In 2014 Stephanie Marohn interviewed Malidoma Somé, a West African shaman of the ancient Dagara tradition, for an article that quickly went viral, “What a Shaman Sees in a Mental Hospital.” It looks deeply at spiritual emergency, that is, when a person is overwhelmed and disoriented by spiritual experiences. He asserted that people diagnosed as mentally ill need a very different form of care than what is available today in mental hospitals. Malidoma suggested that many who experience spiritual emergency are healers and mediums in need of training, instead of psychiatric medications.
“Unless the relationship between the living and the dead is in balance, chaos ensues.”—Malidoma Somé
Why is this important? Consider Bipolar: Each year bipolar disorder affects about 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6% of the U.S. population 18 and older, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is recognized as a mental illness that causes intense mood shifts from depression to mania and negatively affects a person’s ability to function at work, manage a home, or be a successful student. It is estimated that nearly thirty percent of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives. The suicide rate for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder is twenty times that of the general population. It is one of the ten leading causes of disability in the US and the world. Malidoma believes that many with bipolar symptoms are psychic and in search for the ideal way to use their psychic abilities. Their search to manage their experiences and hone their abilities must be met with qualified training.
Malidoma Somé’s Perception of Mental Patients:
In 1987 I became friends with Malidoma Somé, a shaman of the Dagara tradition of Burkino Faso, West Africa. After visiting a mental ward Malidoma remarked that it seems that most people who are given labels of serious mental disorders in the USA are sensitives who need training and support to become the healers and psychic mediums they are meant to be. He perceives that a highly sensitive person is picking up all kinds of energies—like a radio receiver that is open on so many channels simultaneously that it cannot deliver one clear message. Instead, the sensitive delivers what it picks up and that can be a tumult of conflicting ideas, feelings, and impulses, interpreted by the medical profession as symptoms of psychosis. Malidoma offers this assessment:
“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. Mental disorders, 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.” —Malidoma Somé
Malidoma Suggests What Can Help:
- Supportive community and fellowship with others who accept the person as they are and recognize they have a unique message to offer. The community actually helps a person reconcile the energies of the ordinary world and the world of the spirits, so that their potential as a healer or medium can be manifested.
- Energy work to clear the subtle body of extraneous energies that are not helpful, and to align the person with the positive energies that need to come forth.
- Training from shamans and elders who can help the person become deliberate about what they tune into. Think of a radio with a “tuner” control to get us to the channel we seek. Some spirits are trying to get through to the person to help them. Other energies need to be tuned out so the beneficial spirit messages can come through unobstructed.
- Rituals are essential. They can safely structure reconnection with the natural world, ancestors who seek attention, and spirits who want to help the person become a healer. Malidoma has created various rituals for our culture to assist in making and maintaining these connections.
Respect for the Full Expanse of Issues
It is not just the spirit world we need to honor in managing spiritual emergency. Not all disturbances come from the spirit world. If someone is out of balance, or emotionally disturbed, there may be other factors involved that need attention, too. The best of care includes teamwork with holistic medical doctors, nutritionists, social workers, and psychotherapists. Here are some reasons why:
- Physical imbalance, e.g. a tumor in the brain, can cause emotional disturbance. Lack of nutrition or micronutrients can cause emotional disturbance. A physically toxic environment can cause emotional disturbance. Thus, clinical assessments with those keenly aware of nutritional components of mental health are an important part of assessment and treatment.
- In our modern world we do not have the close connections of tribal membership that are a safe container for those who become imbalanced. Family and community life have become fractured; they offer less stability. We have more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that come from neglect or abuse by parental figures. We are struggling with racial prejudice, misogyny, and food insecurity. The effects of these psycho-social traumas need to be reckoned with, as they are also components of mental disturbance.
Knowledge of our psychic connections with spirits and the skills to deal with those connections in an empowering way need to be added to mental health care. Over 100 years ago William James, MD, considered to be the father of American psychology, collaborated with researchers of psychic phenomena. He said we must research psychic phenomena and consider it as having a vital role in the challenges of being human. This message is still a faint echo in today’s research and practices within psychology.
…”in the West (we) are not trained in how to deal 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.” —Malidoma Somé
May this blog help to further James’ message and the wisdom of the Dagara. May it empower those who don’t belong in categories of mental illness but are the would-be healers seeking to serve our communities.
Emma Bragdon, PhD, is the author of 7 books and co-producer of two documentary films on the relationship between spirituality and health. She teaches online courses on “How to Effectively Support Someone in Spiritual Emergency” and trains and certifies “Spiritual Emergence Coaches®”. She is currently raising money to produce films to educate healthcare providers and the general public about spiritual emergency. IMHU.org, EmmaBragdon.com
Malidoma Somé can be reached through his website, malidoma.com. He teaches widely and continues to offer personal consultations. He is also the author of several books that illuminate his wisdom about shamanic initiation, ritual and community.