A Rocking Chair with a Fan? Parallels with Psychotherapy

“This modest and inconspicuous doctor published a 2018 guide for lay people, describing simple methods for helping people with mental health problems, entitled Where There Is No Psychiatrist.”

In 1847, the United States Patent Office registered patent No. 5231: the invention of a rocking chair with a fan. The inventor, Charles Horst, placed a traditional rocking chair on a solid base, equipped it with a massive arm and, using a complicated mechanism of levers and gears, transferred the energy of the chair to a fan placed above the head of the person using it. People, however, did not regard this impressive invention as particularly useful. Perhaps it did not seem that the work of fanning oneself was excessively burdensome; maybe would-be customers concluded that the level of complexity of the invention in relation to its benefits was absurd. As such, rocking chairs with fans never became a fixture in our homes. Common sense protects us quite effectively from being surrounded by similar gadgets. However, this does not always extend to other realms of life.

Common Sense and a Healthy Psyche? 

An area where common sense is particularly difficult to harness is when it comes to our mental well-being. The emotions that seem to dominate our reason (the incomprehensible impulses to which we succumb) and the amazing qualities of the mind still make our own psyche seem mysterious and impenetrable. In trying to understand ourselves, we fall prey particularly easily to suggestive narratives, and we are often persuaded to perform actions that differ little from rocking in an armchair in order to cool our faces with a fan. Today, there are well over 600 different psychotherapeutic modalities available on the market, often offering completely different ways of understanding the psyche and treating mental illnesses and disorders. Many are extremely complex and are akin to washing one’s hair with a 24-finger robot controlled by a microprocessor.

The absurdities which have become established in the sphere of mental health and traditional psychotherapy can be seen through the prism of simple but unconventional actions which are taken and the effects that they have. An interesting example of this is the work of Vikram Patel, an Indian psychiatrist who is revolutionizing the treatment of mental illness. Patel spent two years in Zimbabwe, a country where only ten psychiatrists at the time were working to treat a handful of wealthy patients. During this same period, only one or two psychiatrists were working in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Chad, Eritrea, and Liberia. It is estimated that even in Western European countries, only half of the population has access to professional mental health services. Meanwhile, the number of patients with mental health problems in the poorest areas of the globe was (and still is) overwhelming, even though some once mistakenly believed that depression and some other mental illnesses only existed in wealthy communities.

Patel, like a veritable David bravely facing the power of Goliath, decided to change this state of affairs. His logic was totally different from the reasoning of the inventor of the rocking chair with a fan; Patel recognized that if there were uncomplicated, effective, and inexpensive methods of psychiatric help which could be provided by less highly-trained people, then they should be identified and taught to primary healthcare and social workers. This modest and inconspicuous doctor published a 2018 guide for lay people, describing simple methods for helping people with mental health problems, entitled Where There Is No Psychiatrist. Initially used in the poorest regions of the world and then translated into several languages, it is now available free of charge in over 70 countries.

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