In the wake of the suicide of Robin Williams the following is important to consider. Providers of mental health services tend not to take a client’s meaning needs and life purpose concerns into account. How often is a client asked, “Tell me a little bit about your life purpose choices and decisions” or “Are you more a meaning-maker or a meaning-seeker?” The answer: virtually never. These sorts of questions are not part of the everyday landscape that mental health service providers inhabit.
Most psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and other mental health service providers don’t possess either a coherent set of ideas or a useful vocabulary that would allow them to chat with clients about meaning and life purpose. Indeed, they may never have thought these matters through for themselves. Have they got a clear understanding about the requirements of meaning making: that is, what it takes to influence, create, and provoke the psychological experience of meaning? Have they thought through how people can be helped to name and frame their life purposes? Most haven’t.
Likewise, most providers have no idea how to chat with clients about their values and principles. Can it really be the case that it doesn’t matter to a client whether or not he is living according to his values and principles or contrary to his values and principles? How mentally or emotionally healthy can a person be expected to feel if he is not making meaning, not living his life purposes, and not living according to his values and principles? If he is living that bereft way, don’t we expect him to feel sad and anxious and don’t we suppose that he may be pulled in the direction of some meaning substitute like addictive behavior? That he might even commit suicide?
It is really not so hard to paint a picture of what value-based meaning-making looks like, what it would feel like to make daily meaning investments and seize daily meaning opportunities, what it would take to create your own personal menu and mix of meaning opportunities, and what the process looks like of naming and framing your life purposes. The main problem seems to be that these matters are simply not on the radar of mental health service providers. They are fixated on the current model of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders,” a discredited labeling model that ought to be abandoned.
Their training programs are likewise failing them—almost certainly they never took a single class in which meaning or life purpose was discussed. Their leaders are failing them too, as virtually all of them have ties to the pharmaceutical industry and our current pill-pushing mentality. Nor are clients themselves helping much, as they have gotten into the habit of presenting their difficulties in terms of depression, anxiety, addictive behaviors, and so on rather than as existential difficulties having to do with meaning and life purpose. If a client does not bring it in and his therapist likewise does not bring it up, how will it ever get on the table?
I have no idea if Robin Williams was plagued by meaninglessness and a lack of life purpose. But most of my creative and performing artists clients are, so there is no particular reason to suppose that Williams, despite his successes, wasn’t in this regard very much like his brothers and sisters. I hope that our mental health service providers will get on the meaning and life purpose bandwagon and by doing so provide their clients with the opportunity to actually reduce their existential distress. We do not know if Robin Williams even once had a conversation with anyone about meaning and life purpose—it is easy to imagine him never having that conversation. He may have really needed it.
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