What’s therapy really like … and what’s death got to do with it?

by on 28th November 2019
What’s therapy really like … and what’s death got to do with it?

As a trained psychologist-turned publisher who has spent the last 32 years publishing everything from scientific research papers on experimental psychology to the biography of an internationally acclaimed New-York based social psychologist, I thought I knew the answer to that question. Until that is, I had the chance to publish a new book by a venerable Sydney clinical psychologist and his recently minted psychologist daughter.

Ross Menzies is highly respected in Australian clinical psychology circles. Currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Technology, Sydney, he spent 20 years as Director of the University of Sydney Anxiety Disorders Clinic which he founded in 1991. He has also long maintained a thriving private practice in inner-west Sydney. His daughter Rachel graduated from The University of Sydney in 2015, scoring a prize for her thesis work, featuring in a collection of ‘Australia’s top thinkers’, and gave her first invited plenary address at an international congress in 2017 in Slovenia. She is currently practising at rooms in Newtown.

While both were trained in the classic tradition of cognitive behavioural therapy, commonly used to treat anxiety and phobias, Ross and Rachel now focus much of their research and practice on the fear of death.

Which leads us to their book, just released, entitled Tales from the Valley of Death: Reflections from psychotherapy on the fear of death.

As Ross and Rachel describe it, the fear of death is nearly as old as time itself famously referred to by the great American philosopher and psychologist William James as ‘the worm at the core of human existence’. It is something we must all grapple with. Yet, increasing scientific evidence suggests that ‘death anxiety’ may lie at the heart of a multitude of mental health conditions, driving numerous clinically-relevant behaviours.

With Rachel now establishing herself as a leading researcher in death anxiety, Ross decided the time was right to explore the issue amongst some of the many clients he has seen in his own practice. The book does that in a way that not only allows the reader to look on as Ross and his clients talk candidly in verbatim interviews, it reveals much about the impact of both good and bad therapy; of the struggle to be well, and the human spirit to overcome mental illness through an understanding of oneself.

Portrayed in 10 vivid first-hand accounts are the private histories, core thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that drove the mental health dilemmas of real people from a variety of ages and backgrounds. Each are different, their fears ranging from sudden death by fire to assassins in the shadows, from anaphylactic shock to a multitude of diseases, from being attacked by dinosaurs lurking in kitchen cupboards to being pushed off cliffs and in front of trains. For some, the ultimate fear is the wrath of God while for others, a lack of meaning and a pervasive sense of pointlessness drove their mental difficulties.

Yet this book is no voyeuristic journey into the warped and desperate minds of others. These are people like us. Their fears may be stronger than ours, their lives sometimes more traumatic. Still, the strength and ordinariness of their personalities shine through as they talk candidly about how hard they have fought to overcome their difficulties, bravely wading their way through the murky territory of the same existential dilemmas we all must face. And, like them, if we, the reader, need help to face our fears about death and the mental distress it can bring, this book shows us that therapy with a professional we trust is vital. When faced with the challenge of mental health, rejecting a therapist should not mean rejecting therapy. Find another one and keep working.

Rachel’s contribution to the book provides an integrated understanding of the wealth of psychological processes brought to life through these fascinating tales. She explores cultural responses to the fear of death from the ancient laments immortalised in the epic poems of Babylon and Greece to the desperate attempts at bodily preservation in the Egyptian mummification rituals and on into the present. It is both entertaining and a touch scary to me to learn of the creative ways a modern world deals with the challenge of holding onto the physical remains of loved ones. They apparently include the option of having cremation ashes mixed with ink and tattooed onto one’s skin, made into a diamond and worn as jewellery, or pressed into a vinyl record to play the favourite song of the deceased or even a recording of their voice. A yet to be commercially available app uses data from a deceased individual’s online profiles and message history to simulate conversations with their loved ones long after their death.

The ultimate conclusion though is the same. No matter how or what we think about it, we all must die. The challenge is to discover pathways to an acceptance of death that enables a life of significance and meaning.

So read this book, whether you seek knowledge, comfort, guidance or challenge in your own life’s journey. You might discover the power of effective therapy and learn how thinking about death can bring you a better life.