LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Play Therapy ft. Anya Reddy

When asked to think about the significance of playing, we probably think of it as a way to help us with creative thinking, expelling our energy and social interaction. Let’s dig a little deeper on that thought today as we talk about Play Therapy.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Anya Reddy, a Play Therapy practitioner. She is a child and adolescent psychologist who uses play as a language to help children enhance their social, emotional and behavioral skills.

Welcome, Anya!

Anya- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. Let’s start with you telling us how playing impacts our mental health.

Anya- Wow, well we could start with children or adults but actually to be honest with you, play is something that all mammals engage in. It starts out as our way of discovering the world, of discovering ourselves, our bodies, the things around us. As children, it’s how we develop friendships, relationships, it’s how we strengthen our bond with our parents and it’s how we foster friendships, how we discover empathy, how to share, argue and make up. As adults, it transforms. Some could say that play matures a bit, it could become teasing, flirting, it could become more organized in terms of sport. When we engage in play regardless of age, it leads to a lot of happy hormones in our body – you have oxytocin that’s releasing, it helps reduce your serotonin levels, that’s your stress. Play inherently makes your body happy.

Valerie- Right. Anya, can you tell us what Play Therapy is? How is it different from playing generally?

Anya- In Play Therapy, you have a trained licensed Play therapist who’s using play as a language to help you help yourself. The difference is that in Play Therapy, play isn’t the focus. In fact, we disregard the materials that we have because we know that the therapist is the most important tool and toy in the room. We’re using play as a language but we’re focusing on the client-therapist relationship. 

When you ask how it’s different from playing generally – when we play, there’s no goal to play whereas in Play Therapy, we have our goals. We know what we want to achieve. The child is not coming in just to play with building blocks. The way that the Play therapist holds the space, is watching the child, engaging with the child, the minimal number of rules that we have and the fact that it’s only once a week for 40 minutes, it’s very structured. Going in, even the child knows because there’s an energy in the room and the therapist is picking up on body language, energy, communication, and eye-connection. So there’s a lot that’s going on.

Valerie- Right. Anya, you were telling us that playing can help with a lot of things. It helps when it comes to discovering the world and ourselves, and getting to know ourselves better. What got you interested in providing Play Therapy professionally?

Anya- I have never been a big believer in Talk Therapy, for children especially but adults as well. I wanted to use creative methods, more artistic with movement, storytelling or mindfulness, just different techniques that would access the human subconscious. I feel like we are all able to heal ourselves and that humans are capable of responsible freedom. No one knows one’s inner world better than themselves, nobody else can tell you what you need. I am a big fan of clients being able to take charge of their own healing. So I feel like using creative methods like play allows for that. I wanted to give children the chance to blossom into human beings, not just children. 

I feel like children are infantilized. They’re almost treated as though they don’t know anything, they’re not given enough information, and are dumbed down. Then all of a sudden they’re expected to be able to handle a lot of things. We need to treat children also with respect, autonomy, dignity and just recognition for the fact that they’re also human beings who are actually very aware. A child’s intuition is much sharper than most adults’ intuition. Play Therapy allowed me to integrate creative techniques and an approach where I would be able to meet a child as a human being instead of a child as a child. I was working with a client and it had nothing to do with age. That said, you can also use Play Therapy with adults. 

Valerie- Why don’t you tell us about that? When we were talking about the impact of playing on our mental health, you did mention that it works on children and adults, and right now you did say that Play Therapy is not just for children. Why don’t you tell us more about that?

Anya- When you’re working with adults, Play Therapy is great in terms of healing the inner child. With a lot of adults, you’ll see unresolved issues, maybe a certain conditioning that’s happened, certain scars they never truly had the chance or space to fully heal, and some scars can take years to heal from. 

There’s also how you carry your childhood trauma, not only to your adult relationships at home or at work, but also into your own parenting and how it affects your parenting choices, how it affects how you feel about yourself as a parent and whether you trust yourself as a parent. I’m a big fan of using not only Play Therapy with parents but different techniques of helping parents become aware of who they’re becoming as parents, with the choices they’re making and whether they’re conscious, informed choices. 

Beyond just parents, Play Therapy is a wonderful way of connecting with the inner child, holding and recognizing how it’s important. You carry the experiences, memories, the things you learnt and regretted into who you become as an adult and along the way, we seem to drop the child in us. I feel like it’s important for us to take time out to recognize the child in us, asking ourselves what this child means, how can I help this child? After a point, you can’t really go back to your parents talking about what they did and what you need from them because they may not be able to give it to you, they may not be around. Everybody has their limitations. It’s also taking charge of your own needs and discovering that you can give yourself what you felt you were denied or what you need now. Healing the inner child allows adults to return to themselves in a way that’s empowering and sort of like holding your whole self.

Valerie- Anya, it’s so beautiful that you said you believe people are capable of helping themselves and you just need to be assisted to reach there. When you talk about Play Therapy for adults, you talk about connecting with your inner child, connecting with things that you may have left unresolved or things that you are in conflict with and this just maybe takes you back to the time that things happened and try and get them resolved and make peace with things, and that is such a beautiful thing and such an important thing for people to move on in their lives.

Anya- Right.

Valerie- Can you tell us what a Play therapy session would look like?

Anya- The beautiful thing about each Play therapy session is that they’re each so different. I have this one client, Marissa, who comes in once a week, the way she engages with the toys in the room on the surface seems the same every week but it’s the little things, and a therapist would notice how her body language has changed, whether she’s sharing her artwork with me, whether her body has turned away from me or whether she’s open to sharing space with me. I could also have a client who’s engaging with me but I have also had clients who have almost refused to engage with me. I once spent 40 minutes with a client, it was his first session, and there were no words. He just engaged in movement. It was just a lot of flapping of the arms and different moving of the body. 

So how does a typical Play therapy session look like? Well, the client knows what their boundaries are – basically keeping ourselves safe, each other safe and everything  in the room safe. If they tell me that they have hurt themselves or someone wants to hurt them, then I have to end the session and tell them in advance that I’m ending the session only because I need to keep you safe and this is something that we need to prioritize right now, and I have to tell your parent or your guardian, not to punish you but just to make sure that we can keep you safe. We have to prioritize a client’s safety before we can really even delve into the subconscious and the unconscious. It’s going to be difficult to access healing if you’re physically or mentally unsafe. 

A client comes in and they have the sand tray, they have movement, they have music, art, storytelling, mindfulness. They have a bunch of different corners and materials that they can access and work with during a session. It’s completely self-directed, meaning the client chooses what they want to do. So today they might want to do art and then next week they might want to do sand and the week after that they might do a story, and three weeks later suddenly they might want to return to the story because they’ve processed it and something finally resonates so they feel like they can finally talk about it, that there’s just something that they want to return to about that story. 

So it’s totally unpredictable in a sense, but only in a tangible sense. I suppose in the more intangible sense, I know where a client is coming from and I know where we are going, and there is a growth that I can see happening but then as a therapist, I always have to be careful that I’m not coming from a space of “I know what’s best for the client”, “I know what the client needs”, “I know how to do this”. It’s like holding clay. I’m just holding the clay and watching it as it moulds itself. 

A Play therapy session can be a client that’s throwing a ball from one wall to the other, it can be a client who doesn’t want to talk to me at all, it can be a client who just wants to sit on my lap but then we have to talk about whether that’s safe or unsafe. Then you also have to take into consideration where a child is coming from. Is this a child who has experienced bad touch? How willing am I to allow the child to use my body as a canvas to experience what good touch is? Because how can a child know bad touch from good touch if the child’s never had the chance to experience good touch? You provide a space to experience trust and affection and safety in someone whom they feel like they can experience those things with. It’s a beautiful spectrum.

Valerie- You’ve spoken to us about such a serious topic while giving us this answer. You told us that it doesn’t only delve into the kind of tools they’re playing with and trying to understand them through that but you also have to teach them so much because at the end of the day, they are children and unless they know the difference between good and bad, there’s no way for them to them to understand if something that’s happening to them is right or wrong.

How do you reach out to your clients, these children? You said some of them don’t talk to you for the entire 40 minute session. How do you reach out to them and break that wall?

Anya- Play is a child’s language and toys are their words. There’s so much therapy that’s happening even if a child isn’t playing because they are invited into a play room and they’re invited to play but they don’t have to. It’s completely their space, it’s their rules. They can say what they want, they can do what they want. What a therapist does if a child doesn’t want to engage, or even is engaging, is I hold the space. I mean that I have my eyes around them continuously for 40 minutes, I am mirroring their movement, I am completely attuned to them. When I say attunement, I mean I’m attuned to their energy, their body language, the inflection in their voices, the kind of stories they’re weaving with their toys, it’s like I’m hearing a client in more ways than one. There’s a lot of body language that’s communicated, it’s far more than words, it’s far more than play. I’m completely attuned to the sense of being like a client’s canvas. Even if they’re building a story in a sand tray, I am carrying the energy that a child leaves in a room. 

