INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW T. AUSTIN
18th August 2001
1. Firstly, could you tell our readers who you are, and what your job is.
Hi there, I wear several hats -My background is in neurological nursing and I have been an NLP* practitioner for several years. What this means is that it is my job to change people's minds - change their minds about how they view their limitations, change their minds about certain beliefs they hold and most of all to change their mind about the reality tunnel they have been conditioned to travel in.
* NLP means Neurolinguistic programming.
2. What practical experience do you have in working with people diagnosed with mental illness ?
These days it's increasingly difficult to try and work with someone who hasn't been given a psychiatric diagnostic label of some sort. When I worked in Neurosurgery, I think I was one of a very few number of nurses that didn't take a daily dose of anti-depressants and/or a benzodiazepine. Does this make these people mentally ill? One or two certainly behaved a bit oddly but it seemed to me that most of the personal and mental difficulties of these staff followed a pattern - that is, they were all responding to a specific environment with a fairly typical human response.
A question I had always wanted to ask the management was whether they believed that Prozac helped their department run better? Were the antidepressants and benzo's consumed to help the individual or to iron over the deficiencies resulting from appalling management and stresses on the staff within that department?
I see many of my clients having similar difficulties. Very rarely do I get someone telling me that they need help with a depression or a schizophrenia - the only ones that say this have been exposed to psychiatric interventions for a long period of time and have been educated to accepttheir diagnosis and then live with it - the clients I see want help dealing with their experience of both themselves and their environment.
The diagnostic process means that the mental health "professional" is able to dismiss the life experience of the client and reduce all of it to a nominalization. A diagnostic label tells us little of the person's experience, but tells us a lot about the needs and games played by the psychiatric professional.
3. You have a website on neurology and neurolinguistic programming. What do these two terms mean?
Neurolinguistic programming developed from a delusional reality of two heretics, Richard Bandler and John Grinder. To attempt a definition is pretty difficult - many people think it to be a series of techniques - I feel this to be a grave error and merely a permutation on the game of diagnostics, where the practitioner applies the "correct" technique to the patient's "diagnosis". Certainly within NLP practice, there are a lot of techniques and many people apply these and derive benefit, which can only be a good thing. On the website, I describe NLP as an understanding of the neurology with which your communication interacts. I find it stunning that so few people working in the psychotherapeutic fields have no basic understanding of either linguistics or neurology. Some of these therapists will be successful, others will at best fail to help their clients. Richard Bandler suggests NLP is an attitude, some critics will suggest it is a cult - I suggest it is a nominalization that grew out of a series of algorithms that described and codified patterns shared by some very effective people - people who, in Einstein's world, would have found the universe to be friendly.
Amongst NLP people, there is often a lot of talk of "unconscious processes"
- I have often considered this to be a great 'get out' clause in any psychological field - if we can't define it, then we say it's "unconscious".
One of the ideas behind the website was to get practitioners to begin to replace the term "unconscious processes" with "neurological processes" whereby they would begin to develop an understanding of both the neuro-anatomical structures and functions involved in what they are observing and describing in their clients. I believe that to use the term "neurological" shifts much of the description of behaviors into a tangible and quantifiable form and further away from theory.
As the umbrella term "NLP" continues to expand to include varying sized chunks from other fields, people can find confusion in the question of "Is this NLP?" - my answer to this is, "does it exist in the same universe?" wait for the answer and then say, "that`s right!"
4. You say on your website that you have a particular interest in
schizophrenia. What attracted you to this particular interest?
Beginning my nurse training as a very na•ve 18 year old I met a young man diagnosed as
"schizophrenic" who was admitted to my ward with a ruptured appendix. He was with us for several
days and despite his diagnosis and close call with death, appeared to me to be a normal person. What
peeked my interest was the reaction of the nursing and medical staff towards this
young man. At no point did he ever behave in anyway that could be considered "abnormal" and yet his diagnosis created a significant change in the behaviors of the staff. I was to be later informed that this was the negative effect of "labeling" and that "labeling" was a bad thing. They told me that I should not consider this man to be a "schizophrenic" but that I should consider him to have a "schizophrenic illness" like this is going to make an important difference! Ha!
Later on, I placed an advert in the paper and ended up living with a family for six weeks who's son was schizophrenic - I hadn't discovered Laing's work at this point but I couldn't help but notice how the kid's insanity appeared to be no more than a response to the family's interaction - the craziest part was that it was only when the mother got stressed out that the kid got drugged. Of course the psychiatric teams never observed these behaviors and I was laughed out of the hospital when I pointed these things out at a case conference. The kid was mentally ill, Goddammit! didn't I know anything?!!
5. You mention that you are particularly influenced by the writings of R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. Which areas of their thinking are of most interest to you?
Laing became a huge influence on my thinking shortly after I left the family I mentioned
previously when I found a battered copy of "The Divided Self" on
the bus on the way home - Robert Anton Wilson talks of meaningful coincidence and this was certainly one of those moments. Laing's work explained and supported a lot of the observations I was making - the same observation that were making me wrong in the eyes of my more "professional" peers. Laing was the first heretical thinker I had been exposed to and reading his book began to validate my experience of psychiatry and it was a relief to find that I wasn't alone.
Reading Szasz was a different experience - whilst Laing explained much of the schizophrenic experience "phenomenologically", here was Szasz virtually dismissing it altogether. What impressed me about Szasz was his work about the manufacture of mental illness - here we had a professor of psychiatry saying that the psychiatric industry was actually creating much of the insanity that it observed and reported and yet psychiatric practices and training was not changing. Szasz was/is a prolific author who dared challenge one of the strongest reality tunnels in our western industrialized, technologised systems of thinking - yet so few people working in psychiatry have ever heard of these guy. This is something I want to change.
6. From looking at your site, I get the impression that you are very disillusioned with the way that the mentally ill are often treated by the mental health system. Is that true? And if so, why did you become so disillusioned?
My initial disillusionment occurred when I realised that my peers and teachers were blatantly wrong. Like any child, I was brought up to respect my elders and the teachings they offered. I guess my world was shaken up a bit, and when I tried to discuss my experiences with others, I was all to often requested to stay quiet or simply told to shut up my thinking was not acceptable. I got used to "knowing looks" being exchanged, eyes balls rolling and people sighing as though to say, "here we go again."
My main concern with psychiatry is it's basic premise that seeks to reduce people's experience of
the world down to a neuro-molecular level that needs adjusting with either drugs and/or electric
shocks. My second concern is the integrity and skill base of the people that deliver these drugs and
electric shocks. If you read the standard patient's "bill of rights" this essentially is a document
that vaguely attempts to protect people in the role of "patient" from people cast into the role of
"mental health professional" - much of the training that goes on in psychiatry appears to be little
than a series of strategies by which the mental health professional can protect themselves in turn from their patients.
I have long since dismissed the biological causation of mental distress - whether this distress is described as being a "schizophrenia" or a "depression", I somehow seriously doubt that an erroneous neuro- molecule is the primary causative factor. With so many people now drugged for behavioral modification, whether they are children trapped in our appalling school systems or unhappy people trapped living in our appalling inner cities, with so many people now drugged surely it is about time to start asking just what the hell is going on? Psychiatry doesn't teach people how to live, psychiatry doesn't help people change the environments in which they have to live, psychiatry just drugs people so that their tolerance threshold to these things increases.
Communist Russia and Cuba drugged people that disagreed with communism - to disagree was tantamount to insanity. I call people to begin to question the realities that they have inherited. As Timothy Leary said, "Think for Yourself, Question Authority." It is important to remember, that you are not alone - even isolated in the rubber room, there are people that think like you.
7. On your website you say on the page, "So, who is Andrew T. Austin," that you "work against psychiatry." For what reasons do you work against psychiatry?
I used to say it was because I needed a hobby! but this was because
I was so used to people asking the question as a prelude to something like, "well, I have a friend of a friend, and he was mentally ill and heard voices and stuff, so you are saying that he shouldn't take the medicines his doctors gave him?" The difficulty begins where so many people have a personal and/or vested interest in believing in the psychiatric myth.
The greatest victory of the psychiatric industry was getting the term "chemical imbalance" out there into the public domain and into common usage. We increasingly see this term applied to all sorts of behaviours, whereby the environment that promotes these behaviors can go unquestioned. We can drug children so they sit still in class. As long as they respond to the drug we can dismiss any causation resulting from the terrible schooling environment. The mass administration of psycho-active drugs to people in care homes continues unabated and unquestioned by a public who simply are not educated to these actions and behaviors, but will protest willingly when the scenario involves puppies. Everyday, someone is held in seclusion, restrained, drugged and forcibly given electric shocks - without trial and without an independent observer being present. In the Western world, not even a condemned prisoner is subjected to this abject violation of human rights and yet these activities are routinely perpetrated without fuss or protest - all in the name of "psychiatric care". Apparently the secrecy by which these activities occur is all in the patients "best interests" - - they call it "patient confidentiality" but somehow I wonder if it is the staff that might require this secrecy?
8. I am glad that you took an interest in my "care worker syndromes" article. What attracted you to that specific article ?
Whilst I worked in a psychiatric rehab units it amazed me that all the patients were scrutinized three times a day and a report written on them which was fed back to the psychiatry teams. What was always missed out of these reports was the performance of the staff - the reports just took the patient's behavior right out of context. I considered plotting a graph that showed PRN medication rates against the staff rota so that what I saw as a very obvious pattern could be demonstrated.
It seemed strange to me that the only person that should evaluate the staff's performance should be the immediate manager of the unit - these staff could write whatever the hell they liked about the patients and were protected by confidentiality, but if a patient was dissatisfied with the staff and said so, it was likely they would receive a diagnosis of paranoia and then were drugged accordingly.
Psychiatric professionals are a strange bunch at times and what I liked about your article was that the stereotypes illustrated are so true of so many people that I have met in the sychiatric units. We have the DSM4 that catalogues behaviors of people that become to be recognized as psychiatric patients, what we do not yet have is a diagnostic manual that catalogues the behaviors of those people that become psychiatric professionals.
I suspect that many people that have experienced psychiatry first hand will recognize many of the descriptions you give there, maybe the only people who won't recognize them are those people the article describes, does this mean we can say, they are psychotic and demonstrate a lack of insight? I do wonder if we [brain] scanned the different types of psychiatric professional, what differences we would observe in neurological functioning between groups, as compared to a control group of non-psychiatric professionals. Maybe we could cure these people of this!!
I'm reminded of the joke told by Osho - a psychologist is doing his rounds on the forgotten back ward somewhere, when he approaches a man who has been there for over 30 years and not spoken a word that entire time. The psychologist asks the man, "Do you know why you are here?" The man replies, "Of course doctor, I'm here for the same reason as you, I couldn't make a go of it on the outside either!"
9. What qualities do you think a person "ideally" needs in order to work within the mental health system ?
To work within the psychiatric system? I think you'd have to be someone who
places smoking cigarettes and fitting in with your peers above that of the needs of your patients. Seriously, when we had students on the wards for their placements, whether they passed their placement or not had nothing to do with whether they were any good or not, but merely depended on whether we liked them.
I cannot recall a single instance where it was the patients who were allowed to review the
performance and ability of the student - which simply doesn't make sense to me. We can look at
heretical therapists like Frank Farrelly who would, I have no doubt, have been thrown out
ceremoniously for the style
of his highly effective work with psychiatric patients. Yet, his patients loved him and probably have a higher recovery rate than those of other therapists.
I remember once, I refused to subdue a child with Ritalin. The team were aghast and for a moment simply didn't know what to do. Once that moment had passed I found myself being castigated and reviled - not for refusing to drug the child - but because I had broken rank with the group thinking in that department. I had gone against "the code" and I was now was to be an outcast. This was all it took. Up until that moment, I was well liked and got along well with everyone. Then, blam! I'm the boogy man!
If I understand your question as to be the qualities I think a person should
have to work with a psychiatric client group, the first thing I would look for is someone who has not been trained or indoctrinated into the cult of psychiatry. I am reminded of a study whereby clients were randomly assigned to either counseling instructors or to an untrained counselor - in this case, they took this sample group from a building site.
