What Congo Pygmies Can Teach Us About Mental Health
I have always been attracted to indigenous tribes. I have been especially curious about whether their societies have anything that can help us understand how to prevent and overcome the growing mental health struggles experienced by 1 in 5 people.
An anthropologist, who lived amongst the Congo Pygmies, observed significantly lower levels of mental health struggles in the Pygmy villagers. The anthropologist observed that one of the key elements for creating a healthy social culture centered on adolescent children. When behavioral issues came up, they were viewed as an indication that the child required validation. The tribe would assemble to throw a party with special food and dancing around the fire. Once the mood of the tribe was elevated, they would place the adolescent with the behavioral issues in the middle of the circle and take turns validating them. They would do this by stating the gift they saw in the child, hugging the child, telling the child that they were loved, and so on.
THREE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
Have you ever experienced validation like this growing up? How about as an adult at work or at home? If not, can you imagine the impact such an exercise would have had on your self-worth when you were a child or even now as an adult? If you have, then perhaps that’s why you have the resilience to deal with stress and ward off mental health struggles the way you do.
I remember one time I was attending a group-based workshop. We broke into circles of seven people, with one person being in the middle. Everyone had to stand up and tell the person in the center what special gift they saw in them. At first, I thought the exercise was a bit corny. But, when it was me standing up and getting validated by six people, I have to say…it rocked my socks. It felt like waves of liquid love coming at me from six different directions and in as many ways.
Since learning about the Congo Pygmy and having had this workshop experience, our clinical team at Alive has been incorporating validation exercises into healing circles for those attending Alive Health Centre, as well as during the After care program. Before clients return home, we determine who will be in their healing circle. A tele-conference is scheduled to train each person on being a positive influence while participating in the healing circle. Each person receives a small pocket book that helps them learn positive ways to support their loved one/friend. Every month, we meet for a brief 30-min tele-conference that’s facilitated by an Alive clinician. We provide a report on progress and setbacks, while training each participant on how to improve their validation skills towards the person recovering from a mental health struggle.
WE WANT TO HELP BUT DONT KNOW HOW
Friends and loved ones of those who suffer from a mental health struggle usually have a strong desire to help, but often don’t know how. Teaching validation skills is necessary because it’s not something that many folk understand. After all, they most likely never experienced it themselves. If healing circle participants need additional support, they can access the Alive clinician for one-on-one support.
Alive’s clinical team has been practicing healing circles for over six years. We can say positively that it’s the most significant part of a person’s healing process. Instead of people moving away from their relationships and becoming isolated, they are encouraged to move deeper into their relationship through practicing engagement. This evokes powerful and positive thoughts and emotions. Obviously, more is required than validation for a successful healing process. However, engagement is by far the most powerful component and it’s something that we, in the Western world, could become more skilled in.
So, yes, these Congo Pygmies have a lot that they can teach us. I’m planning a trip to Africa in 2017 and intend to visit them. I will be sure to keep you posted on my experience.