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  • Mark Brafield

Alastair's jam jar

This week (13 - 19 May 2019) is Mental Health Awareness week, which has been marked by a number of documentaries on television, all of them moving and informative. Nadiya Hussain talked about her life-long struggle with anxiety, David Harewood re-lived a terrifying bout of psychosis he experienced in his early twenties, whilst last night (21 May 2019), Alastair Campbell spoke openly about his depression.

In the programme, he investigated a number of the usual, and not so usual, treatments for depression, including anti-depressants, electro-magnetic therapy and, in an unorthodox experiment, the (controlled) use of psychedelic drugs.

Of all of these treatments, however, the one that made the difference for him was the simplest, the model of a jam jar. Developed by Dr Jean Austin, this explained the mind and its contents as a simple container. At the bottom of the jar was the sludge of our inheritance and early experiences. These things will always be there and we have to accept them (although interestingly, the programme offered little evidence to support the theory that depression might be specifically genetic).

It may be that the build-up of these experiences, or a particular trauma, cause the jar to overflow. However, whilst the container can never shrink, you can always increase its size. How do you do this ? Simply by 'building up the sides' of the jar, that is to say, by taking a moment to reflect on those things that make you happy or satisfied. We all have our own lists, but Campbell started with his family, the satisfaction of working (both paid and unpaid), the pleasure he derived from playing the bagpipes (both his father and his brother were pipers) and the sense of community he derived from watching his beloved Burnley Football Club. Suddenly, the jar had doubled in height and the difficult material that threatened to overflow was now, proportionately, just a small section of the jar at the bottom.

The interesting thing about this model is that it simply relies on the mind's ability to look at things in a new way, to reflect on the positives - however tiny they may be - and, one step at a time, to change the picture from seeing depression as something that swallows up your entire being, to being an aspect (but only one aspect) of a larger pattern.

And if someone asked me to define what solution-focused therapy was, I think that is what I would tell them as well.

What's in your jar ?

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