here in the United States during our daily interactions: "And how are the children? Are they well?" I wonder what our responses would be?
If the gauge of the health of a society is how well it cares for its youngest members, we are clearly failing. Our youth have become, in large part, collateral damage. Our current systems are not set up in the best interest of our children. They are about special interest, greed, power, and politics. This includes our educational system, which continues to be a significant contributor to children being labeled as ‘mentally ill’ and prescribed a variety of psychotropic medications.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
MG: I would try and surround them with as much support and nurturance as they were willing to accept. Additionally, I would want them to make an informed decision and would offer resources for them to explore. I would suggest a variety of possible activities that they could consider giving a try - talking with someone (individually or in a group), mindfulness, exercise (walking, running, biking, etc.), gardening, expressive arts, etc.
I believe they should incorporate their entire body and senses as they process the distress they are going through. I would encourage them to try and connect with things they are passionate about (e.g., cooking, painting, music, etc.) and to spend time in those activities. However, I would want them to understand that they have my unconditional support even if they choose to pursue an option, such as medication, that I might not be in agreement with. My hope would be that if medication was tried it would be for the short-term and that they explore other approaches simultaneously.
Michael Gilbert Psy.D. has worked in human services for more than 25 years, including foster care, group home, and hospital settings. In addition, he has worked for the past 19 years as a school psychologist within Syracuse City Schools as well as adjunct professor at local colleges. In 2000, he founded "It's About Childhood & Family, Inc.," a not-for-profit resource center, as a grassroots movement to provide families an alternative to the traditional mental health system. Dr. Gilbert has given presentations to parents and professionals throughout NY State, as well as nationally. He has advocated for and conducted research evaluating non-medication and non-labeling approaches for families with children exhibiting challenging behaviors. Dr. Gilbert is on the Board of Directors for the International Society of Ethical Psychiatry and Psychology (ISEPP) as well as the annual conference chairperson. Dr. Gilbert received the Friend of Children Award in 2011 and NY State Psychologist of the Year in 2014. In Addition, he received the Spirit of Huntington Award in 2014.
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 email@example.com, 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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