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The Shamanic View of Mental Illness

By Jayson Gaddis on Tuesday February 26th, 2019

Looking Through a Different Lens

I am reprinting this from an email I received from Malidoma Some, a West African Shaman whom I’ve had the privilege to meet, drive around Boulder with, and work for. Since I am going through what I believe to be a spiritual emergence, I am reading a lot on the topic. I want to continue to educate others. That what we sometimes call depression, bi-polar, psychosis, schizophrenia, might actually be a significant transformation in consciousness and a necessary stage on the path of human development. While this is a long article it’s well worth the read for those interested in the subject. Particularly if you have suffered from a mental illness or treat those with a mental illness. You might also like to read this short post Beyond Medication, Holistic Psychiatry. And, since I get so many private emails about this post, please ask to join our private community on Facebook here.

What a Shaman Sees in a Mental Hospital

In the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer,” explains Malidoma Patrice Somé. Thus, mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born.

What those in the west view as mental illness, the Dagara people regard as “good news from the other world.” The person going through the crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message to the community that needs to be communicated from the spirit realm. Dr. Somé comments:

Mental disorder, behavioral disorder of all kinds, signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field.

These disturbances result when the person does not get assistance in dealing with the presence of the energy from the spirit realm.

One of the things Dr. Somé encountered when he first came to the United States in 1980 for graduate study, was how this country deals with mental illness. When a fellow student was sent to a mental institute due to ‘nervous depression,’ Dr. Somé went to visit him.

I was so shocked. That was the first time I was brought face to face with what is done here to people exhibiting the same symptoms I’ve seen in my village.

OstracizedDr. Somé was shocked at the Western approach to ‘mental illness.’

What struck Dr. Somé was that the attention given to such symptoms was based on pathology, on the idea that the condition is something that needs to stop. This was in complete opposition to the way his culture views such a situation. As he looked around the stark ward at the patients, some in straitjackets, some zoned out on medications, others screaming, he observed to himself:

So this is how the healers who are attempting to be born are treated in this culture. What a loss! What a loss that a person who is finally being aligned with a power from the other world is just being wasted.

Another way to say this, which may make more sense to the Western mind, is that we in the west are not trained in how to deal with, or even taught to acknowledge, the existence of psychic phenomena, 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 recognize what is happening. The result can be terrifying. Without the proper context for, and assistance, in dealing with the breakthrough from another level of reality, for all practical purposes, the person is insane. Heavy dosing with anti-psychotic drugs compounds the problem and prevents the integration that could lead to soul development and growth in the individual who has received these energies.

In the mental ward, Dr. Somé saw a lot of ‘beings’ hanging around the patients, ‘entities’ that are invisible to most people but that shamans and psychics are able to see. “They were causing the crisis in these people,” he says. It appeared to him that these beings were trying to get the medications and their effects out of the bodies of the people the beings were trying to merge with, and were increasing the patients’ pain in the process. “The beings were acting almost like some kind of excavator in the energy field of people. They were really fierce about that. The people they were doing that to were just screaming and yelling,” he said. He couldn’t stay in that environment and had to leave.

In the Dagara tradition, the community helps the person reconcile the energies of both worlds–“the world of the spirit that he or she is merged with, and the village and community.” That person is able then to serve as a bridge between the worlds and help the living with the information and healing they need. Thus, the spiritual crisis ends with the birth of another healer. “The other world’s relationship with our world is one of sponsorship,” Dr. Somé explains.

More often than not, the knowledge and skills that arise from this kind of merger are a knowledge or a skill that is provided directly from the other world.

The beings who were increasing the pain of the inmates on the mental hospital ward were actually attempting to merge with the inmates in order to get messages through to this world. The people they had chosen to merge with were getting no assistance in learning how to be a bridge between the worlds and the beings’ attempts to merge were thwarted. The result was the sustaining of the initial disorder of energy and the aborting of the birth of a healer.

Medications compound the problemMedication only compounds the problem and prevents the integration of the spirit.

“The Western culture has consistently ignored the birth of the healer,” states Dr. Somé.

Consequently, there will be a tendency from the other world to keep trying as many people as possible in an attempt to get somebody’s attention. They have to try harder.

The spirits are drawn to people whose senses have not been anesthetized. “The sensitivity is pretty much read as an invitation to come in,” he notes.

Those who develop so-called mental disorders are those who are sensitive, which is viewed in Western culture as oversensitivity. Indigenous cultures don’t see it that way and, as a result, sensitive people don’t experience themselves as overly sensitive. In the west, “it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them,” observes Dr. Somé. The frenetic pace, the bombardment of the senses, and the violent energy that characterize Western culture can overwhelm sensitive people.

Schizophrenia and Foreign Energy

With schizophrenia, there is a special “receptivity to a flow of images and information, which cannot be controlled,” stated Dr. Somé.

When this kind of rush occurs at a time that is not personally chosen, and particularly when it comes with images that are scary and contradictory, the person goes into a frenzy.

What is required in this situation is first to separate the person’s energy from the extraneous foreign energies, by using shamanic practice (what is known as a ‘sweep’) to clear the latter out of the individual’s aura. With the clearing of their energy field, the person no longer picks up a flood of information and so no longer has a reason to be scared and disturbed, explains Dr. Somé.

Then it is possible to help the person align with the energy of the spirit being attempting to come through from the other world, and give birth to the healer. The blockage of that emergence is what creates problems. “The energy of the healer is a high-voltage energy,” he observes.

When it is blocked, it just burns up the person. It’s like a short-circuit. Fuses are blowing. This is why it can be really scary, and I understand why this culture prefers to confine these people. Here they are yelling and screaming, and they’re put into a straitjacket. That’s a sad image.

Again, the shamanic approach is to work on aligning the energies so there is no blockage, ‘fuses’ aren’t blowing, and the person can become the healer they are meant to be.

It needs to be noted at this point, however, that not all of the spirit beings that enter a person’s energetic field are there for the purposes of promoting healing. There are negative energies as well, which are undesirable presences in the aura. In those cases, the shamanic approach is to remove them from the aura, rather than work to align the discordant energies.

Blocking the birth of a healerDr. Somé believes mental illness is the blockage of a healing spirit attempting to ‘birth.’ Artwork: Adam Scott Miller.

Alex: Crazy in the USA, Healer in Africa

To test his belief that the shamanic view of mental illness holds true in the Western world as well as in Indigenous cultures, Dr. Somé took a mental patient back to Africa with him, to his village. He says:

I was prompted by my own curiosity to find out whether there’s truth in the universality that mental illness could be connected with an alignment with a being from another world.

Alex was an 18-year-old American who had suffered a psychotic break when he was 14. He had hallucinations, was suicidal, and went through cycles of dangerously severe depression. He was in a mental hospital and had been given a lot of drugs, but nothing was helping. “The parents had done everything–unsuccessfully,” says Dr. Somé. “They didn’t know what else to do.”

With their permission, Dr. Somé took their son to Africa. “After eight months there, Alex had become quite normal,” Dr. Somé reports. “He was even able to participate with healers in the business of healing; sitting with them all day long and helping them, assisting them in what they were doing with their clients… He spent about four years in my village.” Alex stayed by choice, not because he needed more healing. He felt, “much safer in the village than in America.”

To bring his energy and that of the being from the spiritual realm into alignment, Alex went through a shamanic ritual designed for that purpose, although it was slightly different from the one used with the Dagara people. “He wasn’t born in the village, so something else applied. But the result was similar, even though the ritual was not literally the same,” explains Dr. Somé. The fact that aligning the energy worked to heal Alex demonstrated to Dr. Somé that the connection between other beings and mental illness is indeed universal.

After the ritual, Alex began to share the messages that the spirit being had for this world. Unfortunately, the people he was talking to didn’t speak English (Dr. Somé was away at that point). The whole experience led, however, to Alex’s going to college to study psychology. He returned to the United States after four years because “he discovered that all the things that he needed to do had been done, and he could then move on with his life.”

The last that Dr. Somé heard was that Alex was in graduate school in psychology at Harvard. No one had thought he would ever be able to complete undergraduate studies, much less get an advanced degree.

Dr. Somé sums up what Alex’s mental illness was all about: “He was reaching out. It was an emergency call. His job and his purpose was to be a healer. He said no one was paying attention to that.”

After seeing how well the shamanic approach worked for Alex, Dr. Somé concluded that spirit beings are just as much an issue in the west as in his community in Africa.

Yet the question still remains, the answer to this problem must be found here, instead of having to go all the way overseas to seek the answer. There has to be a way in which a little bit of attention beyond the pathology of this whole experience leads to the possibility of coming up with the proper ritual to help people.

Dr. Malidoma Patrice SoméDr. Malidoma Patrice Somé.

Longing for Spiritual Connection

A common thread that Dr. Somé has noticed in ‘mental‘ disorders in the west is “a very ancient ancestral energy that has been placed in stasis, that finally is coming out in the person.” His job then is to trace it back, to go back in time to discover what that spirit is. In most cases, the spirit is connected to nature, especially with mountains or big rivers, he says.

In the case of mountains, as an example to explain the phenomenon, “it’s a spirit of the mountain that is walking side by side with the person and, as a result, creating a time-space distortion that is affecting the person caught in it.”  What is needed is a merger or alignment of the two energies, “so the person and the mountain spirit become one.” Again, the shaman conducts a specific ritual to bring about this alignment.

Dr. Somé believes that he encounters this situation so often in the United States because:

Most of the fabric of this country is made up of the energy of the machine, and the result of that is the disconnection and the severing of the past. You can run from the past, but you can’t hide from it.

The ancestral spirit of the natural world comes visiting. “It’s not so much what the spirit wants as it is what the person wants,” he says. “The spirit sees in us a call for something grand, something that will make life meaningful, and so the spirit is responding to that.”

That call, which we don’t even know we are making, reflects “a strong longing for a profound connection, a connection that transcends materialism and possession of things and moves into a tangible cosmic dimension. Most of this longing is unconscious, but for spirits, conscious or unconscious doesn’t make any difference.” They respond to either.

As part of the ritual to merge the mountain and human energy, those who are receiving the ‘mountain energy’ are sent to a mountain area of their choice, where they pick up a stone that calls to them. They bring that stone back for the rest of the ritual and then keep it as a companion; some even carry it around with them. “The presence of the stone does a lot in tuning the perceptive ability of the person,” notes Dr. Somé.

They receive all kinds of information that they can make use of, so it’s like they get some tangible guidance from the other world as to how to live their life.

When it is the ‘river energy,’ those being called go to the river and, after speaking to the river spirit, find a water stone to bring back for the same kind of ritual as with the mountain spirit.

“People think something extraordinary must be done in an extraordinary situation like this,” he says. That’s not usually the case. Sometimes it is as simple as carrying a stone.

Connect with the spiritsSimply connecting with a mountain or river spirit through an artefact helps us align.

A Sacred Ritual Approach to Mental Illness

One of the gifts a shaman can bring to the Western world is to help people rediscover ritual, which is so sadly lacking. “The abandonment of ritual can be devastating. From the spiritual view, ritual is inevitable and necessary if one is to live,” Dr. Somé writes in Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community.

To say that ritual is needed in the industrialized world is an understatement. We have seen in my own people that it is probably impossible to live a sane life without it.

Dr. Somé did not feel that the rituals from his traditional village could simply be transferred to the west, so over his years of shamanic work here, he has designed rituals that meet the very different needs of this culture. Although the rituals change according to the individual or the group involved, he finds that there is a need for certain rituals in general.

One of these involves helping people discover that their distress is coming from the fact that they are “called by beings from the other world to cooperate with them in doing healing work.” Ritual allows them to move out of the distress and accept that calling.

Another ritual need relates to initiation. In Indigenous cultures all over the world, young people are initiated into adulthood when they reach a certain age. The lack of such initiation in the west is part of the crisis that people are in here, says Dr. Somé. He urges communities to bring together “the creative juices of people who have had this kind of experience, in an attempt to come up with some kind of an alternative ritual that would at least begin to put a dent in this kind of crisis.”

Another ritual that repeatedly speaks to the needs of those coming to him for help entails making a bonfire, and then putting into the bonfire “items that are symbolic of issues carried inside the individuals… It might be the issues of anger and frustration against an ancestor who has left a legacy of murder and enslavement or anything, things that the descendant has to live with,” he explains.

If these are approached as things that are blocking the human imagination, the person’s life purpose, and even the person’s view of life as something that can improve, then it makes sense to begin thinking in terms of how to turn that blockage into a roadway that can lead to something more creative and more fulfilling.

The example of issues with ancestors touches on rituals designed by Dr. Somé that address a serious dysfunction in Western society and in the process ‘trigger enlightenment’ in participants. These are ancestral rituals, and the dysfunction they are aimed at is the mass turning-of-the-back on ancestors. Some of the spirits trying to come through, as described earlier, may be “ancestors who want to merge with a descendant in an attempt to heal what they weren’t able to do while in their physical body.”

“Unless the relationship between the living and the dead is in balance, chaos ensues,” Dr. Somé says.

The Dagara believe that, if such an imbalance exists, it is the duty of the living to heal their ancestors. If these ancestors are not healed, their sick energy will haunt the souls and psyches of those who are responsible for helping them.

The rituals focus on healing the relationship with our ancestors, both specific issues of an individual ancestor and the larger cultural issues contained in our past. Dr. Somé has seen extraordinary healing occur at these rituals.

Taking a sacred ritual approach to mental illness, rather than regarding the person as a pathological case, gives the person affected–and indeed the community at large–the opportunity to begin looking at it from that vantage point too, which leads to “a whole plethora of opportunities and ritual initiative that can be very, very beneficial to everyone present,” states Dr. Somé.

This is an excerpt from Stephanie Marohn‘s book The Natural Medicine Guide to Schizophrenia, (also featuring Malidoma Patrice Somé).

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

 

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32 Responses to The Shamanic View of Mental Illness

  1. Thanks for the information, I have a son that had a mental break down. I didn’t notice it until he was 17 years old. He is now 26 and I’m still dealing with the issue. My son doesn’t feel he has an issue, so it’s hard to get him help. What can I do to help him without it being obvious that I think he has a mental issue?

    • Perhaps have him read some of the stuff by Dr. Some? It seems likely he would need an alternative, non-pathologizing explanation that he can embrace without invalidating his reality and experience. As to him thinking he has a mental issue, perhaps you can alter your view as well. Maybe if you approach him without actually believing he “has a mental issue,” he won’t believe that you do believe that he has a “mental issue?”

  2. Thank you for this. I completely agree with it. I had a total nervous/mental break and I knew it was beyond medical help, fortunately. This started me down a deeper healing path, more than I ever could have imagined. And there were times, during the journey, where I felt bipolar. I had thoughts of committing myself to hospital. Yet, I kept following the signs I received and listening and here I am, several years later. Very happy, very peaceful, very much in love with life and so grateful for the journey and the gifts I’ve received along the way.

  3. As I read this was moved to tears. With complete understanding of my life, my ancestors and the emergent shamanic healer within. Thank you. I am sure the right for me teacher will appear now that the student is ready.

  4. I have a husband who had depression followed by a very hyper stage. He has settled a little but is many times angry and impatient . He talks about hearing voices, and he feels spirit to his grandfather father and now brother are in him. And according to him he sees things way beyond the tall buildings . He refused all meds and has stopped cold turkey and his hyper stage has slowed . where do we begin to seek help

  5. I was sceptical when I started reading but alot of it makes sense to me on a spiritual level. Thankyou. I shall investigate further.

    • I am a psychiatrist and ex anthropologist who spent years studying transcultural psychiatry
      and you should all know that pretty much every culture in the world differentiates between individuals who are ill and not acting normally vs those that appear ill but in fact are undergoing a known culturally sanctioned experience. It is ok to deny the existence of mental illness until it hits you or a loved one.