There was no reported difference in outcome between the two groups! I guess the most significant difference was that the builders wouldn't have kept asking, "and how do you feel about that?" when they didn't know what else to say - I suspect they may also have been a lot more honest.
If I was looking to staff a unit, I'd select those people that had some experience and training in communications - salespeople, they'd be ideal!
10. What has been the reaction of colleagues within the mental health system towards your approach?
Given my approach, there appears to be a familiar pattern. When I first arrive, staff appear curious and sometimes excited that there is someone who has such a different set of presuppositions, time soon passes and they begin to tire of the novelty and then as I demonstrate an expectation that they will change their behaviors, the exclusion begins. Of course, there are other ways of approaching the same problems that won't lead to this, but well, that just wouldn't suit me at the moment!
Whilst working in one particular unit - and these staff know who they are -
I created uproar and sent myself to Coventry by asking just one question. In this unit, they had 20 elderly people with "psychiatric needs" sat in a circle batting a balloon to each other. After this, they'd move them to another room and get them to bash tambourines and then later on they'd show them slides about the war - because we all know that old people like to talk about the war, don't we! Then after lunch and more medication, they'd go and do "woodwork" where they'd glue three bit of pre-cut wood together and make a bird table! This wasn't rehabilitation, this was just plain f***ing patronizing!!
This was all taking place in a leading "rehabilitation" center, where the staff all held grand degrees and impressive qualifications. I upset the entire bunch by simply asking what their intended outcome of these practices were and how they were achieving it by getting people sat in circles patting a damned party balloon about?
You see, psychiatric professionals aren't taught to think in this way, they did these things because this was what they had always done and because this was what was on the rota.
I challenge all of this style of thinking and I can assure you - it doesn't make me very popular!
Sometimes I have some interesting responses. One time, whilst visiting a young schizophrenic in a nasty little private unit, I chatted with his primary nurse for a couple of hours - this is the advantage of private units, the staff generally are usually not permitted to hide away in the office smoking their cigarettes - we went for lunch and this guy said, oh my God! I have just realized how all this is such a game. He resigned that same afternoon. I'm told that these days he's a professional body piercer!
This is an unfortunate position if we are to rehabilitate psychiatry itself.
Most of the good people I have worked with or heard about, either become
disillusioned and leave, or are forced out by their peers. The peer pressures in all hospital settings are incredible and the non-conformist can find him or herself very lonely and isolated very rapidly indeed. Any mistake, no matter how trivial, can be rapidly exploited and the heretic can soon find himself being badly burned.
11. What are your opinions regarding medication as a treatment for mental
The first difficulty in answering this question is my issue over the legitimacy of the term "mental illness" - those familiar with NLP and it's meta-model will recognize the two nominalizations that appear to fit together well and provide meaning.
One of the strangest things I ever observed occurred in the secure unit of a psychiatric
hospital. This was the department with all the rubber rooms and strong arm crew all trained in
"control and restraint" - you can just
imagine the type of characters that enjoyed working in that kind of place.
Most of the patients were somewhat subdued by regular administration of
haloperidol - they just loved haloperidol on that department - but the pattern that caught my interest was the pattern behind the PRN dose administration.
Bandler suggested that schizophrenics don't get locked up for what they hallucinate or believe, but because they start to scare people. PRN doses tend to get given for the same reason, when the staff start getting frightened by the behaviour of the patient, they quickly drug the patient.
In short, the patients get drugged so the staff can calm down!
We now have tens of thousands of parents believing that their child needs an amphetamine analogue called Ritalin - because they have been told their child has a "chemical imbalance" - we have millions of people waking up in the morning and popping a little happy pill so that they can just get themselves through the day - this is not to count the millions that self medicate will all sorts of chemicals that the government have deemed "illegal" and those that consume alcohol.
Timothy Leary wrote extensively about the politics of altering your consciousness - even in our "enlightened" age we have made a plant illegal, a plant, and we still imprison people that choose to grow it or smoke it. Surely people must own their own neurology?
