Dr Somé’s disconcerted face from under his little hat has looked my way everyday this week through Facebook messaging from on-the-pulse friends. How could I ignore a title: ‘What a Shaman Sees in a Mental Hospital’? I didn’t know we still called them ‘mental hospitals’! And yet it seems our all-over-the-pulse friends from ‘Earth. We are one.‘ who publish a plethora of conscious-raising, educational articles, have raised some interesting questions through Stephanie Marohn’s 2003 article, from her book ‘The Natural Medicine Guide to Schizophrenia’.
Maybe it’s the enticing, shamanic bent on all things ‘mental illness’ that has attracted the 234 887 readers to this page, where Dr Somé of the Central African Dagara tribe tells us outright that, ‘In the shamanic view, mental illness signals ‘the birth of the healer’ – an exciting reframe that grabs even an ADD’s attention to re-consider that their diagnosis brings a divine specialness. (I mean, do we really need a diagnosis of mental disorder to realise our unique, divine specialness?) Don’t get me wrong, I have witnessed and experienced the transformative potential of psychological, emotional and spiritual disorder – I even dedicate this website to promoting sacred healing arts for these specific moments – yet something lurks ghost-like and untrustworthy around the intention of this article and Dr Somé’s sweeping claims about ‘mental illness’, its causes and its origins.
Rightly so, the article highlights the need for Western culture to recognise the power and necessity for ritual and initiation, if we are ever going to find our way home to sanity.
Absolutely, it provides a snapshot of the shamanic traditions of the Dagara people and how simple yet profound approaches can set spirits free and pacify commotion, rather than abort someone’s personal awakening.
But unfortunately, it also paints a distorted picture of Dr Somé visiting the ‘inmates’ of a ‘mental ward’, losing their shit in a fit of hypersensitivity, in straightjackets, screaming aimlessly between worlds they can’t recognise or control. Apparently this is in complete opposition to the way his culture views such situations. He observes to himself as he looks at the inmates zoned out on medications, ‘So this is how the healers who are attempting to be born are treated in this culture. What a loss that a person finally being aligned with a power from the other world is just being wasted.’ Marohn goes on to paraphrase that what this means is that we in the West are not trained in how to deal or acknowledge the spiritual world. ‘In fact, psychic abilities are denigrated. When energies from the spiritual world emerge in a Western psyche, that individual is completely unequipped to integrate them or even recognise what is happening.’
As my Western mind continued to read about Dr Somé’s shamanic answers to my mental health issues and Marohn’s storytelling of how Dr Somé heroically took back ‘a mental patient’ to his tribe, to live with them until he found ‘normality’ after episodes otherwise known as psychotic, my mental health activist heart grew heavy. Will there ever be compassionate, accurate portrays of vulnerable people busting through psychological overwhelm? Do we really need to segregate the East and the West in a battle of what’s better and what’s worse for the individual, who is trying to find their way through suffering? Could it be possible that a shaman may sound as dogmatic as a psychiatrist with their unquestioned faith in another world, another prognosis, softened because it’s ‘spiritual’ and ‘revered’ because it’s ancient, while simultaneously assuming that the Western world has no spiritual intelligence whatsoever?
For what it’s worth, my memories of psychiatric hospitals as a ‘mental patient’ (during the same year the article was published) showed me a level of humanity unmatched, expressed in the support, nursing and confidence of those inclined to be present with me as I lost my way. With my hand held, I did find my way in the company of many Western people who were nurses, psychiatrists, naturopaths, yoga instructors, artists, art therapists, including shamans. And they each bought a different piece of the puzzle that was my own recovery journey. Even after my experience of two breathtaking grand mal seizures or kundalini awakenings (call it however you are scientifically/spiritually inclined) the utmost care, respect and interest in my wellbeing was offered to me while I found my feet back on earth, from humans being loving humans. From humans being present to the mystery of the healing process. I write about this life-changing experience in Chapter 6 of my book called Sacred Synchroncity. It touches on my most electric spiritual awakening after receiving both a blessing and a drug.
(Photo by Martin Reddy)
When I read articles like Marohn’s, I feel they miss a significant beat. By favouring one healing art (shamanism) over another (psychiatry), over the individual’s own capacity to determine their own healing path, you take away the essential ingredient for true healing and awakening – personal empowerment – and that is determined by one’s own heart and soul. Who’s to say that people in psychiatric hospitals aren’t birthing themselves in all kinds of ways, not just healers, saints and Jesus, but as new mothers, as an inspiring parent, as entrepreneurs, poets and gym instructors. Or by forging new career paths, facing physical wake-up calls, realising a denied truth or remembering and rediscovering their hidden self after trauma? Even when conscious-living magazines feed us their opinions about the most conscious consciousness of all consciousness, it’s still necessary to question their motives and ask: Really? They still wear straight jackets? What would the Hearing Voices Congress say? …
Sometimes these articles do more to contribute to stigma towards the person dealing with their mental health challenges, because of the unsavoury depiction granted to the ‘classic mental hospital inmate’. We don’t need this ignorance. We’re too far down the path of progressive approaches in mental health care to even care to give it much attention, but, Dr Somé and his little hat did press my buttons ever so slightly and I feel lighter having explained why. With all due respect for the shamanic path – that which I personally have benefited from in too many ways to mention here – I wonder why if so many healers do exist and practise in this capacity within the Dagara tribe and Dr Somé himself, then why not take their much needed services to the Spiritist Psychiatric Hospitals in Brazil where shamans and psychiatrists work together, or better still, advocate for more services of this integrative nature in Africa? In America? Worldwide?
We in the West are waiting for more of these spaces, where shaman and psychiatrist finally remember, that on ‘Earth. We are one’.