  6. This spoke to me on so many levels, as the eldest child raised in quite the “Mentally Interesting” family….I feel grateful for the resources this article has e.g. Dr. Some’s book, and your Facebook group, Jayson Gaddis. Namaste! CAL

  7. I am bi polar. This excellent article is immensely helpful. I know that I am psychic and I have qualified as a spiritual healer. Yet I still suffer from depression. Though I have always lived in cities, I have a deep yearning to walk amongst trees in a beautiful mixed woodland. I shall now find ‘my’ tract of woodland and search for my stone. I value the insights of this wise shaman. May I also say that I feel mental illness also has something to do with Love in the deepest sense… one’s ability to give and receive love, one’s perception of the quality of connection to one’s fellow humans. Healing is a form of deep love – the healer needs an outlet for that deep drive to express Love and Caring.

    • Pippa, if you ever get a chance to experience Family & Systemic Constellations I would encourage you to do so. It works in the realm of releasing us from ancestral ties that keep us stuck in bonds of love. You will “feel” it immediately.

  8. Amazing article. Thank you Jayson! I am not able to join the private Facebook group mentioned in the introduction and I’d like to! What is its name or could someone send me a link?

  9. Good afternoon. Great article. Thank you. I am a healer, and work on many things including depression. It is exactly what I explain to my clients, which is reassuring..:)
    Someone brought me a friend who began to suffer from what is commonly called schizophrenia. I knew what to do, but I still couldn’t believe I was right, and let the traditional medicine taking care of him.
    It actually takes a village, literally, to take care of cases like that. But now at least I will be anle to give this article to who needs ir, to find their village..:)

  10. I myself have been attempting to get the Western world to see and understand this. My life purpose is to help others heal on many levels through rituals & aligning energies. However, in my slowly expanding circle of followers, it is difficult to get this message across. I have no recognisable qualifications as a Dr, so my philosophies are overlooked. I have recently completed my Reiki Masters degree in hope that I will be able to help more people realise the truth behind thus crisis. Thank you for this article, it has renewed my faith in my beliefs.

  11. This raises some good points nature is certainly healing for us all however many ill in Africa are not treated with kindness at all. some are burned or exorcised or tortured . This is the concern when mental health and spiritual health are seen as the same thing.

  12. This article spoke to me deeply as a sufferer of depression and anxiety for most of my life I know the feelings of being different, standing apart from society, feeling I’m walking out of synch with my life and searching for answers. Knowing that materialism and consumerism is death to our soul and yet unable to be free from it. Longing to live free in nature yet tied by the practicalities of life. My question would be what do ido following on from this article…where do I find a shaman to help me release the darkness and become all that I am longing to be ?

    • Skye, you are the shaman. He/she is hidden within your subconscious mind waiting for instructions on how to heal you (not the other way around). You can learn how to instruct the shaman within by going to the following website: http://WWW.FREENEVILLE.COM. You will enjoy the trip. It is that simple if you let it BE.

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  14. Loved and totally related to every aspect of this article. I was exposed to this mindset through tone of my beloved grandmothers in the South. Fast forwarding, I have often wondered if my spiritual sister’s son has a mental disposition as oppose to autism. He can master and secure a role in commercials but rebounds to the autistic characteristics. What’s interesting is that he knows when his Mother is fed up with his activity and reaches for the “normal” teenage demeanor. His mother has and continues to provide the most exceptional care and classroom support.
    Early on, he was told about his condition being autistic. He googled it and seemingly aligned with the definitions and behavioral patterns.
    Needlessly to say, I’m as hopeful as is his exhausted Mother that one day he will “grow out of it.”
    Please let me know if you have any insight in this regard and/or a contact in this regard. [email protected]