I believe that we must educate people to think. Part of the NLP paradigm is
not to teach people about things, but how to do things. We continue to follow the same ineffectual patterns in schools and use drugs to plug the gaps to hold the crumbling system together. We try teach kids about trigonometry but never do we teach them about investing money or how to choose the right mortgage. Our education systems must change. Maybe, just maybe, when we get people to think differently, we might start to see psychiatric professionals enter chapters on happiness and smiling into the psychiatric text-books. Maybe we'll see clinic where people are taught to control and develop their own neurology rather than attend courses to learn how they are broken and defective.
I have nothing against the drugs themselves, some of them are marvelous things - it's just a shame that the ones that create the best feelings are immediately made illegal. The drugs that are manufactured legally, must be carefully designed not to make people feel too good. The illicit narcotics and drugs industries are inherently corrupt and violent and yet it is these illicit pharmacists working in these conditions that have produced some of the most interesting psycho-active compounds. Nobody sees the violence and violations that that occur against people's humanity when they are forcibly drugged for thought crime or in the name of behavioral modification.
We have drug pushers in the classrooms doling out Ritalin at the beginning of each day, we have people collecting their prescriptions for their happy pills every month for their local pharmacy and yet we are taught to believe and fear the bogey man that waits outside the school gates and hides in the alleys dealing illicit substances - but we ignore the psychiatric drugs and their sociological effects on the society on which they are released.
We educate people about the dangers of heroin, yet how many laymen have
heard of the terms tardive dyskinesia and akathisia?
Somehow, I suspect in the future, the un-medicated (for behavioral reasons)
will be the new minority. It appears, to me at least, that people are being presented increasingly fewer opportunities, by those who govern, to control their own psycho-neurology. It is for this reason I like the Tim Leary axiom: Tune in, Turn on, Drop out!
12. If you could do one thing to improve the mental health system, what would it be?
Improve? Ha! It's beyond redemption! It's a similar thing as many of the systems we possess, education, law etc - no point in trying to improve them, just tear them down and start again!
One thing I'd like to see is the diagnostic category of "psychiatrist" entered into the DSM4 - it's such a ritualized set of behaviors, I'm sure we could map it out and develop a drug for it! Maybe you could include this for your next article on "care worker syndromes"?
13. Is there anything else you would like to add, that may be of interest to our readers?
Yes, potential clients be warned. I am equally as harsh on the people that play the "patient" part of the psychiatry game as those who play the "carer" part of the game. I do not tolerate the people that play the game of "victim" and apportion responsibility to psychiatry as the route cause of all their problems. The information is all out there, we only need to go look for it. One of the biggest difficulties facing anyone who has become a "psychiatric patient" is becoming responsible for their own neurology. Everything that psychiatry offers seems to negate any chance that they might ever do this. But it can be done, you only need to be shown how, sometimes.
In mainstream, institutional psychiatry, I have met many "patients" that deserve their
psychiatrists as much as their psychiatrist deserve them. Not everyone in the psychiatric system is
there as a passive "victim" as anyone who has been inside these places will attest, but this offers
no excuse. For
example, do their behaviors arise as a reflection of the system into which
they have grown? Or does the psychiatric system actually reflect back the systems created by these people?
I think too many lawyers have become involved in shaping psychiatry for either of these scenarios to be true.
As Bandler suggests, we need to build hope. People can and do make dramatic recoveries, even following the most horrendous of illnesses. There are good practitioners out there and many of them can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Read heretical texts, read books that challenge your beliefs and conceptions. Study the works of heretics like Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Richard Bandler, Terence McKenna and others like them. If we get enough people thinking for themselves and questioning authority, who knows what we might achieve!
18th August 2001.
Thanks to Andrew T. Austin for the interview.
Links to websites about people mentioned within this interview;
Andrew T. Austin's website.
Robert Anton Wilson; http://www.rawilson.com/main.shtml
Timothy Leary; http://www.leary.com/
Richard Bandler; http://www.purenlp.com/
Terence Mckenna; http://www.deoxy.org/mckenna.htm
And for balance, here are a few webpages critical of neurolinguistic