I think so much of working with children and teaching children happens in a way when you’re not really trying to. It’s sort of like you’re holding sand in your hand and you’re allowing it to do what you feel like it needs to do. You know how to keep the child safe, maybe you’re teaching the child boundaries to an extent but most of it is demonstration, and I think the biggest tool is actually empathy. When I said attunement and listening to the child in more ways than one, what it is, is empathy. I’m listening to how it feels to be in that sitting position, how it feels to jump up in a standing position, how it feels to turn your body away from me during a session and to slowly look over your shoulder at me. I’ve had that with clients. There’s just so much deep empathy in the sense that I’m almost embodying what the client is going through and that’s the deepest level of empathy and there’s no other deeper way to connect to anybody.

Valerie- Anya, thank you so much for talking to us today. For explaining to us what Play Therapy is. We’ve learnt so much from you apart from just the topic of Play Therapy. We’ve learnt that you discover the world, you discover yourselves, you discover empathy and sharing when you’re a child but when you grow into adulthood, the importance of Play Therapy could also be recognizing and nurturing the child in you and that playing can just make your body happy! What’ve we’ve learnt from you is also your personal experience, your passion to integrate creative techniques, not just talk therapy but you go on to talk about playing, art, so many other alternative means of therapy, and you interact with your clients, work on a relationship with that client so that you understand them better and most importantly, you empathize with them. As you said, that’s probably the best way to connect with somebody. Thank you so much for talking to us about Play Therapy.

Anya- My pleasure! I’m always happy to talk about it. Thanks for having me again, Valerie. 

Valerie- Thank you.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Writing Therapy ft. Courtney Ackerman

There’s a quote by Anne Frank that goes “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

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Valerie-  Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re discussing Writing Therapy with Courtney Ackerman, a researcher, the author of three published books on positive psychology-related topics, and a regular contributor to the Positive Psychology program. In her independent work, she mostly focuses on compassion, well-being, and survey research.

Hey, Courtney!

Courtney- Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie- Thank you. Why don’t you start by telling us how writing has an impact on our mental health?

Courtney- Absolutely. It’s a big question because there are tons of positive impacts of writing on our health. Not only do we sort of get to know ourselves better but we get to understand the world around us and other people better. When we start to write down our thoughts and feelings, it helps us process them, get a hold of them and work through them in a way that we normally don’t, if we don’t write it down or discuss them or investigate them with curiosity. Writing can help with a ton of different things. 

Just a few of the research findings have shown that it leads to better health outcomes in terms of lower blood pressure, improvement in lung function, reductions in symptoms in all different kinds of illness, better immune system functioning, even improvements in things like anxiety and depression and substance abuse, eating disorders and post traumatic stress. On top of all that, it gives you those really great insights about yourself, it helps you get shifts in your perspective that can help you interact with yourself and with the world around you, which can result in better relationships, both with yourself and with the people around you. It might be quicker to answer “What doesn’t writing help you with?”!

Valerie-  Right. Could you tell us what Writing Therapy is and how it compares to conventional Psychotherapy?

Courtney- Writing Therapy is just another form of therapy. Just like all the other forms, it’s something that’s focused on the client’s mental and emotional well-being. It’s focused on healing and so it’s got the same usual goals of improving the client’s functioning and helping them with their problems and helping them feel better. It’s sort of a typical working relationship between the client and the therapist but the difference with Writing Therapy is that it’s very focused on journaling, on writing. 

It’s sometimes also called “Expressive Disclosure” or “Expressive Writing”, which I really like because it focuses on what you’re doing, when you’re doing Writing Therapy, and that’s not just writing anything but you’re writing expressively. You’re expressing yourself, you’re diving into things that are difficult or things that are going on in your head. It allows you to express and exercise those negative emotions to get things off your chest. Just that act of writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process them in a much simpler and more straightforward way. It helps you to identify what it is that’s wrong so that you can then work on it with a qualified mental health professional.

Valerie- When you were telling us about this, you did mention that Writing Therapy is all about expressing your thoughts through the way you write and gaining a better insight on your surroundings. Is there a significant difference between Writing Therapy and journaling?

Courtney- There is a difference. They are very related and of course one can complement the other but there are a few major differences between Writing Therapy and journaling. The first one is that Writing Therapy is led by a licensed mental health professional so you can do all the journaling you like on your own and that can be really great but Writing Therapy in particular is when that process is guided by someone who has been trained and is licensed in this arena and can help you with exercises and prompts and ideas and can help you work through the things that you’ve written down, so there’s that component that’s different. 

Another difference between Writing Therapy and journaling is that journaling is usually sort of off the cuff. You write about what happened in your day and what you’re feeling. Therapeutic writing is more directed- it’s usually guided by prompts or exercises. It;s not necessarily free-form where you write about whatever you’d like. It’s more guided. Third, journaling is more about what happened in your day and how you’re feeling about that while Writing Therapy is actually engaging with your thoughts and feelings. Not necessarily recording them or responding to events that are happening in your life but actually diving deep, thinking about and analysing your own thoughts and feelings. It’s this sort of meta activity where you’re thinking about thinking and you’re feeling about feeling, and you’re really diving in on a deeper level than most people usually do when they journal. 

Valerie-  Right. So journaling would basically be an outlet to your thoughts and a way for you to express yourself through that whereas Writing Therapy might be engaging with your thoughts and analysing it and trying to understand what you feel. Is that right?

Courtney- Right, exactly. You can journal however you like so usually some people would journal in this way but generally, people just sort of journal writing about what happened in their day, what they think about it, what they’re looking forward to. Writing Therapy would be more like – this thing happened, these are the thoughts that occurred after, this is why I think I’m having these thoughts, this is what I feel about having these thoughts, it’s just sort of peeling back a layer, getting a little bit deeper into engaging with those thoughts and those feelings that you’re having. 

Valerie- Courtney, what got you interested in writing and journaling, and authoring three published books?

Courtney- You know, actually that number is upto five! My fifth came out in December. Clearly I’m a fan of writing, I like writing a lot. I’ve actually always really liked writing but for a long time, I never really did it regularly and I never really sat down with an intention for myself. Of course you sit down with an intention to write papers and to write books or articles but I never really sat down and wrote with an intention for myself, just sort of writing for me. When I discovered that this is sort of a way of doing things and that there are a lot of Writing Therapy exercises and things you can do in that arena, it really resonated with me. It helped me let go of these things that I was holding down to, things that are frustrating or difficult or negative, the things that can weigh you down. I found that writing them down was the best way for me personally, to let them go. 

For me, journaling is an excellent way to relieve stress, an excellent way to get those thoughts and feelings down, to let go of the more negative or unpleasant ones, or to sort of record the more positive ones. I don’t just journal about the negatives, I also jurnal about what’s going right, what’s great in my life, what I’m grateful for. It makes it feel more real when it’s down on paper. It’s such an excellent way of dealing with your thoughts and feelings. When it’s in your head, it’s all a big jumble. When you write it down, things can start to make a lot more sense. One of my favourite things about journaling as a mental health activity is that there are virtually no barriers to entry. If you can write, you can have a direct active role in your own healing. You don’t need anything else. If you have paper and a pen, you can journal!

Valerie- It’s so wonderful that you found writing to be a way for you to let go of things that you’ve been holding onto and the things that have been weighing you down, and you took that personal experience, knowing that it works for you, to write books to help people as well. You wrote books on positive psychology and I think that’s wonderful, taking an experience and using it to help people. 

Courtney- Thank you. When you find something that works for you, you want to share it with people. That’s my goal. If even one person finds my books and enjoys the exercises or the techniques in there or finds them useful, then it was totally worth it. I’m a helper! I like to help people So whenever I find something that really works for me, I wonder who else this could work for, I wonder who else this could help, and I try to find a way to get it down on paper and get it out to people.

Valerie- You did mention when you talked about Writing Therapy, that it’s something that’s usually prompted. It’s not free form writing. What I wanted to ask you is that are there different types of writing practices under therapy that help give an outlet to one’s emotions or what they’re feeling? 

Courtney- Absolutely. There are a lot of different techniques and you’d sort of have to dive into the different exercises and prompts and techniques out there in Writing Therapy but some of the main ones are writing about traumatic or stressful events. That’s used a lot for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or any kind of reaction to a stressful event. It doesn’t necessarily need to be diagnosed PTSD to help you deal with stress but that’s one of the most common things that you’ll find. You’ll be guided to write about the stressful or traumatic experience that you suffered, and kind of work through it, process through it, work with a qualified mental health professional to process it, and it can help make the whole experience a little bit less salient, a little bit less impactful on you today. The more that you go through it and write about it in a safe space, the less impact it has on your day to day life. So that’s a pretty common exercise for people in Writing Therapy. 

There are tons of different techniques to follow thoughts, deconstruct them. Say you’re dealing with low self-esteem and you’re not feeling great about yourself. Writing Therapy might help you figure out one particular reason that you’re not feeling good about yourself. Maybe feeling like “I’m not successful”. Then it’ll help you walk back from that thought, all the way to the core. So you’ll start with “I’m not successful”, and then you’ll ask “Why does that matter?” Then you’ll walk back to thinking “There’s this rule that you must be successful to be happy.” Then you’ll ask yourself, “Well, do you really need to be successful to be happy?” And so it’s this step by step process where you’re following a thought or a feeling all the way back to a core belief and then figuring out whether you like that core belief. Whether that’s something that you want to hold onto, whether it’s helping you or hurting you, and if it’s hurting you then create a new one in its place. Instead of “You must be successful to be happy”, it can be “I deserve to be happy now, whether I’m successful or not”.

