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. “Mental disorder, behavioural disorder of all kinds, signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field,” says Dr. Somé. These disturbances result when the person does not get assistance in dealing with the presence of the energy from the spirit realm.
Needless to say, that when Dr. Some visited the United States to get a medical degree, he was shocked by the perceptions of mental illness in America. “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.”
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. For the shamanic view of the world the ‘disorder’ needs to be met with kindness and compassion. This is fortified around the belief that a new ‘spirit healer’ is being born through the energies of the apparent disorder.
Western culture obviously does not look at it this way. “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.” These were his instinctive thoughts.
Another way of looking at this is that the Western world refuses to acknowledge the existence of psychic phenomena. Some psychologists call this a ‘technocratic society’.
This could also imply that the West with its focus on the philosophy of rationalism has forgotten how to deal with the inherently irrational and the instinctual energies which stem from primeval places in the human psyche. Indeed, the human psyche is seen as something which needs to be controlled or disciplined. It’s not a coincidence that philosophers have started to see through this paradigm by studying the ways in which mental clinics were used to reinforce certain societal expectations.
On 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.
What this means is that the Dagara attempt to reconcile their society and their community around the afflicted individual to ease their pain together. It is an organic worldview where an individual (and his demons) are to be accepted and faced together as a community. That’s why the concept of separating them from society as ‘disordered’ and in need of ‘fixing’ will not make sense them.
“The other world’s relationship with our world is one of sponsorship,” Dr. Somé explains. “Often 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.”
Yet somehow the irony is that the mainstream considers the dominant (and dominating) culture of the increasingly lonely and disillusioned West as the only ‘civilized’ way to exist.