I continually try to make an effort to stop working in the evenings and on the weekends to spend time with my husband, children, and all our dogs, and incorporate play and laughter into my everyday life, such as watching a funny movie together or playing a board game. Sometimes there is just so much to do that I feel hard pressed to “work, work, work,” but I have realized that if I push myself too hard, my mental health suffers.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Caroline Leaf. She is a neuroscientist, mental health & mind expert, bestselling author, and speaker with a Masters and PhD in Communication Pathology and a BSc Logopaedics. Her work goes beyond mindfulness and the ‘quick fixes’ of the current mental health system; since the early 1980s, she has researched the mind-brain connection, the nature of mental health, and the formation of memory. She was one of the first in her field to study how the brain can change (neuroplasticity) with directed mind input. Dr. Leaf teaches at academic, medical, and neuroscience conferences to various audiences around the world. She was selected as an advisor on a mental health initiative committee for the White House. She is the author of Think, Learn, Succeed, Switch On Your Brain, Think and Eat Yourself Smart, and The Perfect You, among many other books and journal articles. Her podcast, Dr. Caroline Leaf Podcast, has been rated #31 on iTunes’ top Health podcasts.
Thank you so much for joining us Caroline! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thirty years ago, I set out to answer a question that was considered at the time to be ridiculous: “can the mind change the brain?” Back in the eighties, many scientists believed that a damaged brain could not change. Health care and therapy professionals like myself were taught to help their patients compensate for brain disabilities and mental ill health; total recovery was, for the most part, out of the question.
One of the turning points in my career came when I encountered a 16-year-old girl who had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of a car accident. I will never forget this remarkable story. She had recently come out of a two-week coma and was operating around a fourth-grade level at school instead of a twelfth-grade level like her peers. Using the self-regulatory, mind-driven five-step learning process I had developed, I worked with this young lady on a one-on-one basis.
She was determined to catch up with her peer group, and I believed she could achieve her previous levels of academic performance again. Within eight months the “miracle” happened: this young woman was able to graduate high school with her own class and went on to university. In fact, compared to before the accident, her IQ increased twenty points and her overall academic and emotional performance improved. (I have documented this case in my master’s thesis.) A negative trend was turned into a positive trend through intentional mind management techniques.
Over the past 30 plus years, I have worked with hundreds of thousands of teachers and students in low-income areas and squatter camps in South Africa, Rwanda, Namibia and the US. The individuals I worked with came to school contending with poverty, abuse, hunger, and social violence. Many students were orphaned by AIDS. These students, hungry to learn, worked hard and saw their grades improving using my mind techniques based on my research. One high school student, a 24-year-old pimp and drug dealer, said “Dr. Leaf, now I know what to do with my pen.” He went on to graduate high school and became a change agent in his community.
Through my research and clinical practice, I have seen, time and time again, that believing the brain can change is not “ridiculous.” After 30 years of research and teaching, and with the development of quantum physics, I have come to appreciate how, through focused, determined mind-action, the brain can be stimulated to change. It is my hope that we realize the potential for mental and physical health inside all of us. Not only do we direct our behavior, emotional, and intellectual changes, but we also create structural change in our brains and bodies as a result of our individualistic and complex thinking processes.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I do not think we have a mental health problem. I do, however, think we have a mismanagement of the mental health system, and this mismanagement is leading to a stigma that follows people for the rest of their lives. I think this figure of 44 million is wrong — it should be 100% because everyone battles with mind and mental health issues, it is the human condition. Psychiatry is also the only branch of the medical profession that does not give patients the freedom of choice in their care — if someone has cancer they have the right to refuse treatment and their wishes will be honored; if someone, after being asked a few questions about their symptoms, is diagnosed with “bipolar disease” and refuses treatment, treatment of forced on them and the “non-compliance” and “lack of insight into their problem” is seen as part the disease.
This adds to the stigma because it sends the message to society that you have a broken brain and that you are different in a negative sense. And the worst part is that the stigma and mental trauma that the so-called gold standard psychiatric approach inflicts on a person is not even evidence-based. We desperately need a revolution and a new narrative in mental healthcare. The current drug-oriented, biomedical model of diagnosis and treatment for non-medical problems and experiences is reductionistic and dangerous.
While the biomedical model is very effective in treating illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and so on, it is stigmatizing unhelpful and even damaging in matters to do with consciousness and the mind, such as depression or anxiety or toxic thinking. The narrative of suffering from a trauma being a disease is medicalizing misery, removing the responsibility of the socioeconomic environment and the resilience of the individual. The “treatment” of these so-called “diseases” is predominated by the diagnosis of symptoms and treatment of symptoms with brain-disabling psychotropic drugs, ECT and TMS, which have been shown to be ineffective in the long term, destructive, disempowering, and even stigmatizing.
Calling for a bigger budget for drug-oriented psychiatry pathologizes the pain of the struggles of life, which are the human condition, and dehumanizes people, ignoring the context surrounding why a person chose to act or speak in a certain way. The current mental health care system, which centers around human biology, often overlooks the social context of a person’s pain. What if someone who exhibits erratic behavior, such as dramatic moods shifts within a short space of time, is trying to deal with past trauma?
Say, for example, “John” was abandoned as a young boy, absorbed into the foster care system, repeatedly bullied for being different, raped by his guardians, and is never told he is loved. What is a “normal” response to such pain? No wonder this person experiences extreme highs and lows. How is a “bipolar” label and mind-numbing medication going to help John process his pain and distorted conception of love? This is of course a story, but one that is similar to what I have heard in my clinical practice and in the many institutions I have worked in, both in South Africa and the USA.
Attempting to funnel the highly complex individuality and changeability of human experience into static psychopathological illness categories is reductionism at its worst, and can be dehumanizing. It is a flawed narrative that medicalizes and pathologizes human experience, locking people in with labels by seeing someone as an “organism” with a disease that needs to be diagnosed and treated. This system overlooks the unique complexity of daily living in a challenging world — it ignores someone’s backstory and experiences, which is integral to understanding why people think, speak and act the way they do. The current mental health care system takes away people’s identities and their unique histories and stories, instead of giving them a label and a problem.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I believe the most important role I play in de-stigmatizing mental health is to remind people that we all suffer from the challenges of life; all humans struggle with toxic thinking and trauma in various ways because life is tough and as I said before, this is the human condition. A person doesn’t have a “disease” if they have a psychotic break because they were repeatedly raped as a child or was emotionally abused in a marriage or bullied daily at school with no recourse adult or saw unimaginable horrors in war. I also help people understand the power of their mind and help them see that they have a lot more resilience than they realize and how to use this power of their mind, which is something not taught enough. I also believe in the power of community, connectedness and deep meaningful relationships when it comes to managing mental health, which plays a huge role in destigmatizing.
Since the early 1980s (when the DSM-3, the first diagnostic manual to promote the disease model of mental health, was in use), I have researched the effectiveness of mind-brain technology action techniques (which are thought-based) in overcoming the negative effects of neurological issues such as TBI, dementia, movement disorders, autism, aphasia, and learning disabilities, emotional trauma as well as various cognitive, emotional and mental health issues. I developed the Switch On Your Brain with the 5-step Learning Process® from over three decades of study, clinical practice and research. My Geodesic Learning Theory has been shown not only to be effective in mental health care, but also treating physical damage to the brain that occurs in Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), learning disabilities and improving learning techniques in both schools and the corporate world.
Over the years, I have worked with many individuals confined and boxed in by supposedly scientific labels: ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, autism, and so on. Disillusioned with the lack of conclusive research behind the ADHD and other so-called psychiatric disorders and the chemical imbalance theory, the predominantly biological focus of our current system of mental health and the overuse of psychotropic drugs, my research and experience indicated that many of these conditions were influenced by, or originated in, a disorder of the mind that was either caused by a trauma or negative thinking patterns. In other words, mental ill-health is a thought disorder based in the mind, which changes the brain physiologically and is a response to the complex and multifaceted challenges of life. Using the principles of my Switch On Your Brain with the 5-step Learning Process (based on my clinical research) I helped my patients understand that their brains can change if they choose to develop healthily, focused thinking and learning habits, and that it was never too late to heal, and change the brain with their mind — so many of them went on to lead successful, purpose-driven lives.
Essentially, I believe one of the key ways of combating mental ill-health and the stigma surrounding it, is helping people realize the power of the mind and their ability to choose. To this end, I have developed a number of self-help programs, such as a mind detox app called SWITCH, that can help individuals learn to control their thinking and build positive, life-giving memories within a loving and supportive community environment, as well as offering tips and information on how to re-conceptualize negative experiences and emotions such as depression and anxiety through my weekly podcast and YouTube channel.
