The gym was packed to hear engaging speaker and author Dr. Gabor Maté on Friday night at Chilliwack secondary.
He mixed his own insight, with research, and decades of experience as a physician, working in family practice, in palliative care, and with addicts on the downtown east side of Vancouver.
Dr. Maté noted from the outset of his talk the broad diversity in the audience: teachers, babies, parents, elders, health workers, counsellors, youth and more.
“That variation in this audience is the really the key to healing,” he told the Chilliwack crowd. “Because I can tell you that mental health, or addiction, or any problem that we face, is never an individual problem.
“It’s always the outcome of circumstances that exist in a family over generations and in the community. And then the solutions have to be communal.”
As an author, Dr. Maté has written several books including the award-winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction; When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress; and Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, and co-authored Hold on to Your Kids.
Maté cited the Buddha during his talk, to illustrate the concept of how connected everything is to everything else, “without the many there cannot be the one, and without the one there cannot be the many. And not only is that deep spiritual wisdom but it also happens to be scientifically true.”
He explained the way that western society tends to view human beings, “as isolated individuals and individualists,” is not an accurate understanding of their nature.
The more traditional view of human beings held by aboriginal societies around the world as connected is a much more accurate approach, he said.
That’s because the more “civilized we get” the more isolated we tend to get.
He offered details from his own personal life, as a way of illustrating the inherent interconnectedness.
“I was diagnosed myself with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) in my 50s, and I was very glad because it helped me understand myself.”
He pointed to the increasingly high number of children in the western world also being diagnosed with ADHD, as well as “oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder, anxiety, and depression” and medicated.
“When there are behaviour issues, we make it into a medical issue,” Dr. Maté said.
Those medications often have serious side effects.
“I’m not against medications. I’ve taken them myself, and prescribed them as a doctor.”
But with so many young people on meds, if the problem can’t be seen as genetic, then the conclusion is that something is happening in the culture.
“What is that something?” he asked.
He then laid out his ideas on the “myth of normal” for some who are facing depression, anxiety, PTSD or addictions, positing that these are very normal responses to abnormal circumstances.
“So it’s not the individual that is abnormal but the circumstances that cause that abnormality.”
It’s often a reflection of society.
Dr. Maté, born to Hungarian Jewish parents in Budapest during the Second World War, relates how as an infant, he was inconsolable and crying, having experienced the stress his mother was undergoing during the German occupation.
It was a normal response to abnormal circumstances, but also points to how trauma can persist over generations.
Painful early childhood experiences and trauma often lead to coping mechanisms that don’t work later in life.
“So prevention of mental health problems need to begin at the prenatal stage, when still in the womb,” he said.
He pointed out that the biggest human need is for attachment, and that young brains develop in response to their environment. So what happens to children whose attachment needs are not met, they experience anxiety, and that gets embedded in the brain.
Addiction he defined as any behaviour that a person craves and finds tremendous relief with initially. It can be pleasant in the short term, but often comes with negative long-term consequences, and an inability to give it up.
But he ended on an optimistic note, about the real potential for recovery and reconnection with the self in everyone.
“Let me finish by saying when it comes to addiction, it’s almost always an attempt to escape from pain. So the question is not why the addiction, but why the pain?”
Maté stressed that the concept of regenerative potential of the brain, or “neuroplasticity” is why one should never give up on anyone who is struggling, meaning the brain can recover and grow new connections even after lifelong trauma.
“What is the meaning of recovery?” he asked. “It means you find something that was lost.”
What do you find? he asked the crowd, as someone yelled out: “Yourself!”
“Yes, you find yourself, under all that dysfunction, all that illness, all that pain, there is that self to be found. So there is no reason to give up on anyone.
“Reconnecting with the self is the healing.”
* The event was hosted by the Chilliwack Local Action Team of the Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative