Mental Illness

When they pick through the ashes of Western Civilization, along with its its many accomplishments, historians will note four major failures: First will be its greed driven ethical corruption; second its failure to protect the environment; third the treatment of criminals and the fourth will be its disregard of the mentally troubled.

The ethical and moral corruption in this society is so pervasive that it will probably bring the society to it’s knees. And there are many people involved in the environmental fight, so they don’t need my voice, (although they have been steadily losing ground for the last 20 years). Dealing with crime is an important issue that I will address in a future article. But today, I want to address a topic that receives little attention and is in desperate need of it – our treatment of the mentally troubled.

The truth is, we don’t know what to do with either the mentally ill or criminals and we have not been willing to provide meaningful help to either group. We wash our hands of both by turning them over to “experts” who give the mentally troubled ones drugs and shut the violent ones away, leaving the rest to get by in city tenements or freeway underpasses.

There is nothing new in this, we have been locking up the mentally ill along with other social deviants like criminals and debtors since before Dickens’ time. And if we were to seriously address the “problem” of the mentally ill, it would require a fairly significant shift in our cultural priorities – like maybe forgoing a couple of extra jet fighters, but a society’s values and practices can be extremely difficult to change.

We used to have mental hospitals, but they were expensive and ineffective dinosaurs that provided little more than warehousing for the mentally ill. And they had little political clout, making them easy targets for legislative budget cutters.

The thing is, in the shamanic world, what you call “mental illness” we view as a spiritual crises involving the birth of a healer. From the shaman’s point of view, the person involved in the crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message from the spirit realm but has been caught in the incompatibility between that world and this one.

There has been a long history of people having mystical experiences, and then becoming“Weller than well” as Dr. John Weir Perry puts it. Many of those people have gone on to use their visionary insights, newly found drive and focus to create great social reform for the benefit of all. Dr. Joseph Polimeni notes that, “In most traditional societies those persons who were overcome by hallucinations in young adulthood were more often than not destined to become shamans.”

In cultures around the world before western civilization, the idea of schizophrenia as a disease was, quite simply, non-existent. The assumption was that a person experiencing the challenges known in modern times as a psychosis was in fact experiencing things that were real, but could only be perceived by those who were similarly gifted. Consider what Joseph Campbell said, “The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”

In the shamanic view, what the person needs is not drugs or hospitalization, but help and support from the community to help resolve their inner conflict. In tribal society if someone presented with symptoms we would call psychosis, the people would send them for training with someone who had learned a level of mastery over the sensitivity that once overwhelmed them.

Phil Borges notes that “Then they have a mentor; they have somebody who has been through this process that can take and hold their hand and say, ‘Listen, I know what this is all about and this is how you manage it.”

What happens in this society is that people get caught up in the conflict between the message form the spirit world and the values of this culture – what they have been taught, the social rejection they receive, ideas about what’s real, what’s right, scientific beliefs about spirits, cultural morays, rationality and the “right” way to live. Then of course, there are their own fears and anxieties. And so it’s no wonder that what comes out is a mess!

We take pity on these confused and lost souls and give them Thorazine, Semap, Fluanxol or Risperdal to suppress their “symptoms.” Then we try and talk them out of their visions with “counseling therapy.” In Western culture, psychic abilities are generally denigrated and treated as a side-show curiosity, anyway. And yet, some of these people, even in the midst of their conflict, can produce remarkable works of art.

When allowed, with guidance, these people passed through their crisis and went on to lead lives without relapse into psychosis. Instead, they lived a more fulfilled existence than if they had never gone though their temporary break with conscious reality. The key here is that in these instances the person was allowed to complete a process that Western medicine labels as a sickness which must be medicated.

A Rwandan elder commented to writer Andrew Solomon:

“We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”

First off, consider what do we do in this culture with people who do get the message, who do get it straight. We marginalize or ignore them. We often treat them as if they were crazy! Consider the messages these people carry when it does come through with clarity. Maybe, “Don’t kill each other,” or “Love one another,” “Don’t pollute the earth,” “Love yourself,” “Don’t kill the animals,” “Don’t lie,” or maybe even, “Treat each other with kindness and respect.”

