- 03 March 2022
- 8 min read
Stoic Principles For Mental Health NursingSubscribe To Advice
Believe it or not, there’s a lot to learn from the Ancient Greeks and Romans when we consider Mental Health. In this video, Stuart explains why.
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People often assume that Mental Health care is incredibly complicated, difficult to understand, hard to achieve and there's no shortage of Mental Health professionals who go out of their way to pretend that what they do is incredibly complicated and clever.
Well, to an extent they're right, it is true that there are certain elements of Mental Health care that are extremely complicated, differential diagnostic protocols and the fine detail of psychopharmacology can be about as complicated as you want it to be, but that's not the bulk of what we do.
The majority of our work consists of doing relatively simple things repeatedly and well.
You see, the essence of Mental Health care isn't complicated at all.
It's so straightforward that well over two and a half thousand years ago, Stoic Philosophers in Greece and in Rome managed to lay down the fundamentals of maintaining good Mental Health.
It's not that complicated.
What I'd like to do today, is to help you to understand the basic principles, just to prove to you how simple it is.
We'll begin with a very, very straightforward principle.
What's the difference between a problem and a fact?
Well, of course, most people would say that problems can be solved either by themselves or someone else and facts just are.
Facts need to be accepted.
Well, that's not terribly complicated, is it?
It's one of the fundamental principles of good Mental Health to understand the difference.
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Accepting The Inevitable
So many people try to treat facts as though they were problems, they've tried to solve the unsolvable and end up depressed, anxious, or disordered in some other way as a result.
The reality is that death, illness, misfortune, tragedy are going to happen in this life, whether we want them to or not, that's just a fact.
As Longfellow put it, "Into each life, some rain must fall."
We cannot prevent that big picture tragedy.
Try as we might, we'll never rid the world of theft and burglary, but we might be able to have an impact on our own circumstances.
Similarly, we can't change the past no matter how hard we try, the past is a fact, but what we can do, is lessen the impact of past events upon the future.
The future can be a problem to be solved, but the past is always a fact.
Death will happen, but we can delay it.
We can maintain health by looking after our bodies, eating healthily, having a relatively healthy lifestyle.
We can do many things, but we cannot solve facts as if there were problems. So here we have the first two lessons, the first principles.
Number one, understand the difference between a problem and a fact and number two, understand that misfortune is a fact.
Into each life, some rain must fall.
Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who lived most of his life as a slave in Rome.
Disabled from early childhood, he lived in perpetual pain.
You might think he'd be forgiven for being fairly miserable, but no, Epictetus used Stoic principles to make a study of happiness, of contentment.
He even wrote a book on it, called "The Enchiridion".
It's often referred to nowadays as "The Stoic Handbook".
Epictetus' handbook begins with a very simple principle that builds upon this idea of the difference between problems and facts.
Epictetus identifies that there are some things which are within our control and some things which are not.
He goes further and points out that there is no point in attempting to control the things that are without our control.
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Remembering What We Can Control
So what can we control?
Well, according to Epictetus, not very much.
We can control our thoughts and our emotions.
We can control our bodies to a limited extent, and we can control our actions.
We can't control other people, although by controlling our actions, we may be able to influence them.
Let's assume that I have a gun and I point it at you and demand that you give me all your money.
There's a very good chance that you'll comply.
After all, a gun is a powerful method of influence, but it's still only influence, it's not control, you could choose to die.
Indeed, in certain circumstances, people do.
All that I can control is me.
All that you can control is you.
So, the lesson from Epictetus is to understand and accept that we control our own thoughts, feelings, bodies and actions and we take responsibility for them. If you think you recognize those four elements of control, you're right.
They're the basic elements of the cognitive model, which is the foundation for cognitive behaviour therapy or CBT in modern Mental Health care.
We control our thoughts, our feelings, our physiology, and our behaviour. In doing so, we can change everything.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher and after his death, among his papers was found a collection of writings that we now know as meditations.
Marcus Aurelius was very clear; you will not find happiness by searching for happiness.
Happiness and contentment are by-products of a life dedicated to something more important.
Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive therapy said the same thing when he wrote that humans are happiest when they're engaged in some project or activity that they define as more important than themselves.
For Marcus, his noble cause, his great project or activity, was to maintain a fair and just empire and to leave that empire more fair and more just than he had found it.
That was his great project and it brought him great pleasure to see his plans come to fruition.
Although it doesn't matter whether you succeed or fail, what matters is that you are dedicated to the task.
That's where contentment lies.
There are two final pieces I want to bring from Marcus Aurelius' meditations.
The first concerns those situations that come up from time to time in life where you're surrounded by chaotic, anxious, angry, panicky, irrational people, people who are so emotionally driven, it's impossible to get them to listen to reason.
For Marcus Aurelius, the solution to these situations is very straightforward. Imagine that you are a rocky outcrop from the shore in a stormy sea.
Your task is very simple.
Be there, be strong, be calm, be immovable and wait for the storm to subside.
Only then can you offer the security of land to those people who currently are too chaotic to appreciate it.
Be The Best You Can Be
The second piece of advice involves dealing with people who are dishonest, hurtful, cruel, callous, spiteful, all of those people who normally we wouldn't wish to be associated with, but unfortunately, life being what it is, we come across them from time to time and sometimes we find ourselves their target.
Remember from Epictetus, not to try to control if they do that, all you control is you.
And with that in mind, Marcus Aurelius has two tasks for you.
First, in every circumstance, be the best you that you can be and second, be grateful that you are not them.
These few basic points form a philosophical blueprint for contentment, for happiness and for good Mental Health.
What they won't do, is cure a serious mental disorder, like Schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, nor will it remove a personality disorder.
However, for all people, including those with serious mental disorders, these principles have the potential to make life so much sweeter and for many of us, they have the potential to prevent mental illness at all.
I'm Stuart Sorenson, I'm a Mental Health Nurse and trainer.
Thank you for watching.