Friday, January 4, 2008

Dr. Rufus May: My Experience of Psychosis



In the early years of the nineteenth century, when psychiatry was just beginning, a furious argument raged between people with very different opinions about the nature and course of mental disorders. On the one hand, psychiatrists like Eugene Bleuler believed that recovery was possible and indeed likely for the vast majority of people suffering from serious mental disorders like schizophrenia (then called dementia praecox).

On the other hand, psychiatrists such as Emil Kraepelin insisted that recovery was impossible and that sufferers would never recover. Indeed he believed that their condition would get worse throughout their lives. Kraepelin won the debate and the idea of permanent illness and disability formed the basis of mental health services for almost two centuries.

Source: Understanding Recovery






From September 1986 to November 1987, I was treated for psychosis. This included several involuntary hospital admissions. Initially, I had experienced sleep deprivation and was very confused holding some grandiose and paranoid beliefs involving espionage and science fiction theories. I perceived the television and radio as having interactive messages for me. I also entertained spiritual beliefs focussing on battles between good and evil and having special powers of communication. My concentration was extremely poor. I was in a high state of vigilance, fear and tension, leading to chest pains. Perhaps due to having a family history of problems diagnosed as schizophrenia, clinicians quickly made a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My parents were informed and told I would need to take medication for the rest of my life. However, 14 months after my initial psychiatric admission I stopped taking my depot injection of medication and disengaged with psychiatric services. I have not since received or used psychiatric services.

As a patient, I did not receive any specialist psychological interventions. The main interventions I received were pharmacological, ideological (‘you must accept you have a serious mental illness’) and eventually occupational therapy. I believe that I came very close to developing a long-term sick role as a ‘schizophrenic’ because the expectation all around me was that I would not be able to rebuild my life. Rather, I was encouraged to passively adjust to a serious ‘mental illness’ with a maintenance style medication regime. The belief held by hospital staff was that I would be powerless to influence the return of psychotic symptoms that could at any moment strike again. For me to escape this prophecy it felt like wading through miles and miles of swamp. This was an incredibly lonely journey. I had no guides, no specialist support, and no stories of success. With hindsight, my own understanding of my initial psychotic reaction is that my drift into a psychotic world was the result of dissociative psychological strategies that allowed me to escape from a social reality I felt alienated from. Motivated by the poor care I received and witnessed, I decided to train as a psychologist so that I might influence change in therapeutic approaches in the mental health system.

I now work in Bradford mental health services in England as a Clinical Psychologist. My aim in this chapter is to reflect on how recovery from psychotic experience, can be best promoted given the evidence from personal accounts and clinical research. In another publication I have reflected on what was and what was not helpful to my recovery process (May, 2000). In retracing my route to recovery I highlighted enabling personal narratives (stories of success and possibility), meaningful activities, and social inclusion opportunities (housing, work and educational opportunities) as being important turning points. I would like here to reflect on four areas which are important for practitioners to address if they are to be helpful in enabling people’s recoveries. These areas are clinical language, the recovery process, medication and a whole-person approach.

© Rufus May


Source: Understanding Psychosis & Working Toward Recovery