News /Hall: Changing relationship with feelings key to personal recovery, social change
By Shannon Eliot
Mental health advocate and schizophrenia survivor Will Hall freely admits that he still has suicidal feelings.
But instead of feeling ashamed or embarrassed, he sees those feelings as just another aspect of himself and how he lives in the world.
"Sometimes I do have feelings that life is not worth living and that I want to die," Hall said in his keynote address on Friday. "I'm committed to being here and not going anywhere, but I do have those feelings. And it still happens even though I'm in recovery and a functioning part of society."
Hall uses himself as an example of why both the medical profession and society need to rethink what it actually means to have a disorder or mental illness. The signs of disease need to be looked at differently because labels and the associated stigma can cause an individual to live in fear, shame, and isolation, according to Hall.
"We've decided to pathologize and turn feelings considered normal in other parts of the world into a disease instead of part of the human experience that needs to be met with compassion, understanding, curiosity, and above all a deep connection and listening," Hall said.
The discussion of such feelings or extreme states is often taboo in our society, Hall says. For those that do speak up, they are often judged. But without being able to talk through and sort those feelings, individuals experiencing them will never be able to manage them or entertain the possibility that they can function with them. As a result, they experience unnecessary pain and unfulfilled potential.
"We as a society — on the individual and collective levels — need to change our relationship with those states and not be afraid of them just because they are there," Hall said. "I have changed my relationship to my extreme states. I have strong connections with mystical messages and what psychiatry would call symptoms of schizophrenia. But I'm not feeling disempowered or isolated because I normalize it for myself within my worldview. I have the power because I'm thinking of those feelings differently. I am able to work with them and engage with them."
Hall noted a 1988 study in psychiatric medicine that looked at 1000 individuals who were patients of primary care physicians. A significant percentage surveyed had some kind of psychotic experience, but were not psychiatric patents.
"For everything that considered is psychosis, there are people in the world living with it not having any problems at all," Hall said. "It's not to romanticize these experiences because they can be terrifying, but that means there is a possibility that I can live with them and not be scared, held back, and oppressed by them."
Contrary to popular perception, Hall believes that suicidal feelings do not automatically equate to a person giving up on life. Instead, he sees them as an indication of a desperate need for change, a need so severe that a person can't go on living unless it is met.
"I use the feelings as a message," Hall said. "They tell me I need to desperately to make a change, one so important that if it doesn't happen I will end my life. I ask myself what I need to change and how I can the power to do so. I work on them."
While the trajectory of social change isn't moving as quickly as Hall would like, he has seen positive developments in recent decades.
For many years, homosexuality was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, until it was removed in 1986.
"If you were gay and it presented a problem for you, you were diagnosed with ego-dystonic homosexuality, which was a mental disorder," Hall said.
Hall pointed out that this year marks another notable DSM development: the symptom of hearing voices will be removed as the sole characteristic for schizophrenia and psychosis diagnoses.
Whether or not society will ultimately change how it views disorders is yet to be seen. But in the meantime, Hall will still be telling the same thing to anyone who will listen:
"We're not a disorder just because we think differently and have unusual extreme experiences."