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How Spirituality Can Improve Mental Health Treatment

I just got back a few days ago from spending 5 days at a retreat that was almost the exact opposite of a mental hospital.

  • The leaders were people who had visions and heard voices.
  • Instead of trying to stop others from seeing visions and hearing voices, they were trying to help others have such experiences as well (and no, drugs were not involved in this process).
  • When people had an experience that was overwhelming or seemed it could possibly be harmful to them, the “staff” gathered around them in a very supportive way, helping them to quickly find a way to handle it in a positive way
  • Instead of trying to isolate those who had strange experiences from the rest of the community, those who had such experiences were looked to with curiosity and appreciation, to see what fresh perspective they might have to offer to others
  • Instead of seeking to put people in categories, people were honored for their ability to “walk between” categories, such as gender categories or others.
  • Instead of seeing the goal as immediately attempting to bring people out of painful experiences, there was an emphasis on how facing difficult experiences could contribute to long term welfare.

This retreat was not the total opposite of a mental hospital:  what it shared with a hospital, or with the mental health system in general, was an understanding that people could experience overwhelming things and would sometimes need help with them, to keep things from going in a bad way.  But the emphasis was on encountering difficult things and getting through them with the support of the community, so that something new could be discovered, which is very different from the normal “mental health” focus on just suppressing anything difficult so that nothing new emerges and “normality” can be maintained.

The retreat I went to defined its approach as “spiritual” but I think much of what happened there could eventually become part of how a more enlightened community would approach those who seem to be experiencing “psychosis.”

The “peer movement” in the mental health system is typically about having people who have had extreme experiences & who have been treated by the mental health system, and who then recovered at least somewhat, try to help others who are currently in the mental health system.  A further step in opening up the mental health system would be to bring in more of those who have had extreme experiences, and who learned how to handle them outside the mental health system in a way that enriched their lives, come into the mental health system to share their insights and methods.  This would allow a new level of “peer expertise” into the system, and would allow us to emulate what happened for eons in cultures where young people who spontaneously entered difficult visionary states where seen by the people as having spiritual potential, and then were helped by the shamans or spiritual leaders to get some mastery over the process rather than remaining lost or victimized by what was happening.

Unfortunately, there are many barriers to doing what I am proposing.  Some of these are related to the mental health system being closed and dogmatic, and unwilling to allow in other perspectives such as spiritual ones.  But other barriers exist within spiritual communities, which may feel threatened in a number of ways by recognizing any connection between their own “spiritual” experiences, and those which are seen as “mental illness.  Some of these threats are as follows:

  • “Spirituality” may only be recognized when it presents itself in ways that conform to prevailing dogma:  experiences that run outside the dogma may appear too threatening to even be recognized as having a spiritual component.
  • Those who are designated as “spiritual leaders” often don’t know how to help those who are having disturbing experiences:  it may be difficult for these “leaders” to admit that they don’t understand all aspects of the spiritual world, and much easier to just label the difficulty as belonging to “mental illness” instead.
  • Those interested in “spirituality” want their unusual experiences to be valued, so they may be motivated to avoid stigma by  denying any connection between their own “spiritual experiences” and the experience of those who may be more troubled and confused, even when there are many similarities.

If we are really going to help people with the difficult experiences called “psychosis” we have to be willing to look at things outside our usual categories and dogma, because psychosis involves experience that does go outside those categories, and we have to be willing to go to where people are stuck.  I think if we rise to this challenge there will be huge benefits, not just to those with psychosis, who will have greater opportunities for recovery, but also for the rest of us who will benefit from our efforts to open up, from better understanding the possibilities that exist outside our usual boundaries, and how to relate to them in a good way.


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