    • Autism is not mental it’s neurological. It is not something one “Grows out of” I have 19 years experience working with Children with Autism. Your friends son sounds like he is highly functioning within his autism.
      Many gifts can come with Autism. Sometimes it may seem like the individual is obsessed with a particular something. For example I worked with one 9 year old boy who knew and understood intense scientific information about the solar system. Anything we could think of to ask him He new the compexities of it. It was his personal focus and it is what made him happy. In order to get him to function in a school setting we had to do certain sensory things to help his nervous system like brushing his arms and legs. Like providing a compression best to squeeze him. Allowing him to wear noise cancellation headphones because he could hear the noise electricity makes when it is going through a wire or a lightbulb. If we met these sensory needs and provided an outlet for the overflow into behaviors then he could function. And on his own time he was able to pursue his interests with advanced autodydactyl skills and the drive of a true scholar. Its like the autistic brain specializes in something and the nervous system is overly sensitive but settles and aligns when that person focuses on whatever it is that they focus well on. In another little girl I work with it is anatomy. I’m convinced she is going to grow up and be a magnificent specilized physician. But if she did not have the proper supports provided to her she would not be functioning like she is. Her behavior was completely feral before she began working with me. Knowing how to help her communicate, how to identify her feelings, how to even understand what feelings are in the first place, how to access what she needs and how to meet those needs has opened the world to her. The supports are daily and they are worth it. She is amazing. Your friends son is amazing too. I’m sure of it and I don’t even know anything about him. Very person I meet with Autism whether low or high functioning is absolutely amazing. It is It takes the right stuff to help them show through. What is your friends sons personal gift or specialization that he is displaying a tendency towards? Each one has a gift. Each one is a gift. Autism isn’t a mental disorder. With that being said their sensitivity to stimuli is very much heightened. So they may also be more sensitive to spirits as well. All the more reason to accept them and help them filter What they need to and embrace what they need to.

  15. This might explain why it is that I find going for a long walk in the woods weekly seems to rein in my depression. And a once a year backpacking trip into the mountains. Otherwise my neurologist and my PCP want me on meds. I keep refusing. Maybe I need to bring back a rock.

  16. Where can I get help from a Shaman in Tucson AZ? I have a family member I believe going through this. I want to help him everyone believes he’s just mentally ill and he’s being medicated. Anywhere in AZ I could contact ?

  17. Love this article, I can not say that I have a mental illness, but I do deal with PTSD. Childhood trauma in the extreme. I have done a lot of work, never went on meds even though the therapist all insisted. Also I never could afford to keep going to therapy and as I grew I found they really could not help me any longer. Then I started meditation and this along with a whole lot of personal work and body work, tinctures and homeopathic s I healed slowly. For the last 10 years I have gone through what I call the “Dark night of the soul” It was awful and beautiful at the same time. I recognize how incredibly fortunate I am to have witness this in myself. Gratitude is the constant word that comes to mind to describe my state these days.
    10 years ago I did not know if I would continue to live, I had gotten so incredibly depressed through loss of everything. But something kicked in (spirit) and this side of me asked me to fight for my clarity, for my strength, my soul. So I did. So much to say on this. So much has happened and still is happening. Most of my life I know I have had assistance from the other side, when I was little about 6 or 7 ? I was visited by a spirit/ghost I believe now it came to me then to give me protection (my extreme abusive childhood) but also wisdom, courage and knowing how to find truth. My intuition has always been strong, has always let me know pretty fast how to read a danger. Yes I tested this many times. Like I said so much to say and I would really love to be involved in this conversation. Blessings

  18. Thank You Greatly..I have thought this my entire life as I have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, panic, and agrophobia..now in my 40’s .. I can now begin to delve into my more spiritual side and be allowed to gain insights into that side of my family gifts..this article resonates with me from the first paragraph!! Someone has finally seen mental health as I have..an opening to another realm or reality. Struggling in the western approach I have been able to connect with other folks who help guide and validate my beliefs. Something extremely hard to do in this society!!!!

  19. I have major depression and anxiety with periodic social thought. It went un diagnosed until I was 35 but I had felt this way since 10 or so. Through trying to deal with it I became an addict and alcoholic. I went to rehab and have been clean for 4 months. The medication I’m on seemed to work at first, now just feels like a bandaid. I have always felt a connection with the spiritual realm and have recieved messages before. Help? Where can I go out look to for help? Where can I find these shamanic rituals? What can I do?

  20. I agree with allot of these theories. I have been labeled bipolar since I was 16. I know I have high senses and the medicine I take does block allot. I wish I had someone like this who could help me too. Thank you for the information.

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