In the past decade, the awareness around mental health has torpedoed. The effects of everything from technology and social media to the pandemic have many Western psychologists both alarmed, and transfixed, by the burgeoning rates of mental health crises.
But theirs is only one perspective.
In other parts of the world, spiritual healers known as shamans see the same symptoms as a crisis, yes, but one of the spirit. While these views may induce skepticism, there are many testaments to their power to heal that which the West calls incurable. Furthermore, they offer a unique viewpoint to the ongoing considerations of what is really happening when a person suffers a mental health crisis.
A Shaman’s View of Mental Health
Defining What Isn’t Fully Understood
When you think of mental health, what words come to mind? Names of a few popular conditions? Buzz phrases like “burnout,” or “postpartum depression?” Like the Big Bang Theory, even psychologists cannot affirmatively answer the question of the root causes of the most pervasive mental health diagnoses.
The interesting thing about naming a collection of observations is that that you run the risk of not seeing the whole picture. How does one accurately define that which is not fully understood? And how can one heal when one does not truly know what they are dealing with?
If you were to ask a shaman—or any astute scientist—they would tell you plainly: you can’t. You can only treat what you observe. And you can only observe what you can see or sense.
The Ones Who See
Shaman has a myriad of definitions. The understanding that best encompasses the diversity of shamanic traditions (which are found on every inhabited continent) is “one who sees and senses into various realms.”
This is a very loose, over-generalized definition that attempts to both honor and encapsulate the specificities we cannot begin to comprehend from outside the culture. Yet, this definition is comprehensive enough to convey that shamans see more than what appears to the naked (untrained) eye.
It seems that every culture the world over knew that these seers were necessary for times such as the one we are experiencing in the West.
How You Speak It Is How You See It
When I first read Of Water and the Spirit by Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé, I was intrigued by this statement:
In the culture of my people, the Dagara, we have no word for the supernatural. The closest we come to this concept is Yielbongura, ‘the thing that knowledge can’t eat.’ … In Western reality, there is a clear split between the spiritual and the material, between religious life and secular life. This concept is alien to the Dagara. For us, as for many indigenous cultures, the supernatural is part of our everyday lives.
For the first time, I began to investigate the connection between how we say it and how we see it. New language gives new eyes. And new eyes offer a new sight that might be the missing piece to the mental health puzzle.
Not Sick, Just Awakening
The human brain can process 11 billion bits of information per second. Of that, only 40 to 50 of those bits are available to the conscious mind. While psychologists are trained to trace the root cause of symptoms to genetic predispositions, hormonal orchestrations and neurotransmitter levels, shamans can see the reconfigurations in an individual’s capacity to process information.
Consider what happens when someone’s conscious mind suddenly has access to 300 or two million bits of information rather than the usual 40 or 50? Well, it might look like hearing voices or drastic mood swings. It could lead to someone feeling as though they can literally feel the pain of the entire world.
And while it may be difficult to conceptualize, it could be worthwhile to ask, what is happening in a mental health crisis that we are neither conditioned to see nor linguistically equipped to articulate?
A Shaman’s Take
Shamans see mental health as the fruit of spiritual wellbeing. And just like nature, that fruit is dynamic. It shifts with the environment and the needs therein. When someone suffers a psychosis, it is considered a condition of the spirit, not the mind.
And this is fitting; after all, the word psyche has Latin roots meaning “animating spirit, the human spirit or mind.” Over time, the definition became enmeshed with the modern concept of mind, which is loosely defined as how the biological brain operates.
From the shamanic perspective, however, one who is suffering any form of psychosis—no matter how minute or great—is experiencing a spiritual breakthrough. They could also be being initiated into becoming a great healer, medium or channel for their community. Yet, if the signs aren’t rightly read, then these episodes remain pathologized, and healing (resolution) never happens.
A Shaman Visits An American Asylum
When Dr. Somé first came to the United States to complete his doctoral studies, he visited a fellow colleague who was placed in a mental ward. He was astounded to see how the people there were being “treated.” He thought to himself, “So THIS is what they do with all their healers.”
In his eyes, the symptoms being displayed were normal; the treatment of these symptoms were not. This perspective offered a great opportunity for him to share his cultural gifts with the West.
One such case involved a man’s son who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After being treated with all the usual prescriptions, his father tried something different: a shaman. And the results were remarkable.
You can read more of his story here.
The Danger In “Normal”
You may wonder if the shaman cured the man. If by “cure” you mean eradicating all his symptoms, No. That’s the way of the West. But if by “cure” you mean heal—which is to bring into harmony with nature within and around—then, Yes. This is the way of the shaman.
The truth is nature is full of mutations that usually prove to be useful evolutionary adaptations. What if mental health crises are the same? What if these crises are a response to the change in our environment, societal pressure, etc.?
The danger in clinging to “normal” is that it leaves no room to consider that which we don’t see. And as you can tell from the average brain’s’ functioning, we miss quite a bit.
Najwa Immanuel is a freelance writer and modern-day medicine woman based on the East Coast, USA. Her moments are spent studying the energetics of wellness, tending her Substack newsletter, Extraordinary Moments, Everyday Miracles and midwifing persons birthing everything from babies to businesses.