Moreover, I am currently continuing my research doing clinical trials, looking at the psychological, neuropsychological, and physiological effects of non-pharmacological mind techniques on the brain in subjects with mental health and neurological issues.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
There are so many stories and conversations, right from when I began my research and clinical practice 30 years ago when the DSM 3 was released, and there was a flood of children and adults being suddenly being prescribed Prozac and Ritalin by psychiatrists and neurologists and primary care physicians. I remember being horrified with this as I watched some my patients who had been put on Ritalin for purported ADHD (not even a scientific category) in my clinical practice change before my eyes becoming lethargic and depressed experiencing a whole lot of new physical and emotional problems that was very confusing to them– it was like day and night in terms of their cognitive, social and emotional functioning. Because the difference was so obvious, we managed to get many of them into withdrawal protocols with medical practitioners.
I also saw this happening in the schools and universities and corporations I was working at– it was hard to find someone who wasn’t on psychotropic medication. One day one of my very young patients, just 6 years old, who was battling emotionally and cognitively for various reasons, but was slowly building confidence and was starting to improve academically and emotionally, went to the doctor for basic flu. However, the doctor prescribed Ritalin because he had just been told by a drug rep how this solves all children’s learning and emotional problems.
Yes, he got his antibiotic, which he needed, but he definitely did not need Ritalin! Within hours I got a call from his mother saying he was crying and saying he wanted to die; within days all the progress he had made at school was lost and he was starting to be bullied for always crying. Only when he attempted a failed suicide a few weeks later, did the mother actually tell me that he had been put on Ritalin — up to that point she didn’t think to tell me — did we start the withdrawal protocol with a medical practitioner I worked with. And many hard months of work began all over again. Ritalin becomes addictive within a very short time, it just takes a few doses, and its impact is immediate.
Another 12-year old patient had a stepmother who got her doctor to put him on Ritalin, against my recommendation, and he reacted very badly and very quickly, so fortunately, his father stopped it. However, we still had to deal with side effects, and it nearly ruined his applications to go into medicine as his records showed he had had a mental health problem six years earlier for which he was medicated! This and so many more stories from my colleagues and medical team that I work with reveals that people are dying younger for the first time in decades from preventable lifestyle diseases.
Research showing that the biomedical model ruins lives has fired a passion in me to help address this staggering mismanagement of mental health that is paramount to the abuse of human rights. In fact, in a new report, the United Nations Special rapporteur on, Dr. Dainius Puras, on the right to health, recommends a move away from the limiting biomedical model and the excessive use of psychotropic medications for mental health.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
a) When it comes to individuals, we need to recognize both the power of our own thinking, and how it can build realities into our mind that affects the way we think, speak and act, as well as our physical and mental health. We need to educate ourselves on the true nature of mental health, as something that all human beings struggle with, and not as something to fear. Indeed, we often fear what we do not know, or what we do not understand. For many people, labels like “bipolar” or “schizophrenia” tend to conjure up frightening images of dangerous, psychotic people. We all struggle with our mental health from time to time — it is a part of life or the “human condition.”
Yet, when we let fear dominate our relationships, we create toxic thinking patterns in our own brains, which, in turn, affects our mental and physical health. We need to learn to see people that are going through some type of mental distress as just that: people, and realize that we do not have to be experts to help them — the only qualification we need is to be human! And, as we learn to listen intently, patiently and without judgment (making this a habit), and actively take the time to reach out to those who are going through difficult times, we create safe spaces where people’s stories can be heard, and where individuals can seek compassionate help without the stigma of a mental health label.
b) As a society, we urgently need to redefine the way we understand mental health. We have to re-examine the way we help people who are going through difficult times. We should teach adults and children alike to not see people as “broken brains”, but people who have experienced trauma in life. Indeed, as a society, we have to learn to stop placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the individual who cannot escape the circumstances of their life, and step in and see where we, as a community, can help. This includes making an effort to communicate less with our phone or computer and more with those we love and are in community with. The brain thrives in a dynamic and social atmosphere; the more we reach out to others, the more we improve our own mental and physical health.
Most importantly, we need to recognize that DM’s, tweets, commenting on someone’s Facebook wall, or liking an Instagram post is NOT the same as taking the time to pick up the phone and call someone, or paying a visit to check in on a loved one, even if they seem “fine.” We need to learn to listen with open ears and reach out to others even if it requires more work and effort on our part.
c) The government ought to fund more initiatives that create safe spaces such community centers and public gardens, particularly in high-stress areas such as public schools, large corporations, prisons, and low-income communities, that provide access to loving, compassionate and understanding individuals who can help people deal with the difficult circumstances. The government should also fund more research into alternatives to psychotropic drugs and other biological-based treatments for mental ill-health, such as family therapy, Open Dialogue therapy and community approaches to helping people deal with mental distress.
What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Some of my favorite books, websites, and podcasts on the current state of mental healthcare, and what we can do about it, are: