Ancient solutions: The shamanic view of mental illness – The Vermilion

Posted: February 4, 2020 at 9:55 am


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Disclaimer: This article does not attempt in any way, shape or form to diagnose or recommend treatment for any emerging mental illnesses or symptoms of mental illness, nor is the goal of this article to discredit any form of treatment. If you are experiencing severe symptoms or struggling with a mental illness, talk to your friends and family about the issue and find a doctor, hospital or treatment plan that works best for you. Never ignore your symptoms.

The world of medicine is an ever-evolving practice. While today we have relatively secure access to hospitals and a plethora of refined drugs at hand, many of these found their origins in home remedies, sometimes referred to as folk medicine." Tradition and cultural knowledge set important precedents, while the scientific evidence arrives much, much later. Here in Acadiana, you may have heard of the existence of traiteurs: healers who utilize a combination of prayer, knowledge of herbal medicine and a gift passed down through their bloodlines allowing them to interact with illness on a physical and metaphysical (or spiritual) level.

There is evidence of this phenomenon of emerging healers all across the world, finding roots in the most ancient and ancestral parts of various civilizations. Names differ across the globe, but many are described as shamans: individuals who are able to connect to the physical and spiritual worlds. Honing these spiritual abilities is often a traumatic experience, and without the proper guidance and training, it may result in insanity.

Common symptoms of individuals who may eventually claim to have these gifts are strange visions and dreams, hearing voices and unusual behaviors, often defined by Western medicine as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or psychosis.

These very symptoms are similar to those exhibited by various religious figures throughout time. For example, Jesus is said to have fasted for 40 days in the desert, and now extreme fasting may have links to episodes of psychosis.

One man committed to aiding the emergence of these gifts and changing the perception of them in Western medical practices, Malidoma Patrice Som, Ph.D., a West African shaman.

Som first came to the United States in 1980 for graduate study, and has since gone on to earn three masters degrees and two doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University. When a fellow student was sent to a mental institute due to nervous depression, Som went to visit him. He was shocked with how mental illness was treated. In an email to Jayson Gaddis, who compiled some of Soms expertise in an article titled The Shamanic View of Mental Illness," Som writes:

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 Ive seen in my village.

It didnt make sense to Som that treatment plans were based on pathology, the idea that the symptoms of the condition need to stop, the complete opposite of how his culture views such a situation. The patients in straitjackets zoned out on medications and screaming disturbed him. Som thought 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.

According to Som, a healer has high-voltage energy.

When it is blocked, it just burns up the person. Its 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 theyre put into a straitjacket. Thats a sad image.

In the tradition of the Dagara people, Soms native roots, treatment involves integration of these energies so that the healer is able to accept their gift or charge. Som has observed that a commonality amongst patients with 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. Ritual plays an important role in this integration.

One ritual that Som describes 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.

Ancestors play an important role in the emergence of a spiritual healer; the West suffers from what Som details as a mass turning-of-the-back on ancestors. Some of the spirits trying to come through may be ancestors who want to merge with a descendant in an attempt to heal what they werent able to do while in their physical body.

Soms approach has gone on to help numerous people. In an article published in the Washington Post by Dick Russel entitled How a West African shaman helped my schizophrenic son in a way Western medicine couldnt," Russel describes the journey of his son Franklin, who began exhibiting an increase in psychotic symptoms that were associated with the onset of schizophrenia. After trying numerous medications and hospitals for his son, Russell found himself reading a book by Canadian evolutionary psychiatrist Joseph Polimeni, Ph.D., called Shamans Among Us, which theorized that schizophrenics are a modern manifestation of prehistoric tribal shamans. Russell details in his article: This spoke to me because, amid what appeared to be delusional ramblings, Frank had an uncanny ability to tune in to what I was thinking.

After a trip to Africa to undergo various rituals and later receiving advice and assistance from Som, Franklin went from having difficulty emerging from his room to going back to technical school for mechanical engineering, taking classes in gymnastics, boxing, skating, and participating in music and art therapy.

Russel writes: Franks mother and I have kept seeking connection with our ancestors through meditative rituals, which has made a difference in our own lives as well. These experiences, rather than taking Frank further out there, have had a grounding effect.

Franklin still lives in a group home and takes medication, but the improvement cant be ignored. Russell also cites studies done by the World Health Organization comparing schizophrenia outcomes in the U.S. and Europe with poorer nations like Nigeria and India, where only 16% of patients regularly take antipsychotic medications.

He writes: In one study, nearly two-thirds of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia in developing countries had good outcomes after two years, compared to only 37 percent in wealthier nations where drugs are the standard of care.

Scholarship regarding this phenomenon isnt limited to Som or Polimeni. A journal published through the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of Adam Mickiewicz University by Danuta Penkala-Gawecka called Mentally ill or chosen by spirits? Shamanic illness and the revival of Kazakh traditional medicine in post-Soviet Kazakhstan describes these very same symptoms amongst people who are revered as healers there.

Like Som describes, the article details that these symptoms of shamanic illness represented a person chosen by the ancestor spirits to act as a bridge between earth and heaven.

The things they were feeling and hearing were entering the liminal phase of the rite of passage. Like the traiteurs of Acadiana, older folk beliefs were combined with newer ones; the shamans and spiritual healers of Kazakhstan utilize prayers from the Quran and supplications to Allah and saints in their practice.

Despite what you may believe about the supernatural and the otherworldly, the evidence that there are other, older ways to help people exhibiting these symptoms has been seen throughout history. There is a growing resurgence of folk remedies and treatments. People, especially black people, have been wanting to return to these ancient ways to reconnect with their ancestors, history, and in turn, themselves. With Latino Americans (24%) and African American (25%) persons diagnosed with psychotic disorder in significantly higher rates as compared to White Americans (18%), maybe its time to reframe how we think of these mental illnesses and perhaps even allow these emerging healers to answer the call.

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Ancient solutions: The shamanic view of mental illness - The Vermilion

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February 4th, 2020 at 9:55 am