Valerie- That’s actually really interesting, that you would work backwards from something as simple as a sentence and then you’d use that to introspect and see whether what’s being said in the world is something that you actually believe or whether it’s something that works for you. It’s such a beautiful way that something can help you. You start with something so small and you can end up in learning so much about yourself.

Courtney- Absolutely. That’s why I love it too. It gives you tools to really dive in because we all have these core beliefs but if you ask someone on the street what their core beliefs are, they’re probably not going to be able to say much. When you sit with your thoughts and write them down, and ask yourself questions and introspect, this stuff comes up. There’s pretty much nobody out there that has a set of beliefs that have completely been analysed or agreed with, without any issues. We all have those core beliefs we are unsure of, that come from our parents or society, that maybe we don’t like or believe anymore and you don’t really think about those core beliefs until you start writing them down and engaging with them.

Valerie- True. Courtney, what’s a simple way to get started? Does one need to have a flair for writing to try out Writing Therapy or journaling?

Courtney- Absolute not! You do not need to be a writer to write in a journal. Like I said earlier, one of my favorite things about journaling and Writing Therapy is that you don’t need anything in particular. You don’t need any skills. As long as you can write, you can engage in this kind of stuff. It’s best to engage with a professional if you want to do actual directed Writing Therapy but there are definitely tons of steps that you can take on your own and a lot of my books are focused on that. There are exercises that you can do on your own, at home or at work or wherever you are, and just dive into this stuff. There’s one easy acronym that I really like, to get started and it’s the WRITE method, that comes from Cathleen Adams at the Centre for Journal Therapy. She’s brilliant, you should go check out that website if you want to know more. As an easy way to get started, think WRITE:

W – What do you want to write about? Name it, label it. Give it a name. 

R- Review or reflect on it. Write it down and just think about it, toss it around, feel it out. Reflect on this thing that you want to write about.

I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings. You start writing and you just keep writing, and approach it with curiosity. Approach it as if you’re a researcher, researching your own thoughts and feelings. Get curious and ask questions and keep writing. 

T – Timer. Use a timer, set it from anywhere between two minutes to thirty minutes, and then just keep writing until the timer goes off. Usually people think that ten minutes is a lot and before they know it, the time is gone!

E – Exit the journaling session by re-reading what you’ve written after that timer goes off and then just reflect on it with one or two sentences. You may reflect on it by saying “Wow! I had a lot more to write about than I thought. It’s interesting that this came up”. Just closing it out by looking at what you’ve written and giving it a little summary.

Valerie- It’s so nice that you said that at the end of it, after you start writing and you reflect on it and you set a timer and you keep writing, at the end of it you sit down and reflect on what you’ve written, you see what you can take away from it. You don’t just write and let it be, it’s a way of understanding yourself better so you sit with it, you understand what you’ve written and where you can go from there. I think that’s such a good thing to do and such a good thing to put into practice. 

Courtney- Right. I totally agree. Usually when we journal, we don’t usually re-read what we’ve written. We kind of journal, close the book and put it away and maybe open it the next day and journal again, which is great but taking that time to review it at the end and to really think about it, that’s what takes it to a next level.

Valerie- Makes sense. Courtney, thank you so much for talking to us today about Writing Therapy. We’ve learnt so much from you and gained a better insight into what Writing Therapy is. We’ve learnt that we get to know ourselves better, we get to know the world around us better, and we can just sit and engage with our thoughts and express ourselves in a way that whatever we feel in weighing us down or something we’re holding onto, we can exercise releasing those negative emotions. Thank you for letting us know that and for the work you do when it comes to writing and psychology and positivity.

Courtney- Thank you! And you’re welcome. I’m happy to do it. I’m happy that people are engaging with these subjects. It’s really exciting.


Valerie- Thank you so much. 

Representation of Neurodivergence in Media

“If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism” 

This is a common saying when talking about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), precisely the reason why it’s known to be a spectrum; different people experience the symptoms in different ways. But when it comes to the media, movies and tv shows, is it represented the way it should be? 

Imagine the last time you saw a character with Autism in a movie or tv show, it could be the character of Shaun Murphy on ‘The Good Doctor’, Sam Gardner on ‘Atypical’, or even Sheldon Cooper on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (although the writers have never confirmed it). Now, most people would think that this is amazing, that having positive representations of Autism would be a good thing, but is it really?

The answer is neither in black nor white.

When we first think about Autism, we think of characters who are socially awkward, avoid eye contact, maybe are hypersensitive to stimuli, but at the same time are all geniuses in their field. However, only around 10% of people with autism have Savant abilities. Every person on the spectrum experiences it differently, some might be verbal, some non-verbal; some might be able to mask their symptoms well, while some might not. It doesn’t reduce the impact that Autism has on their lives. And the problem is, while one side of it is represented, calling for stories and dramatization, a whole other side of it isn’t. 

Even though Sheldon is never confirmed to be Autistic, why does everyone categorize him as being on the spectrum? Why do we think so, when it is not really accurate? Well, for most people, exposure to Autism comes only from the media and we associate the stereotypes portrayed in the media with our belief systems about Autism. The more number of times a character is portrayed with the above-mentioned attributes, the more these beliefs are strengthened and voila! People now have a fixed perception about Autism.

While media representation can help end stigma and can lead to a positive attitude about Autism, it can also have negative effects, such as propagating stereotypes and inaccuracies.

Yes, this might not be a deliberate move, but in the whole process, it can make people who, “Don’t look like they have Autism”, difficult to access services and care, when in reality, they might just be better at masking the difficulties that they have. This causes them a lot of stress and anxiety. Even parents may ignore symptoms that their child has, just because they don’t display these stereotypical behaviours. This becomes a classic case of, ‘good intention, bad execution’ and, ‘negative effect’.

So what can be done? Do we stop portraying neurodivergent characters altogether?

Well, no. First things first, film makers and scriptwriters must talk to the people that they want to represent; those on the spectrum. The neurodivergent community has been asking for accurate representation for a very long time, and according to them, neurotypical (individuals who do not have a diagnosis of Autism or any other developmental disorder) actors portraying neurodivergent traits reduces something so complex, nuanced, and beautiful, into a trait that anyone can imitate on screen, which isn’t the right thing to do. Also, if we look closely, there are close to no female characters with Autism being represented. This is a result of a deeper phenomenon (Our article coming out next week, explores this in greater detail.)

The argument that might rise is, ‘Hey, isn’t it only acting?’ 

Yes, but it must be kept in mind that while the community is having positive representation in the media, they are still being portrayed through a neurotypical lens. They are also constantly being left out of opportunities and underrepresented in real life. Disability has a 2% representation rate in the popular media, and out of that tiny figure, only 5% of disabled characters are played by disabled actors.  So in the long run, isn’t this doing more harm than good?

Filmmakers and scriptwriters must understand the responsibility that they have and the impact that their films can make, and realize that having large audiences that watch them having a neurodivergent character just for the sake of token diversity and comic relief, won’t work.  Stories need not be dramatic but that doesn’t mean that everything must be an educational booklet about Autism. Creativity in human beings is limitless and beyond boundaries, and the right stories can definitely be told in the way that they deserve to be.                                                       

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Bibliotherapy ft. Bijal Shah

While reading a book or a quote, have you ever felt like it best put into words exactly what you’re feeling? That’s the power of literature – it offers us a connection and intimacy that is unique to the medium.

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Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’ll be exploring bibliotherapy with Bijal Shah, a bibliotherapist, counsellor, author and poet. She is the founder of Book Therapy – a book curation service that offers bibliotherapy, literary curation, personalized reading services and bibliotherapy training. 

Hey, Bijal!

Bijal – Hey, Valerie. How are you?

Valerie –  I’m doing well. It’s so great to be talking to you today.

Bijal –  Thank you, it’s such a pleasure to be here!

Valerie –  Could you tell us how reading books helps with mental wellness? 

Bijal –  Sure. I often see literature as a mirror, as a tool that reflects what we’re feeling because when we read, we read through our own lens. We filter things out through our own experiences. It’s a great self awareness tool and I’d say that the power lies in the relationship that’s formed between a reader and writing, whether that’s narrative or poetry or essay, and the reflections of the thoughts, feelings or observations that the writing provokes. I always suggest a daily journaling practice, capturing exactly what the literature is bringing out for us, so you’re using books as a prompt and that can be used as a self-care structure to you or it can be in your counselling or psychotherapy sessions or whichever mental health professional you’re working with. Books can really help facilitate any sort of mental health struggle that you’re going through, help you process your feelings, find coping strategies and just help to process emotions and release those because that’s so important that reading should help express, and books essentially act as a medium for that. 

Valerie –  When you were talking about this, you told us that one aspect of reading that stands out is that you’re reading through your own lens – it’s your narrative and about what you pick up from a book that you’re reading. You talk about journaling, you talk about how you prefer that someone journals or take the help of a mental health counselor, while reading.

Taking up on that, what is Bibliotherapy? How does it work as an alternative form of mental health therapy? 

Bijal – Sure. Here at Book Therapy, we pretty much define Bibliotherapy as a form of Art Therapy that focuses on the power of stories to heal, so really leveraging off literature to process emotions, using it as a prompt for self-awareness and connection. The basis of Bibliotherapy is essentially two-fold: It focuses on the ability of the Bibliotherapist or mental health professional to prescribe the right text for each individual as there’s no size that fits all, so it depends on the reader’s personal preference. It’s also imperative that the reader is willing to explore the value of literary thinking and seeking meaning within the literary language through self-reflection and journaling and/or discussion with a trained therapist or counsellor. 

In terms of the actual Bibliotherapy process, there are essentially three stages to it – 

The first stage is that the reader should identify and connect with the text or the character, if it’s fiction. The text itself needs to help the reader connect with the emotions and allow them to process it. This is what I call a cathartic response. Also, literature should provide insight into the individual’s own situation based on the issues faced by the character or discussed in the text. Thirdly, allow the reader to consolidate their learnings and lessons in a therapeutic fashion. I would say that those are the three stages of Bibliotherapy and you could use those as self-prescription or in a session with a counsellor or therapist. 

Sessions span both fictional and non-fictional literature, across a variety of mediums. You could read novels or poetry or tragedies or essays – all of these things connect with us in different ways and the actual magic happens in that process of reading and the interpretation and reflection because it’s all being framed from the perspective of the reader and this is where you start to work with what the literature is bringing up for them. 

Valerie –  Bijal, you were telling us about the magic of literature. What’s your relationship with books like? 

Bijal –  I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya so I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years there and there was only one community library or book store but I found myself hanging out there a lot. I’ve always found it a source of comfort and solace. Living in Nairobi was very much like living in lockdown like we are right now! So in terms of entertainment, there’s not a lot and you find yourself doing a lot of reading the whole time. I’ve always found books very comforting and healing, and I never really picked up on the concept of Bibliotherapy until I was in my own counselling training and I had to see a therapist as a part of that. These were weekly sessions and I found that in between, you might have all sorts of issues or things going on as you’re waiting to see the therapist and it’s in that space in time that I felt like literature really anchored and supported me because I could reflect on what I was feeling. I felt like literature was really allowing me to leverage therapy outside of my therapy sessions. 

Valerie –  What was the inspiration behind founding Book Therapy and making this personalized curation service for people?

Bijal – There’s been a lot of research going on over the years by University students and PhD students and whilst there’s a lot of research, it’s never really hit the mainstream market and lots of counsellors and therapists do prescribe literature as a part of their sessions. What I wanted to do was really focus on Bibliotherapy itself and bring all my learnings together. I really just wanted to bring together everything that we need in terms of techniques and tools to use literature, and that could be like creative writing, unstructured writing.

Reading and writing really go hand-in-hand. You’re reading but you’ve also got to do a bit of reflection and that normally comes from writing. If you’re averse to that then you can record a voice note to yourself! That’s what I call audio journaling and it’s also very important to get those feelings out and express the things that you’re going through and capture them and that is healing in itself. A lot of the work that I do involves reading and then writing. Reading for fun is great but if you want to also use it as a therapeutic tool, then this is how you can make the most out of your reading.

I felt a real urge to bring what I had learnt through my training and my own personal experience with literature to other people and that’s when I actually launched Book Therapy. I found that sometimes you want the Bibliotherapy sessions but sometimes you just want a prescribed reading list so I would also curate reading lists based on what people tell me they’re looking for. I do it for therapy but I also do it for personal interest because I have people telling me they’re avid readers and ask me to prescribe something to them. I now have this feedback loop of what’s working, what’s not and it helps me hopefully tailor something that can be really useful and valuable to my clients.

Valerie –  It’s so nice that you’ve said that when someone’s going through something, you’re providing them a service by prescribing them books that might help them express or understand what they’re going through better. It’s such a great service that you’re doing for people.

Bijal – Thank you! Similar to what LonePack’s doing, it’s creating ways of helping people find ways to cope when they’re going through difficult times. Especially now during the Pandemic, people are really struggling with mental health and sometimes it’s not easy to get access to a counsellor. Sometimes it’s hard to find a counsellor that you connect with. I think we have books and literature that offers us a lot of choice and variety, and it’s still a form of connection. It’s not connection with a person but you’re connecting with something, with a character or with the author, and it’s really satisfying our human need for connection because a lot of issues start when you’re feeling disconnected with either parts of yourself or with others. So it’s really sort of bridging that gap and I always say that it’s a form of meditation, especially if you’re reading mindfully, it’s giving your brain a break, mental space to breathe!

Valerie –  How have you found Bibliotherapy play a role in youth mental health in particular?

Bijal – When I think of youth mental health, there are two branches – there’s children’s Bibliotherapy and then there’s teenage Bibliotherapy, and I think each is quite different. Children’s Bibliotherapy is sometimes more complicated because children are young and they don’t always have a language to express what they’re feeling but picture books and Play Therapy can be hugely helpful in helping children express themselves and also process what they’re going through because children really need us to help them regulate their emotions and they need to learn how to do that. Literature and Play Therapy are such wonderful ways to teach them how to do that. 

During the teenage years, literature is very much a developmental tool so I call it developmental Bibliotherapy where they’re learning about the world through literature because there are so many things that are never really touched upon in class. For example, you might get taught about sex education to know how someone becomes pregnant but you don’t talk about the other things around that like actually exploring your sexuality or your needs. None of that is addressed in a classroom. I think literature can be a way to help you explore your identity, help you explore your sexual needs, beyond just the basic things that you’re told. I really think that developmental Bibliotherapy can really help people with that. Even if it’s cognitive and social development, being assertive, dealing with anxiety, all of these things are actually important lessons for teenagers which are not often focused on, in the academic setting. I think mental health literature is just the perfect bridge. Also, I don’t see many youth going to see counselors whereas I do see lots of people read. Teenage is the time where you actually get to read before you go to University where you just stop reading. We should help teenagers make the most of this time in developmental Bibliotherapy, and that could also include a lot of young-adult literature.

Valerie –  Bijal, you’ve given us an insight into how reading books can impact our mental health. You’ve told us what Bibliotherapy is. Can you now tell us the steps of how one can develop a good reading habit and include literature as a part of one’s self-care?

Bijal – I probably want to leave you with a few things that I think are super helpful. Practice mindful reading. Sure, reading for escapism is fine and there’s a place and space where you need to do that but if you’re reading from a therapeutic perspective, practice mindful reading. Ask questions about what the literature is doing for you, what feelings it’s bringing out, is there something that it’s nudging or prompting? Create an intention habit, a consistent time to read every day. Reading is like going to the gym. If you don’t do it everyday, you’re just going to be a holiday reader. If you want to get out of that holiday reader mode, you have to do it daily and create a space where you do it, like a designated reading space because all of these things bring consistency and consistency helps you build that into your daily routine. I’d also say keep a book journal. Every time you’re reading, write about it. Reflect on what it’s doing for you. I would also say find an accountability partner, a reading partner. Someone you read with or you could be reading the same book at your own time but coming together to discuss it because that is what’s going to get you reading and finishing the book. I’ve found that when you have a reading partner, you’re more likely to be committed to it, similar to a book club. I would say all of those things are great in terms of building better reading habits. 

Valerie – That’s so nice. Bijal, is journaling something you do regularly? In everything that you’ve talked about, when you speak about reading, you always also added the importance of journaling and how it enhances the whole reading process.

Bijal – Absolutely, yes. I do it pretty much every day. I’m always writing something because I love writing! Whether it’s quickly jotting down a poem or writing down how I’m feeling that way or something that I’ve noticed about myself, I will just write that down and that just immediately creates a sense of relief because I feel like I’ve taken it out of myself and I’ve put it on paper. It’s really cathartic and healing, I can’t recommend it enough. 

Valerie – Bijal, thank you so much for talking to us today and giving us an insight into what Bibliotherapy is. We’ve learnt from you that books can be comforting and healing. We’ve learnt that we read books so that we can connect with the text and through the text, we can connect with characters, connect with your own emotions, dig into something and realise and identify things that maybe you were not comfortable with when it comes to your own self. That you can take those learnings and consolidate them. We’ve also learnt that there are different forms of literature that can help us best connect with our emotions. Thank you for the tips that you gave us on how we can use reading personally and develop reading habits in order to take care of ourselves and develop our mental wellbeing. Thank you so much.

Bijal – Thank you, Valerie. It’s been such a pleasure to be here and I do hope that it’s helpful and that it helps somebody in a meaningful way. I think that’s the best reward for this.

Valerie – Thank you, Bijal.

Myths vs Facts about Autism

Myth: “Autism is a disease”

Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder– a disorder in brain function, affecting one’s emotions, communication, learning ability, and self-control. It doesn’t “spread” like a disease.  It develops as an individual grows. The whole concept of disease/illness cannot be applied here. Autism is treated to help support emotional growth and communication, and is not “cured”.

Myth: “Everybody with autism is either non-verbal or savant.”

The more extreme (and especially rare) cases of people with autism are popularized, leading people to believe that ALL people with autism have either extraordinary skills or poor levels of understanding.

Though Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are characterized by unique patterns in social interaction and repetitive/restricted patterns in behavior; it is important to note that these characteristics vary in terms of severity and impact. For example, speech impairments can range from deficits in understanding to complete lack of speech. Several adults diagnosed with ASDs can live independently, while others can’t. The savant skill is a condition wherein a person with autism has an exceptional mental ability. However, this condition is rare and its degree varies as well. People with autism who show a particular interest or exhibit a particular skill set are often confused for having the savant skill, which need not be the case. 

Myth: “Vaccines cause autism.”

This myth started with a research paper published in the 1990s, that linked vaccines with ASDs. However, the research paper wasn’t credible at all, and the medical professional had his license taken away. The myth has still stuck around to this day and contributes to the number of anti-vaxxers. A vaccine has no relation to autism; it only boosts your immunity and resistance against particular diseases. 

Myth: “The number of people with autism has increased/ There is an autism epidemic going on”

Around 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism. This number is significantly higher than it was two decades ago. The only reason for this is that the awareness of ASDs began to increase in the 1980s-1990s. With this increase in awareness, more people were able to identify the signs of autism. Hence, more individuals got diagnosed. Apart from this, the definition of the word, ‘autism’ was expanded to be more inclusive of the variety of unique cases falling under the autism spectrum.

Myth: “People with autism are treated so that they can ‘resemble neurotypical people’ ”

Autism is a lifelong disorder. Methods that heavily intervene in a child’s life at an early age to “make” them neurotypical(like a few cases of Applied Behaviour Analysis, which requires being under supervision for 20+ hours per week.), tend to affect the child’s mental health negatively. Convincing a child that they need to be ‘fixed’ can lead to trauma and life-long anxiety. As Barry Pratz said, this mindset and these methods ‘treat the person as a problem to be solved rather than an individual to be understood’. Instead, allowing the person with autism to be in a comfortable environment, and understanding the reason behind any particular speech/behavioral pattern of theirs can help them remain safe.

Myth: “Autism is a case of over-diagnosis.”

Several researchers also argue that changing the criteria for autism and making it more inclusive, has led to an over-diagnosis of the condition.

Rather than it being a case of over-diagnosis, milder symptoms that are associated with behavioral challenges are being recognized and accepted under the autism spectrum. This helps to prevent further serious ailments that could occur as a result.

Myth: “Autism itself is a myth.”

In Lorna Wing’s concept behind the autism spectrum, she mentions that the autism spectrum “shades imperceptibly into eccentric normality“. This implies, that behavioral habits exhibited by people with autism are also exhibited by people without autism. 

‘While people with autism self-stimulate, neurotypical people fidget. While people with autism have certain things they are sensitive to, neurotypical people have dislikes and preferences.’  

While there may not be a well-defined line around the criteria for being included in the autism spectrum, there most certainly is a difference between neurotypical individuals and individuals with autism.

People with autism are diagnosed with ASDs. The core features of ASDs are trouble with social communication and inflexible repetitive behavior. Neurotypical people are not diagnosed with ASDs, or their symptoms do not fall under the category of the autism spectrum. 

The similarities between people with autism and neurotypical people aren’t enough to debunk a disorder that affects all aspects of life for those who are diagnosed with it. Especially now that more people are aware of ASDs, people with mild symptoms are also diagnosed with autism.

As put rightly by Steve Silberman, “It wasn’t long ago that someone who spoke to his or her friends by typing on a keyboard was considered severely handicapped. Now they’re just a teenager.

Sources:

health.clevelandclinic.org

otsimo.com/en/

www.kennedykrieger.org/

www.onecentralhealth.com.au/

www.healthline.com/health-news/are-we-over-diagnosing-autism#Criteria-changes

www.ted.com/talks/wendy_chung_autism_what_we_know_and_what_we_don_t_know_yet?

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Narrative Therapy ft. David Newman

When you’re asked questions like “What’s your story?”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Today let’s take time to realise the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, and others, while talking about our lives.

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Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

We’re in conversation with Narrative Therapist, David Newman. He has an independent counselling practice through Sydney Narrative Therapy, works at a psychiatric unit for young people, and is a faculty member of the Adelaide based Dulwich centre, one of the homes of narrative therapy and community work.

Hey, David!

David – Hi, Valerie. It’s nice to be here.

Valerie – Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Let’s start with you telling us what narrative therapy is and how it relates to and aids our mental health.

David –Well, in short Narrative Therapy is an approach to therapy and community work. It’s something that social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and nurses will do in their work, when they’re doing counselling work or therapeutic work. But if I just go back just a tiny little bit, Narrative Therapy found some of its understandings through the cognitive revolution and the idea that we are meaning-making and thinking people, the human race, and that one of the ways that we make sense of things or make meaning is through the lens of a narrative, that in order to be able to make sense of things, we need to have the lens and it’s through the lens of a narrative. So that’s where some of the ideas and the impetus of Narrative Therapy came from and these go back in time to probably about the 1950s in terms of what was happening in psychological theory at the time. 

Now Narrative Therapy is an idea that you might say comes from a post-structuralist understanding that is about the plurality of life and about the inconsistencies and the contradictions in life and in identity and one way that that’s taken up in narrative practice is to say that life is always multi-storied, so as a narrative practitioner, we’d always be assuming that someone is not just the problem story, they’re not just a bundle of despair or anxiety or panic, but there’s also other glimpses of life that are outside of those stories and the narrative practitioner is wanting to breathe life into those glimpses, when people aren’t being able to cope or take action in life. 

Life is multi-storied but Narrative Therapy also contextualizes it. Identity is seen as a contextual and social achievement. In other words, we are really interested in looking at what happens around people so you might call it a sociological approach or analysis to the shaping of stories. What that means in terms of Narrative Therapy practices is that broadly speaking, the first thing you might say about Narrative Therapy is that it looks at the context of people’s lives and not the problem with people, so it does what we call “externalizing the problem”. Externalizing the problem is imagining and speaking or writing or drawing, or whatever it might be, as if the problem stories are separate from people. So people are in a relationship to despair, people are in a relationship to a suicidal experience, people are in a  relationship to addiction or conflict, or whatever the problem might be. That’s called externalizing and that’s a big part of the conversation. 

The second thing to say about Narrative Therapy practice would be that when we find an aspect of life outside of the externalised problem story, we really want to ask a lot of questions and be very curious and listen out for stories that can be built on, like stories of coping, stories of skills of living.

Valerie – That’s really interesting. You look at it from a perspective of knowing that life is multi-storied and that you don’t just look at the problems but you try to look at it in context to your life and then try to work around that.

David – Yeah, that’s right.

Valerie –  Personally, what is it that got you interested in narrative therapy?

David – So Narrative Therapy, for me, is not just critique. Narrative Therapy is certainly critique and is responding to some of the politics of psychology and counselling and therapy and community work at the time, in the 80s and late 80s but it wasn’t just critique, it was also practice. So seeing in these ideas a strong engagement with power, a strong engagement with issues of culture and a non-pathologizing stance but there were full of very very elegant practices. Very elegant and very effective practices. So it was both a critique mixed with practice and I was really drawn to that.

The other thing that drew me to Narrative Therapy was that it is very non-individualistic. It was about connecting people and joining people around similar experiences including joining people with their own communities. So therapy or community work wasn’t sort of cut off from life so much, the world of the person was brought into therapeutic process much more than I’d seen in other approaches.

Finally, I was really drawn to the way that Narrative Therapy engaged with personal story, the personal story of the therapist. Around the time in the 70s and 80s, there was quite a lot of pathologizing of what was considered sometimes problematic motive for why people would get engaged with therapy – that they had something often that would be spoken of as an unmet need and in Narrative Therapy, there was an engagement with personal story that would be acknowledging and honoring a personal story as shaping of purposes that you brought to the work – that because you know something about how hard life can get as a therapist, you want to bring that kind of purpose to the work because maybe if you know a little but about what it’s like to have a parent who has an alcohol problem, you’ll bring that determination to do something about it and have skills around what you can do around those experiences, that you can bring to the work. So it’s engaging with their personal story in a way that was acknowledging and honoring, rather than pathologizing and dismissing.

Valerie –  It’s beautiful that would help somebody with their personal problems and personal story in a way that you engage with them as opposed to stigmatizing it, and then you help them through that in a way that you’re also concerned because you can connect it to something from your own personal life.

David – Yeah. So for instance, one practice of Narrative Therapy would be to let people know, let couples or families or individuals know that you have been taken somewhere else in your life as a result of the conversation, you have other ideas for your life as a result of the conversation or as a result of the work. You know that as a result of hearing how determined this person is to listen better to their child, that you will take that with you too in your parenting or something like that. So yes, there are particular practices where we let people know how we’ve been moved somewhere else as a result of the conversation. Typically in Narrative Therapy, this is an aspect of re-telling someone’s story, it’s honoring or acknowledging re-telling a story when we tell them how someone’s story has taken us.

Valerie –  Yes. David, what age groups have you found narrative therapy impact the most and what are the different ways through which people can tell their stories? 

David – I would say that because Narrative Therapy really engages with meaning-making, that’s what it’s interested in and the meaning-making lens as I said earlier, that is privileged in narrative practices is storytelling, I would say anybody at any age can take part in these conversations and in this work. I would say for children who are very young, there might be some limitations in terms of language but I would say even from as young as 3 or 4, I think, children can use language to describe their experience in ways that we can shape a therapeutic conversation of sorts. I think the limitations to the age is not so much the age of someone, it’s the limitations of the workup and the extent to which they’re bringing particular practices and ways of talking that are resonant for the person, they’re a part of the person’s culture, they’re a part of the person’s way of doing things, or style. 

In terms of how stories can be told, I think it can be not just about the spoken word, and quite often therapists will ask people to draw a picture of their worries or a picture of depression. That’s a way that we can engage with meaning-making or some sort of communication. There’s also ways that therapists have been exploring music, and that’s another option. There has been a huge explosion of using metaphors as well in Narrative Therapy, so we bring a metaphor that might be resonant, often the metaphor of the tree of life and how people might use a tree as a metaphor to speak about their lives – the roots are where you’ve come from, etc. and that’s another way that we can tell stories. This is another more recent development over the last ten years of how metaphors are being richly engaged in telling stories as it has lots of advantages including that people can speak indirectly about experiences which can help enormously when people have had a traumatic experience and it’s very hard to speak about it directly.

Valerie – David, can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Narrative Therapy session? How does a narrative therapist understand people and help them through their problems?

David – I think something that’s reasonably common to many approaches to therapy and community work is that the narrative therapist is really interested in the experience of someone. They really want to get a rich sense of the experience of someone. Narrative Therapy is very interested in using and reflecting back the language that someone uses. In fact, Narrative Therapy would take a position against re-wording what someone says and representing it through a professional expert kind of language or psychiatric language. It would be about trying to use the language that people bring. Someone might speak about way out thoughts or dire thoughts as opposed to for instance the psychiatric term that gets imposed sometimes as “suicidal ideation”. 

A Narrative Therapist is listening out for a problem story and how they are being described, and the effects of the problem story. So if someone did speak about dire thoughts, we would be asking about the effects of the dire thoughts, what the dire thoughts might be saying, what gives the dire thoughts power,  the context through which the dire thoughts might be getting a lot of power but we understand, because life is multi-storied, we understand that there are always glimpses of life, often they’re in the shadows of the problem story but there are always glimpses of life outside of the problem story and the narrative therapist is always listening out for those glimpses and trying to take note of them, listening carefully for them. 

So we’re listening for the problem story and we’re listening for glimpses outside of the problem story, which in Narrative Therapy, we call alternative stories or preferred stories, sometimes they’re also referred to as second storis or subjugated stories, and we want to breathe life into those other stories and help them come out of the shadows of the problem story.

Valerie –  Is it possible for people to find their stories through the stories of others’ lives, or while playing a role in someone else’s life?

David – I have been very interested in the idea of people finding their stories through the stories of others’. For the last eight or so years, I’ve been working part time at a psychiatric unit for young people in Sydney, and I do many many groups. In these groups, one thing I’ve noticed is that people will often find their own language and their own experience, when they hear someone else’s experience. I might be doing a round in a group and the opening question might be “What’s something that’s rough for you?”. Someone might say “I really don’t know” and then we’ll go through a few people answering what they think is rough for them and then all of a sudden someone who didn’t know how to describe just how rough things are and how to describe the turmoil will find words for it. They’ll find words because they realise that there’s an overlap of an experience or story with someone else, or the opposite – they’ll know that that story or experience does not speak to them, and in that sense, they’ve got a sense of what does speak to them. They have a sense of a little bit of what their story is

This concept of people finding their stories from the stories of others’, I’ve found incredibly helpful in work because it means I put much less pressure on people to speak because they’ll speak once they hear something either of their own experiences reflected in others or not reflected in others. I also use this very much with the written word. These alternative or preferred stories, in Narrative Therapy, there’s a long tradition of writing down these stories so people can have them when they go, or that they can donate these stories to other people who are going down a similar path. We share these stories later or documents in the group so that people get a sense of their own stories through the stories that have been written down. So that’s one thing that I’ve found very very helpful.

Valerie – David, thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy. There is so much that we got to learn from you today, getting a better insight into what Narrative Therapy is. We learnt that it’s about meaning making and making sense of things through the lens of a narrative. We learnt that life is always multi-storied and you look at the glimpses of life outside your problems. That is such a beautiful thing, that you connect with experiences, you connect people with experiences and you can also relate to other people’s experiences to form your own narrative and find your story through that. Thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy today.

David – My pleasure, Valerie. I hope it was of use.

Valerie – Thank you.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

What is ASD?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or just ‘Autism’ as it is referred to commonly, is a neurological disorder that is known to cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges in the development of an individual. It is known as a ‘spectrum’ disorder because the people affected experience a wide range of symptoms, each of them unique in severity. 

People with Autism often need a lot of help navigating day-to-day life, but the degree of help required varies depending upon how well the individual is able to balance their disorder and life. 

They usually do not look any different from those who are unaffected; the only tell-tales are in the way they behave and interact with others. However, it is important to remember that they are full human beings with valid feelings, too, which should be acknowledged and respected.

What are the signs and symptoms to look out for?

Children and adults with Autism face difficulty in social situations, especially when it comes to communicating what they want to say. They also have trouble conveying their emotions, and tend to avoid human interaction altogether due to this. 

Some common signs that individuals with Autism display include:

  • In children: Delay in learning to speak
  • Inability to create or hold eye contact
  • Hypersensitivity or Hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Have difficulty in reading others’ gestures and intentions
  • Often want to be alone
  • Have trouble relating to others or forming connections
  • Repeat their motor movements
  • Have very rigid thinking patterns
  • Shy away from human touch
  • Avoid talking about their feelings
  • Have trouble adjusting to changes in routine
  • Repeat certain words and/or phrases: Echolalia

However, people with Autism are also more often than not, extremely talented in other non-routine activities. This is called the Savant Syndrome. 

For example, there might be someone who can’t concentrate in Mathematics class, but can do 1359357 x 1359357 in his mind at the drop of a pin. There might be someone who could replicate the Mona Lisa, but would not be able to smile at societally-dictated occasions. Darold Traffert, famous psychiatrist, has extensively studied this syndrome, and suggests that, ‘savant skills may result from the formation of exceptional neural structures during prenatal brain development.’ While there is controversial evidence mounting against the study of this syndrome, evidence suggests that there is a strong genetic link between family members displaying similar talents. 

It is extremely vital that we treat them just as we would treat anyone else, and not differentiate based on ability. 

What are the causes of ASD?

We do not know all the causes of ASD, but we do know that there are predominantly genetic and biological factors involved, such as:

  • Taking certain medicines meant for epilepsy and cancer during pregnancy, such as valproic acid and thalidomide
  • Children born to older parents are at higher risk
  • Children with a sibling with ASD are also likely to inherit ASD
  • Individuals with certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, such as tuberous sclerosis, can have a greater chance of having it
  • Children with very low birth weight are also at risk

ASD occurs among all racial, ethnic, and blood groups, but it has been found that it is 4 times more common among boys than in girls. 

How can we diagnose and treat ASD?

Since there is no blood or other medical test that can diagnose ASD, doctors have to look at a child’s early behaviour and development to make a diagnosis. 

Another problem with ASD is that it takes a longer time to diagnose, which means that children don’t get the early help that they require. There is also no known cure as such for ASD. However, research shows that early intervention in the form of helping children learn essential skills such as walking, talking, basic speech therapy, etc. 

While learning these skills can make a child feel extremely self-conscious and unsure, it is crucial to a child’s development, and it is important to ensure that the child receives it at the right stage. 

How can we be more empathetic towards people with Autism?

It is human nature to fear and discriminate against that which we don’t understand. The same is the case with respect to people with Autism. It is sad because they are often subjected to derogatory and hurtful name-calling such as ‘retard’ and ‘dork’, when in reality they’re just as human as everyone else. It would be very upsetting for any ‘normal’ person to listen to such things, so imagine how it would feel for those extremely talented people who have been misunderstood all their lives. 

So how can we be more empathetic towards such individuals?

As a parent, encourage the talents of your child. 

As a teacher, be vigilant and identify the signs and symptoms as early as possible. 

As a friend, make sure the person isn’t left out in whatever you do together.

As a decent human being, be more accepting.

Remember, Autism is just an illness that a person has. The person is not the illness, themself. 

LonePack signs an MoU with Patrician College of Arts and Science to deepen the efforts on mental health awareness

To all our supporters, here’s some good news from us—LonePack and Patrician College of Arts and Science signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) last week to forge collaborative initiatives in the mental health space.

Under this agreement, LonePack aims to work in tandem with the faculty and administration in some key activities around LonePack Buddy, online and offline workshops, volunteering and practical learning.  

  • We’ll be working together with the students of the college and helping them take up the LonePack Buddy Sensitisation Course, a credential for training volunteers to be listeners on LonePack Buddy. Once they qualify the training assessments, students also get hands-on experience by being the support system on Buddy’s free peer-to-peer chat spaces. 

  • Along with this, students will be able to take up volunteering opportunities across our research, content, and marketing teams, helping us in real-time with all the content, promotional, and partnership projects.

  • The students and the college would play a key role in conducting outreach programs and mental health workshops for youngsters, on behalf of (and with) LonePack’s team.  

Dr. Senthil J Kumaran, Head of the Psychology Department, quotes, 

“We are happy to establish a mutual support with LonePack in which our students will be equipped for 4.0 demands of mental health and in return we are positive in supporting the research division of LonePack with all the resources we got.”

Most of LonePack’s projects and activities are facilitated via the website, social media platforms [Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook], and Buddy chat app. LonePack is happy to be collaborating with students who bring forth a wide range of their psychological and entrepreneurial skills, and we’d be crediting their contribution with e-certificates and Letter of Appreciation. 

We look forward to working together with the academic department and students, and we’re excited for all the activities in store for us. 

Thanks to each one of you! Do keep supporting us, as we together with the students bridge the gap and shatter the stigma around mental health.

Cheers,

The LonePack Team

Toxic Masculinity and Mental Health

written by Shridula Gopinath

In September last year, India’s Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry launched “Kiran”, a 24/7 mental health helpline. An internal report, accessed by “The Hindu”, recorded data gathered between September 16th 2020 to January 15th 2021 which showed that over 70% of the calls received were by men. The inequality in these numbers is far from a coincidence. Instead, it exposes a much larger structural problem surrounding the issue of gender and mental health which millions of men battle with everyday. Canetto and Sakinofsky (1998) argue that there is a Gender Paradox in suicide, where women display higher suicidal ideation, but men have higher suicide rates. This paradox is likely to be explained by reluctance of men to report mental health issues and suicidal ideations. This raises questions about the ideals of masculinity and why they appear to be so incongruent with help seeking behaviour.

Where does it stem from?

The subtle practice of quelling emotional expression in men tends to begin with gendered socialisation at a very young age. Irrespective of our gender, we have all heard the phrase “Boys don’t cry” used when growing up. What about “don’t act like a girl” or, later on, “Man up”? Not only does this discourage men from showing emotion and communicating openly, it adds a stereotypical female connotation to all things related to feeling. This becomes more apparent as a problem when we take the wider patriarchal context into consideration. In societies like ours, things viewed as traditionally female are almost always synonymous with being inferior, shallow, and weak. General misconceptions about, and stigma surrounding, mental health are, therefore, made even more difficult to shatter when another layer of perceived shame is tightly fastened around almost half of the population. This barrier is even more difficult to penetrate since it is so deeply indoctrinated within us, to the extent where it is closely linked to one’s own identity. These toxic messages have been reinforced through cultural institutions and socialisation agencies, such as the media, and ridicule and criticism faced for failure to meet expectations of traditional masculinity, cements these notions. 

How does this ignite the problem?

Anybody who has experienced any mental illness for any period of time will agree that one of its most debilitating effects is the alienation and detachment one feels from their loved ones and the rest of the world, and more often than not, having somebody who makes you feel heard, be it a friend or a family member or a professional, can go a long way. This support and reassurance, that you are not alone in your experiences, can only be found when one feels able to open up and share their honest vulnerabilities and struggles- which is something men are usually discouraged from doing. As a result, the tendency to silently endure the pain by themselves, and not seek support from others, causes feelings of isolation to grow to the point where it may feel consuming.

The Kiran Helpline and The Gender Suicide Paradox

The Kiran helpline keeps the identity of the callers anonymous. There is no face-to-face interaction with the person at the other end, nor any worry of knowing the person on the other end personally. With these added layers of protection, men no longer need to worry about how they will be socially perceived. There is something to be said about the culture we have fostered if the only time when people feel comfortable enough to reach out for help is when they are able to divorce their issues and experiences from their individual and social identity. 

Mental illness does not target any specific demographic but the solution for it seems to. Canetto and Sakinofsky (1998) conclude there being an “underreporting on the part of suicidal males because of fear of social stigma, as well as underreporting by researchers, who may miss suicidal cues in males”. This argues that people may not be able to pick up subtle signals, if put across as cries for help from men. These indirect hints may, however, be the only ways in which men may be comfortable asking for help, since more upfront confessions of their struggles could feel intimidating and difficult to express.

Is this only a male issue?

Since men who suffer from mental health problems are a large section of the population, the stigma does not affect just them in particular. Much of this repressed sadness could release in unhealthy ways, such as anger. Anger is a gendered emotion and is typically perceived as more masculine, and therefore a more acceptable reaction from men, despite it being far from the truth. Although anger is a natural response to various situations, it is not exclusive to a particular gender, and the actions that follow unchecked emotional outbursts could have negative consequences for all those involved. In extreme cases, it may lead to physical or mental abuse of oneself or others around. This is just one example of the ways in which the combination of toxic masculinity and mental health issues can have disastrous impacts. Maya Salam, a writer for the New York Times, explains “Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough all the time”; that anything other than that makes them “feminine” or weak. (No, it doesn’t mean that all men are inherently toxic.)”. It’s a seemingly impossible situation which benefits nobody but is perpetuated by many.

Mental health advocacy and awareness has done wonders over the years, but it still has a long battle to fight. With more articles, resources, and research, coming out everyday, and people being more open and speaking out about their honest experiences, the cold hard casing of toxic masculinity is beginning to slowly melt away. Gender equality activists also raise awareness about the destructive capacities gender roles have on everybody, and with the rise of information, access, and acceptance, more people of all genders are beginning to feel less alone in themselves, and more willing to seek help. The responsibility to keep doors to help open, and check in on how friends and family members are feeling, falls on everybody. Regardless of their gender identity and expression, everybody is equally deserving of help, and should feel just as able as the next person able to reach out and be heard.

References

Canetto, Silvia & Sakinofsky, Isaac. (1998). The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide & life-threatening behavior. 28. 1-23

Damini Nath. “Ministry’s Mental Health Helpline Sees Most Calls from Men.” The Hindu, The Hindu, 7 Feb. 2021, www.thehindu.com/news/national/ministrys-mental-health-helpline-sees-most-calls-from-men/article33774872.ece. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

Salam, Maya “What Is Toxic Masculinity? (Published 2019).” The New York Times, 2021, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/us/toxic-masculinity.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Drama Therapy ft. Anshuma Kshetrapal

The ancient Greeks used drama for catharsis. Theater is known to help tap into emotions, build self esteem, and reduce feelings of isolation. Let’s find out how Drama Therapy can aid our mental health.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Drama and Movement Psychotherapist. She is the founder of The Color of Grey Cells, the co-founder of The Arts Therapists CoLab, and a founding member of the Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy.

Welcome, Anshuma!

Anshuma- Thank you so much for having me, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you for being here. Could you start with telling us what Drama Therapy is and how it supports mental wellness?

Anshuma-  Drama therapy, like you said, is ancient in nature. It’s simply put – the idea of creating alternative ways to look at our therapeutic processes. Therapy typically would want you to delve deeper into unconscious elements and the arts are a wonderful way of doing that. The arts perpetually have a way of bringing out our unconscious aspects. So when you pick a pose or when you pick a character to work with or when you pick a story, what guides your motivation to pick those things? We look at that more closely. In a typical session, we would go into role play, enactment, stories, and do all kinds of kooky things to understand what your unconscious self wants to communicate to you. 

Valerie- Right. If someone is seeking conventional psychotherapy, how do they know when they should try drama therapy?

Anshuma- Well, like I said, it’s about the unconscious language. The unconscious mind doesn’t speak to us in Hindi, English or any other language. It speaks to us in emotions. Now when we’re trying to use articulation, there will inevitably be a time when our conscious thought around that experience will run out and we won’t know how to go forward from that moment. A lot of times, clients who come to Drama Therapy come after having had a lot of looping experiences in talk therapy. So then when they come to drama therapy, it’s a way of their unconscious elements speaking. They don’t have to own anything, the beautiful bit of Drama Therapy is that there’s so much distance you can create between you and your emotions that it feels very safe, because all you’re doing is playing. If I don’t have to own my anger but that angry King really wants to behead people, in that way it doesn’t feel threatening to go through these very complex and nuanced emotions.

Valerie-  I know that when you were talking to us earlier, you said that you do a lot of kooky things and you start playing these weird games and stuff like that so how do you know what works best on what person? When somebody comes to you, how do you know what they will resonate with best?

Anshuma-  Well, it’s a very complex issue in terms of there’s no ‘one size fits all’. The idea is that the therapist is trained in how to look at the unconscious elements of what’s going on, and we’re not directive at all. It’s a very indirect form of psychotherapy. We always ask and there’s a lot of power sharing in the room. I’m not your expert, you are the expert on your mental health. You come in, there are a lot of things to choose from. What would you like to explore today? So it’s not led by me and in that sense, what we do is we create something called a ‘play space’, and that play space is an area where the client chooses what they would like to explore. We give a lot of options and it’s a very gentle build-up. It’s not like you come in and we’re like “Let’s do this”. You can talk about things for a long time, we discover what some core areas of work are, and then we explore those certain things using different modalities. From the same concept of anger, I can make a character out of it, I can do some sock puppet out of it, I can do sand play, I can do role enactment, there’s so many things. 

