Michael Cornwall: constructive approach to extreme mental states

Michael Cornwall: constructive approach to extreme mental states

What are complex emotional states? How can they be understood constructively? Michael Cornwall, PhD, psychotherapist with a constructive approach to accompanying extreme mental states, reveals in an interview.

As I have understood, you are a practitioner of Laingian-Jungian therapy. Can you please describe in short what the basic premise (in practice) of this kind of therapy is, as you see it? What does it look like?

I refer to myself as a Jungian/Laingian therapist because they are the two people alongside my friend and mentor John Weir Perry, who had a strong formative influence on me developing my own way of doing therapy with people of all ages who are suffering emotionally- in extreme states or otherwise. From Laing, I embraced and shared his dark but accurate vision of the toxic social forces that impact us all via our traumatizing micro-family crucibles, which are themselves inescapably embedded in the broader dehumanizing and loveless social Darwinism cultural wasteland that inflicts its constant soul-crushing oppression. That great wounding is visited on us all, especially if we are labeled as bio-genetically defective by psychiatry.

Jung brings back the banished ancient and crucial knowledge of the uncanny transpersonal/archetypal/mythic and spiritual forces that always are at play in all our lives. Those are the forces that psychiatry and our culture greatly fear and therefore  oppress- as much as they do try to police and banish, and silence the intense human emotions that always evoke those powerful archetypal energies in our deep psyches. The psychiatric disease model of human emotional suffering is the “big lie” hiding in plain sight.

When in extreme states myself in the 1960s, reading Jung and Laing really was like receiving a life-saving message in a bottle revelation. I saw that I wasn’t the only one who had ever lost all meaning and mooring, who has descended into a hellish inner zone of super-charged terror and other-worldly, psychic, and spirit-filled madness. I had broken completely with the consensual reality matrix of my young adult life in the Vietnam war era.

You have worked for 25 years in psychiatric institutions, but also in other alternative kinds of institutions. What is the difference and can you explain this for us a bit?

Having worked in both traditional psychiatric hospital wards and settings for 30 years, and also at alternative settings/sanctuaries- the difference between them is like night and day. The medication-free sanctuaries like Iward where I worked for several years, and Diabasis House (that I did my doctoral research on) held out hope for a full life lived outside of the psychiatric system.

Because there was practiced loving receptivity with people in extreme states- instead of the deadly identity crushing medical curse of psychiatric labels and emotion obliterating medication that aborted the natural transformative healing process.

I was very interested in your approach to working with extreme states. Can you tell us more about that? What does the humane approach to extreme states of psychological suffering look like?

My approach to being with people in extreme states is to be like a midwife- waiting with love and patience on whatever intense emotion and archetypal fueled expression of that emotional process needs to emerge and be received.

What did the development of your approach to work with people with extreme states look like?

My approach grew directly out of my own hellish experience of madness as I mentioned above. It grew (and still does every day) in form and necessity as I served in medication-free, loving sanctuaries as also noted above.

How does it feel to work with these states of psychological suffering?

Again, especially when being a few feet away from someone in an extreme state, it feels like being with someone giving birth to themselves. It’s very intense to be vulnerably there with them without the shields of theory and clinical emotional distance to protect me from the intense emotions, psychic energy, and uncanny archetypal and spiritual forces.

But being there waiting, breathing, feeling, and grounding my body, emptying my mind of psychological and strategic thinking, opening my heart with loving receptivity, waiting.. waiting.. waiting for the unknown emotional birthing to move at its own pace. Not at my pace.

Hands off. The sacred emotional emergence ever in flow.

Do you think that understanding of extreme states is lacking in today’s prevailing understanding of mental health? It seems to me that this current system is pervaded by the narrative of pathologization that can foster further despair where hope is urgently needed. Can you comment on that?

Extreme states are so feared by our culture that it has tasked psychiatry to be the police force to keep the intense emotion and uncanny forces I described above away from our midst. It’s a tragedy beyond description that our life force of emotional expression and truth is silenced in the name of normality by vaunted MD deviance censors with loaded syringes full of soul-numbing designer drugs.

As I described in my article “Does a psychiatric diagnosis have an impact of a medical curse” such pathologizing of natural human emotional suffering can bring so much hopeless despair that suicide as a way out may tragically be chosen as a result.

As a therapist who works with people in extreme states through a humane approach and who has had the experience of working in institutions that offer this kind of approach, I would love to hear your thoughts on the general mental health system.  If you could change some things about current mental health systems, would you consider that it needs changing? If yes, what would be some most urgently needed points to start from?

The mental health system is not redeemable or changeable because of the corruption of the human blindness that has erected it and sustained it. As long as the socially applauded and sanctioned psychiatric vision of enforcing the big lie that human emotional suffering is a disease process exists, all we can do is build humanistic alternatives outside the system so it is finally seen for that catastrophic failure that it is, and is abandoned by the public.

Has the process of working with extreme states also been a process of learning for you?

Yes, every minute I share with someone in an extreme state or in any other form of emotional suffering is like having an ongoing revelation from the very heart of human life. Doing that is like suspending time from our usual pace and focus. It’s raw and real.

No wonder Laing and the other existential therapists actually found refuge and knowledge from those encounters of naked emotional truth.

Can you single out one thing you have learned in the process of working with people in all these years that you think is important to share?

The one main thing I’ve learned from being with my own early madness, and from the life-long seasons since then of emotional suffering – and from being with other’s suffering too, is summed up in my article on merciful love.

In a millisecond when we are in our time of agonizing need and existential aloneness- clinging to a transitory next breath, right then-  if we are responded to with what can only be known as mercy, because we need love so desperately right then that it’s felt as merciful that such love exists for us, then when love is given and received- then we experience the moment of the great sacred mystery.

That- alone flying through space with death always a second away every second of our lives- there exists the sacred balm of comforting love that can pass between us, like a radiant gift that calms our terror and lets us rest, lets us sleep peacefully- beyond the reach of the nightmare come true.

What would you say that is needed in order for non-pathologizing approaches such as yours to be scaled to the level of them being available to a wider population?

I’d say that getting funding for 24/7 residences is always the main obstacle because of the psychiatric model having control of all aspects of the mental health system, due to their psychiatric DSM being required to label every person in the system, so that funding is only devoted to programs that conform to the DSM diagnosis for payments for service.
The trainings I do that teach loving receptivity at Esalen institute and grad schools and online, equips professionals as well as family members, friends, and peer counselors to learn how to be present and compassionate with a person in any setting who is in extreme states, in just a few hours.
My brief YouTube video on loving receptivity shows how quickly one can learn to help a person in extreme states without pathologizing them- wherever they may be.

It’s possible for caregivers to serve as compassionate portable human support – for people in extreme states at home, on the street, or wherever they are.


Further Michael Cornwall’s articles and resources:

Initiatory Madness 

Remembering a medication free madness sanctuary

I don’t believe in mental illness, do you?

What’s wrong with you? Nothing. What has happened to you? Something

Responding to extreme states with loving receptivity- a practical guide

Refections on over 25,000 hours of being with people in extreme states


 Michael Cornwall’s website