As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview… Rachel Wall holds an MA in Medical Sciences from the University of Cambridge. She is the founder of Feeling is Healing. She specialises in supporting people who have experienced abuse in their relationships, whether that be in the workplace, intimate relationships, neighbours, family or by institutions. She educates people on the connection between the quality of our relationships and our overall health, both physical and mental. Her work focuses on helping people to tune into the innate wisdom in their bodies and their felt sense, in order to achieve wellbeing and to be able to gain traction in their lives. Visit her website to find out more: https://feelingishealing.co.uk
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for inviting me. My original career path was to become a medical doctor. However, I had spent my teenage years visiting doctors about some physical symptoms that they were unable to cure with medication. When I went to university, I started to see a counselor. For the first time, I was able to express myself and to have my experiences heard with empathy. I felt validated. I immediately felt something shift physically. The symptoms seemed to resolve overnight. From this point, I had a strong conviction about the importance of holistic wellbeing and the link between the body and the mind.
By the time I was in my early thirties, I was brought to my knees by a number of experiences of abuse in my life. I found it very difficult to find support from people who understood what I was going through and what my needs were in that situation. I went through many painful experiences while seeking different kinds of support. I tried a lot of things that didn’t work and that even re-traumatised me. The silver lining from all of this was that I learned what helps and what does not help. I felt passionately that I wanted to support others who were going through something similar.
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 think this is mainly because people have been sold the idea that mental health is due to chemical imbalances in the brain. The story that people are fed is that there is “something wrong” with people who have mental health conditions. When we are living in this paradigm, how can mental illness not be stigmatised?
A lot of anti-stigma campaigns involve “talking about it”. However, some are talking about it from the paradigm that mental illness is a brain defect. Sadly this does nothing to reduce stigma. We need to change the paradigm in order to reduce stigma.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I am educating people that what is going on in our minds is a reflection of what is happening in our bodies. Many psychiatric drugs target serotonin levels. However, research at Caltech, published in 2015, found that 90% of our serotonin is actually produced in our digestive tracts, not in our brains. In this sense, mental illness is no different to physical illness and so should be no more stigmatised than, for example, a digestive issue.
The inclusion of certain conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is voted for by a panel. For example, homosexuality used to be considered a mental health disorder in the DSM until 1987. Another example is that “boredom” is listed in the diagnostic criteria for some disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder. Who is to say whether “boredom” is a sign of pathology or not? The current version of the DSM is 9 times larger than the first edition, which was published in 1952. Whether or not we describe someone as mentally ill is a societal construct, rather than a definitive version of reality.
The vast majority of the disorders that are listed in the DSM can be thought of as manifestations of trauma. Trauma is stored in the body and causes dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system creates our “fight, flight, freeze” responses to a threat. Someone who gets stuck in a state of flight, for example, is likely to experience symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Someone who is in a state of freeze is likely to experience symptoms of depression. In other words, depression and anxiety are normal and healthy reactions to adverse experiences, rather than defects that we should get rid of.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
My work focuses on people who have been subject to abuse. I found that labelling people with “mental health issues” was a common tactic used by emotional manipulators and psychological abusers. The abuser will attempt to convince the target that he/she is mentally ill. This is a known mechanism for making the target doubt themselves. The result is that the target/victim then relies on the abuser for their sense of self-identity and reality.
The current mental health paradigm of diagnosing people with so-called disorders may enforce the message that such victims have already received from the abusers in their lives. The person embodies the belief that there is something “wrong” with them.
I have found it much more helpful to allow people to express what is going on for them, without trying to tell them how they SHOULD feel or think. Studies have shown that providing an empathic ear to listen to someone can bring about great changes in their wellbeing. A lot of people have an unmet need to be heard, validated and understood.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
a) As individuals, we need to learn good listening skills so that we can be a support to the people in our lives.
We need to learn how to tend to and care for our emotional health on a daily basis. This takes time and work, but I believe it is a priority, as it has to knock on effects for all areas of our lives.
b) As a society, I believe we need to recognise that emotions are never “wrong” in themselves. Our emotions are extremely important messengers that want our attention. Emotions only become problematic when we ignore them, judge them, try to suppress them, or when we act on them unconsciously. By accepting that our emotions are valid and important, we can express them in a healthy way. We can acknowledge them and use our conscious minds to decide what to do about them.
c) The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study and subsequent surveys have shown, unequivocally, the correlation between adverse experiences during childhood and poor physical and mental health outcomes in life. The government needs to educate people on the results and implications of these studies. For example, people with an ACE score of 6, have a reduced life expectancy of nearly 20 years, compared with people who have zero ACEs. Awareness of the ACEs Study is creating a much-needed shift in the paradigm from, “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”
The government, I believe, needs to support schemes to educate people on how to have healthy relationships. This should start in schools. Emotional intelligence affects all areas of our lives, so this would be an essential skill to develop from a young age.
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?
1. Every time I experience a painful emotion I turn inwards and I locate where in my body the underlying feeling is emanating from. I then work out what important message the feeling has for me. For example, if I am feeling sad, I can use this as an opportunity to develop self-compassion. I may discover that sadness has come from a sense of loss. This then helps me to realise what I appreciate and need in my life. I can then take action towards this.
2. I keep a journal in which I reflect on how I am feeling and what action I want to take as a result of this. For example, if I feel angry, I may start to journal and then realise that I feel as though I have been taken advantage of. This can help me to resolve to set clearer boundaries with others. Journalling helps me to offload and process what is going on in my mind. This has been scientifically proven to create a sense of calm and reduce anxiety.
3. I have trusted people who I connect with and talk to.
4. I make a recording when I remember my dreams. Although more time consuming, I also like to write the dreams down, as I find this process can stir up strong emotions that I need to process.
5. I make lists of things I am grateful for each day. I love to do this in my mind as I am drifting off to sleep. This helps to keep me in a good frame of mind.
6. I keep a journal of things that have gone well and nice things that have happened. This leaves me feeling good about myself and the world. It gives me hope that more positive things are on the way.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I think Johann Hari is doing some great work to highlight the importance of connection, authenticity, and community in order to be healthy.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!