Valerie-  Supposing you’ve got somebody who is very uptight and like you said, they tried psychotherapy and they felt like they were going through a loop that they couldn’t break, even through their words and they come to you for Drama Therapy but they don’t really know what they want to do because they are uptight as a person and they don’t really know how to express themselves. How do therapists understand the issue someone’s trying to express through Drama and how do you make them express it through Drama?

Anshuma- That’s the beauty of it. For me, the more difficult clients to work with are the ones who come wanting a lot of drama because then you have to unlearn. Artists make the most difficult clients because they have a certain idea of how drama should look – interesting, masala to the story, wanting to enact something full-scale. And in creating the product, they forget about the process. Actually, Drama Therapy is very process oriented. It’s not anything to do with “drama” as it looks on the stage. It’s just an inner expression. If you’re just breathing, I’ll just work with you with that. Simple movements like breath. Let’s expand on that. Let’s expand on a small movement. Is there a dialogue that you want to say today? So it becomes very subtle and there’s no pressure on the client to enact or show me big movements. 

When you ask how we help them express, we just use lots of tools and we put across those tools and help them make choices. For example, one of my favourite things to do right in the beginning is that I take a lot of small toys and I put it in front of them and ask them what represents them today, and they just pick up an object and tell me an imaginary story, it doesn’t need to be their life story because I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m just here to make you feel better.

Valerie-  Can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Drama Therapy session?

Anshuma-  A typical Drama Therapy session would begin with you doing some focus exercises, you come in, we do some breathing work. Then we start to warm up the body, we move about a little bit where I ask you to think about the themes you want to explore today, then we start with “bridging in”, which is when you start to build on those themes. 

A session I just had today before this was about somebody who’s been locked in the Pandemic but feeling homeless because they don’t feel at home in their own house. She wanted to explore the concept of home and so we played a little game about what does home mean? And how does home represent itself in her body, and through that we were able to come to the idea of home being a place of nurturance, home being a place of conflict. So our main activity then included her making a safe space in her own home, so she went and got objects that made her feel safe, picked a corner of her room and she created a little sanctuary for herself, and then we bridged out of it, we came back to talking about some of the conflicts that exist in her home, and then she drew about it a little bit saying “I just want to put it out of my body, I’ve been carrying this for too long”. And then we did some songs and just got her back to the present moment. 

Valerie-  It’s actually really interesting that you start with really really small things and you can use that and build it up into something beautiful and help somebody express themselves and understand what they’ve been feeling. 

A – Right? Because it’s not about them performing, it’s about them expressing. That’s a very clear difference we make right in the beginning.

Valerie-  What was it about Drama Therapy that drove you to take it up as a profession? 

Anshuma-  I was a journalist initially and I was doing feature stories and I realised that I think that the impact of the fourth estate wasn’t really cutting it for me. I wanted a very clear one to one ability to be able to make an impact because it felt like I would go there to scoop a story and then come out and not be able to take any responsibility for what happens next. I did a couple of jobs in journalism and I took off nine months and I didn’t have a bachelors in psychology so I studied all of psychology that I could from bachelors and straight away did my first masters in psycho-social clinical studies, beyond which I started to realise that just this idea of talking was not cutting it. 

It felt like there was more to be expressed, especially when we’re talking about impact, if we could express in a group, it becomes even more interesting. So I started studying how group therapy is emerging and it seemed at the time it was only rehab or one to one in India. So I stepped out and studied how the arts are helpful because it helped me in my personal life as well, just to express myself better and tell my story, and so I went and researched that and ended up falling in love with it.  

Valerie-  You said that when you were doing journalism, you felt like you were scooping up stories but not taking responsibility, how do you feel that’s changed for you when you became a psychotherapist?

Anshuma-  I think the idea that I have a feedback loop, that I work with my client over and over again every week and I go back and it feels less exploitative. That’s my personal experience. When I was doing journalism, it felt like it was about the story rather than the individual. And the story does perhaps have a larger impact but at the same time, now when I’m going to this person week after week and seeing how they’re changing and how their lives are enhanced or better, it’s a very different experience of feeling validated with my own work.

Valerie-  Right. Could you talk to us about how the infrastructure and education around Drama Therapy in India has progressed with time?

Anshuma-  Valerie, you’ve asked me a question where I don’t know where to begin but it feels like we’re at a very different place but I’m going to start from when I first came back. My second masters was in Drama and Movement Therapy Sesame from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and I had gotten jobs there but I wanted to come back because even though there was more demand there, the need was felt here. It felt like I could perhaps make a difference in the field here and it was new. As soon as I came back, I was fortunate enough to be here at the right time because mental health as a conversation was picking up but till date, I get a lot of skepticism. I get a lot of “Do you make your clients dance?”, “Which hospital is your next performance in?” So because of that, I felt the need to stretch myself into advocacy work because it felt like there’s a larger conversation that we were not having. 

That’s where the Indian Association for Dance Movement Therapy and all the teaching began. Currently I design programs and I approach universities and we set up diploma programs. We set up a diploma program in Pune, there is a diploma program in expressive arts therapy run by my very able colleagues in Mumbai. There are several certification programs which are very ethical in nature. Alongside that, we do have to develop the field in terms of ethics because one of the causes that’s close to my heart is the social justice angle of mental health in India and it feels like there is so much malpractice because there is no licensure. We are looking to develop a code of ethics, we are looking to get licenses into the country at various levels and really try to grow the field from the ground up. 

While I’m involved in infrastructure, I can tell you that from then to now, it is a transformation. We have so many people who are interested, so many practitioners who are doing a lot of ethical work and a lot of clients who are benefitting, but we’re still looking for our government to get involved. The budget this time, for example, for mental health was dismal. It feels like the government will take its own time coming around but at least through platforms like yours, through Instagram, through various social media, people are really invested in this topic now so in that way, it has helped up. Private infrastructure is willing to invest but publicly, we don’t have much support yet.

Valerie-  Yes. It’s great to seeing that despite learning abroad, you can back here because there was a need for awareness, in terms of the fact that people were so uninformed that they had all kinds of preconceived notions about what Drama Therapy or alternative therapy would be, and you’ve actually started curating courses that would help change that and help make people more educated and aware. 

Anshuma- Yeah and yet there are courses that people are just starting in their basements, without trained faculty because they simply think drama and therapy means you feel good after doing drama, but that is precisely where vulnerable clients can really get duked and so do vulnerable students. I always urge the student population to really study the course they’re going for because these are complex and nuanced therapies, even though they come under the purview of alternative therapy, you’re still working with an individual’s mental health and so the responsibility on you is pretty great and these short-term courses in basements may be cheap and they may be able to provide cheap certification but what will your end product be and how far can you go in the field if you go to those kind of courses?

Valerie-  Very true. Being a psychotherapist, you help people deal with problems related to their mental health and it can be a pretty arduous job. As you said, you take on responsibility and while it can be a beautiful thing to see somebody transform, it can also be very very taxing. How do you care for your mental health amidst all of this? 

Anshuma-  Well, I’ve been asked that question during the Pandemic and I’ve wondered about it currently because typically my ways of taking care of myself, and avoiding burnout, which is very frequent in mental health work is to travel and to step away from my familiar surroundings altogether. Since that was not an option during the Pandemic, I’ve had to develop other fundamental things but there are clear guidelines, if you go to your therapist, I urge all clients to ask their therapists if they’re in supervision. Are you in personal work yourself? Because that’s the thing that really keeps us intact. 

I make sure that I take my supervision seriously. Every fortnight, I make sure that I call my supervisor and she adds a third perspective to my work. I have been in personal therapy for the last eleven years and make no qualms in talking about it because it feels like it’s important that my clients also know that I’m also engaged in working with myself. Alongside that, the arts are a wonderful way of self care. I do drama and movement on a daily basis for other people but for myself as well, there’s nothing better for me than to get my hands dirty with some clay or do some atwork, some painting, or even some drama and movement whenever I can.

Valerie-  So what’s your favorite form of art that plays a therapeutic role in your life?

Anshuma-  For me, it’s been clay. There’s that physical element of putting your energy into clay, and what I end up doing is I use the clay to make those little toys that I was talking about earlier. I fashion those toys out of the clay so it becomes my therapeutic activity but it also comes back into the work when I offer those toys as a starting point to my clients. It really is paying for itself in some way!

Valerie-  Anshuma, it’s been absolutely beautiful talking to you. There’s so much we got to learn from you. We got to learn that Drama Therapy is more about the journey and it’s about expressing yourself through what you do as opposed to thinking of it as a performance, we’ve learnt just how important it is for therapists as well to take their mental health seriously, to be in supervision and to let other people know that it’s important for them to take care of their mental health as well. Also, one thing that I can take away from you is that you said that it’s beautiful for you to feel that validation when you see your clients come to you every single time and you can see them healing and becoming better because of your work. Thank you so much for talking to us today and making us aware of what Drama Therapy is and what it means to you as well.

Anshuma- Thank you so much, Valerie, for the opportunity and for all the work you’re doing. Thank you so much for doing this wonderful summary at the end, that way I also learnt from what I was rambling on about. 

Valerie-  Thank you.