Joseph Campbell and John Weir Perry point to the emerging myth motif that appears repeatedly in modern people’s “madness” as being centered on a compelling concern for the earth, our sacred home that has been likened to Gaia, a living organism that births all life that we are in the process of destroying. Is that really so crazy?

Consider that virtually every scientist and every scientific organization on the planet has been screaming for years about the dangers of global warming – about the threat to millions and millions of people, about the extinction of wildlife and the death of the oceans – and we have done and continue to do – nothing. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

What do we do with these messages and the messengers? We ignore them. You can ignore the guy on the soapbox in Lincoln Park, but consider what we do with the messages from Babaji, Lao Tsu, The Pope, Moses or even Christ! We don’t want to hear what they have to say! We are not ready to love each other, forgive other’s transgressions, feed the starving or heal the afflicted. But we can’t exactly lock these teachers up, so we do the only thing we can, we ignore them!

It is both ironic and sad that in this society we give those who speak the truth, no power, and those who have power, get to keep that power only so long as they do not speak the truth. Consider the ways that Pope Francis, who is not crazy, is being marginalized because he proffers traditional, populist (Christian), non-capitalist, ideas.

Our culture is seen by those outside of it as being self-destructively mad and actively endangering the survival of the planet. And if you really think about it, who is really crazy? Pope Francis or the CEO of Monsanto? Moses or the Chairman of Lockheed? The Buddha or Dick Cheney? Christ or Wall Street Bankers?

The problem is that the message these teachers and so many others bring simply causes too much conflict with the values of capitalism. Doing what they suggest would require massive changes to our social order. (Changes, by the way, that things like global warming are going to bring anyway, but with much greater force and disruption!)

We say we don’t know how to help the mentally troubled, but that’s not true. People in tribal societies all around the planet successfully deal with these problems all the time. They have done so for centuries. But you say, “How could those little dark skinned people who run around barefoot, live in huts and hunt with blowguns, know more than our university trained, Phd’d psychiatrists?” Well, they do. Thousands of years of dealing with these situations has given them considerable insight into how to manage them.

I’m going to simplify a rather complex process by just saying that when I visit a mental ward I “see/feel” the severe conflict between the external energies and the internal constraints that are driving the patients “crazy.” “Going crazy” is the only alternative these people have, given the impediments placed upon them by society. If they could be brought to understand the nature of their internal conflict and taught how to work with it, these otherwise valuable people could be returned to society!

Dr. Malidoma Somé is of the Dagara tribe of Africa who has been Western educated, straddles Western culture and his African heritage. Dr. Somé took a young man named Alex, an 18-year-old American, who had suffered a psychotic break when he was 14, had hallucinations, was suicidal and experienced cycles of dangerously severe depression,(create an image in your mind of what this poor guy must have been like), back to his Dagaran people for help.

After eight months of support and realignment with the Dagaran, Alex had become “quite normal.” He was even able to participate with the Dagaran healers in their healing rituals. . . . Alex eventually entered graduate school in psychology at Harvard. . . Alex opens a window to what could be possible if we would only get out from under our historically unsuccessful approaches to dealing with the “mentally ill.”

In the 1980’s there was a treatment center in California called Diabasis, founded by some leading experts in the alternative psychiatric movement. Diabasis showed real promise using traditional methods to help treat the mentally ill. The AMA, conventional psychiatrists and the drug industry went absolutely apoplectic over the concept, which is remarkable, considering the incredibly failure rate of the existing system.

Finland has adopted a similar concept to Diabasis, called the Open-Dialogue program. Schizophrenia diagnosis rates have plummeted in Finland, as cited in Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic.

Solutions? Contract with the tribes of Africa and South America to take in and treat our mentally ill. We could use the help and they would appreciate (I think) the money. And we’d return thousands of people to useful, progressive lives. The only problem then is that then we might have to actually listen to them.

Please see the Agnews study, the Soteria research, and other research on medication-free treatment. John Bola has written several articles summarizing this literature, and one of his articles a few years ago set off a firestorm of debate in the academic psychiatric community and in the pages of the New York Times because it challenged the practice of prescribing antipsychotics.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2016

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