May 18, 2023

Contemplating the Role of Meaning in Mental Health Services

Written By
Josiah Edwin

Josiah is one of the Peer Supporters at Life Matters who is conducting research into Existential Therapy and its use in young adults. His passion for the topic can be traced back to his first year of University- a challenging one where he coped by ‘ignoring course work’ and binging Youtube videos. He came across a video outlining the work of Victor Frankl which hooked him. It sparked a curiosity in Frankl’s work and mental health that developed alongside his medical education, eventuating into a research project with the Department of Psychological Medicine and a volunteer role at Life Matters. Josiah has written a piece outlining his research project.

Contemplating The Role of Meaning in Mental Health Services

Modern therapy seeks to understand a person’s negative thought patterns and correct them through a combination of cognitive retraining and medications. This is a well proven strategy which has helped millions around the world. It is incredible at helping one realize ‘What’ is wrong, and ‘How’ you can start to fix it. Yet this problem and solution-oriented view seems to be missing something intensely human. The ‘Why’. The reason we keep going. The fire that burns bright in our souls. The recognition of our dreams and values. This is where existential therapy comes into the picture, helping people realize and work towards a sense of personal meaning in their lives.

Finding a sense of meaning is an important and ongoing experience. Scientific literature has found it to be invaluable to Hauora. People with a strong sense of personal meaning have higher resilience, more optimism and are psychologically healthier. They are less affected by traumatic events, mental illness, and are less likely to be suicidal. They are able to lead lives more aligned with their values, showing fortitude in challenging periods and flourishing according to their goals. Existential therapy assists and encourages people to understand their personal meaning in life.

My thesis delves into existential therapy and hopes to bring these refreshing ideas into our clinics in Aotearoa. We are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis combined with the after-effects of a global pandemic and economic stagnation. People are suffering. Yet I firmly believe that hard times do not have to be our breaking point. Instead, they can be a time of positive growth. This is where a person's sense of meaning fits into our current mental health services. Someone with a strong ‘Why’ can withstand any ‘What’ or ‘How’. Meaning can mediate suffering. If you find yourself in a period of darkness, look within and meaning will be your light - guiding you towards the flourishing tomorrow.