6 of 9 – Religion, Spirituality and Psychiatry
By Marlyse Carroll
(Author of ‘Am I Going Mad? The Unsettling Phenomena of Spiritual Evolution’ – www.amigoingmad.com.au)
Let us now turn to the most common danger on the spiritual path. The risk of being mistaken for a mentally ill person, because of the unusual phenomena linked to spiritual experiences.
Spirituality vs Religion
There are major differences between spirituality and religion.
Spirituality is essentially a private and personal affair. It is based on direct experiences of the sacred dimensions of reality. These non-ordinary experiences do not need an appointed place, a specific ritual or a mediator to occur. The only temple required is our own body, and nature tends to play an important role in our connection to the sacred.
On the other hand, organised religion involves dogma, rituals, designated locations and appointed officials who speak on behalf of God, whether they have had numinous experiences or not. As a rule, they usually discourage direct spiritual experiences in their followers.1
Mainstream psychiatry does not make any difference between religion and lay spirituality. Nor does it acknowledge the existence of a ‘collective unconscious’ and invisible energetic systems (chakras, meridians, acupuncture points & Kundalini) relevant to health and consciousness.
Unlike Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic traditions, Western medicine follows a model limited to biology, postnatal biography and the Freudian individual unconscious.2
That’s why spiritual experiences that involve transpersonal material are considered delusional and symptomatic of a sick mind. For most doctors, unusual experiences need to be suppressed, whether the person experiencing them is in a state of crisis or not. This belief system obviously leads to diagnoses of mental illness and scripts for mind-altering drugs.
A matter of perspective
The mental health field has a long history of pathologizing spiritual experiences and religion.
For instance, Dr Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), the father of modern psychiatry, described religion as “A system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else…but in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion.” Freud also reduced the “oceanic experience” of unitive consciousness to “infantile helplessness” and a “regression to primary narcissism”3
Decades later, the 1976 report ‘Mysticism: Spiritual Quest or Psychic Disturbance’ by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) followed Freud’s lead in defining religion as a regression, an escape, a projection upon the world of a primitive infantile state.
Those conclusions are still representative of the general psychiatric mindset in the Western world.
Another highly influential professional in the field of mental health is Albert Ellis PhD (1913 – 2007), the creator of Rational Emotive Therapy. His approach is now widely used in cognitive-behavioural therapies. In a 2001 interview, Ellis stated: “Spirit and soul is horseshit of the worst sort. Obviously there are no fairies, no Santa Clauses, no spirits. What there is, is human goals and purposes… But a lot of transcendentalists are utter screwballs”3
Apart from Jung and a handful of other doctors, who stand apart from their colleagues, most other influential psychiatrists of the twentieth century chose to follow Freud or ignore the topic of spirituality in their writings. Despite this, research shows that, in their practices, all of them are repeatedly faced with psycho-spiritual issues3.
It is of course just as short-sighted to view every unusual experience as being psychotic as it is to view every symptom of mental illness as a sign of spiritual evolution. There are many genuine cases of mental illness which call for psychiatric treatment and for which neuroleptic drugs might offer great benefits.
In Am I Going Mad?, you’ll find an in-depth exploration of the major differences between madness and transcendence. In this article, we’ll just mention the main one.
Madness vs Transcendance
Let us quote Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the great American mythology professor who explained the main difference between madness and transcendence with the following metaphor:
“The difference – to put it sharply – is equivalent to that between a diver who can swim and one who cannot. The mystic, endowed with native talents for this sort of thing and following, stage by stage, the instructions of a master, enters the waters and finds he can swim; whereas the schizophrenic, unprepared, unguided, and ungifted, has fallen or has intentionally plunged, and is drowning,
What I am saying is that our schizophrenic patient is actually experiencing inadvertently that same beatific ocean deep within that the yogi and saint are ever striving to enjoy; except that, whereas they are swimming in it, he is drowning.”4
Swimming or drowning
Unfortunately, this difference is rarely recognised by medical practitioners. So an ever-increasing number of healthy and sane individuals who experience visual, auditory or kinaesthetic phenomena linked to spiritual evolution, receive a standard pharmacological treatment.
According to Dr John E. Nelson, psychiatrist and author of the book ‘Healing the Split’, this can be highly detrimental to their long-term mental health. It can result in permanent damage to the personality because psychotropic drugs freeze the unfinished process.5
Medical suppression can also foster long-term dependence on medication, not to mention the stigma attached to a psychotic label.
Some mainstream psychiatrists acknowledge transpersonal and mystical experiences as valid signs of growth. They are able to help their patients by normalising their experiences rather than suppressing them chemically.
But many don’t, because the official tool of diagnosis available to Western psychiatrists, the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder’ (DSM) doesn’t either.
The ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
for Mental Disorder’
First, a bit of history.
The American Psychiatric Association was formed around 1840.
Until 1850, there was only one dysfunctional condition: insanity.
From then on, psychiatry developed out of the observation of behaviours deemed as abnormal. So characteristics of unusual thoughts and/or behaviours started to be viewed and treated as pathological symptoms.
By 1880, American doctors recognised seven categories of mental disorders: mania, melancholia, monomania (irrationality when discussing subjects), pareses (syphilitic brain condition), dementia, dipsomania (alcoholism) and epilepsy.
Since then, the range of symptoms – meaning thoughts, attitudes and behaviours perceived as abnormal and therefore needing medical treatment – has expanded dramatically. As a result, the number of recognised mental illnesses has also increased accordingly.
In 1952, the first ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders’ (DSM I) was published in the United States of America and identified 112 different disorders. This important document aimed at unifying the diagnosis of mental illnesses and is widely used throughout the world.
Since then, the DSM has been upgraded four times. DSM-4 was released in 1994 and classified 374 pathological conditions.
The latest one, DSM-5 was released in May 2013 amongst much controversy, and has added another 15 categories of mental conditions requiring treatment. Amongst others, these include hoarding and caffeine withdrawal.
For more detailed information, check Wikipedia DSM-5.
In 1991, to redress the lack of sensitivity to religious and spiritual problems, a small group of psychiatrists proposed a new diagnostic category to the task force preparing the fourth edition of the DSM.
The proposal aimed at depathologizing a range of psycho-religious and psycho-spiritual experiences. The intention of its three authors was to impress on other psychiatrists that “individuals in the midst of a tumultuous spiritual experience (a ‘spiritual emergency’) may appear to have a mental disorder if viewed out of context, but are actually undergoing a ‘normal reaction’ which warrants a non-pathological diagnosis (i.e., a V Code for a condition not attributable to a mental disorder)”.3
After much work, their proposal read:
‘Psycho-religious problems are experiences that a person finds troubling or distressing and that involve the beliefs and practices of an organized church or religious institution. Examples include loss or questioning of a firmly held faith, change in denominational membership, conversion to a new faith, and intensification of adherence to religious practices and orthodoxy.
Psycho-spiritual problems are experiences that a person finds troubling or distressing and that involve that person’s relationship with a transcendent being or force. These problems are not necessarily related to the beliefs and practices of an organized church or religious institution. Examples include near-death experience and mystical experience. This category can be used when the focus of treatment or diagnosis is a psycho-religious or psycho-spiritual problem that is not attributable to a mental disorder.’3
In January 1993, the DSM-4 task force accepted the proposal but shortened it and modified its authors’ original definition, to read:
“Religious or Spiritual Problem: This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of other spiritual values which may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution.”6
This one paragraph in a document spanning many hundreds of pages is the extent of the recognition given by mainstream psychiatry to the normalcy of psycho-spiritual experiences.
As for DSM-5, it seems that its spiritual paradigms follow the same criteria.
Personally, as the author of a book about the most misunderstood aspects of spiritual evolution (Am I Going Mad? The Unsettling Phenomena of Spiritual Evolution), I find this interpretation distressing. I know with absolute certainty that many sane people are unnecessarily medicated and suffer greatly.
In fact, more and more people are labelled as schizophrenic or considered to be at risk. In some countries their free choice around medication is steadily eroding.
To me, it’s a tragic situation. Not only do millions of individuals have to live with the stigma attached to such a label, they also experience a sense of loss for aborting their spiritual evolution. On top of that, they have to deal on a daily basis with the unpleasant side-effects of psychotropic drugs.
loss is what dies inside us while we live.
As explored in other articles of this series, spiritual crises benefit from being treated naturally. In most cases, a supportive environment, cognitive therapies and bodywork lead to integration.
Other spiritual crises
The risk of being misdiagnosed as mentally ill during a spiritual awakening isn’t the only time it can happen along the spiritual path. Because some people have a tough time further down the track as well.
In a way, it’s similar to the ups and downs of some intimate relationships!
Let’s say we’ve had some powerful spiritual experiences and have integrated them successfully. Ego and Self have met and enjoyed a great honeymoon. Will they live happily together forever after? Well, in most cases, much more happens before partners settle into a harmonious long-term relationship – the ‘sacred marriage’ of ancient philosophers.
Keep reading! The next possible crisis is called Spiritual Regression.
- Grof S. ‘Psychology of the Future’, 2000, page 211
- Grof S. ‘Psychology of the Future’, 2000, pages 17-19
- Campbell J. ‘Myths to live by’, pages 215-216, 226
- Nelson J, ‘Healing the Split’, 1994, page 406
- American Psychiatric Association, DMS IV, 1994, p. 685
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