“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ~Jiddu Krishnamurti
Out of the Shadows: When Spiritual Emergency was a Mental Illness
I recall driving with my parents past the “Danvers Lunatic Hospital“ that loomed dark and mysterious up on the hill in Danvers, MA. Such institutions where the result of an institutional model for mental health hospitals based on the Kirkbride Plan, which advocated to have these asylums located in the country. From the Kirkbride Plan: “While the hospital itself should be retired and its privacy fully secured, it is desirable that the views from it should exhibit life in its active forms, and on this account stirring objects at a little distance are desirable.” In other words, lock the lunatics up but let them see nature, and hide it all from view, which is why I did not see my mother’s friend Alice come to “club” for some time. When I asked why, I heard the ladies who were housewives in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s whisper “poor thing, she had another nervous breakdown.” I was intensely curious about this.
While at Connecticut College in the early 1970’s, several friends were carted off in straight jackets to Yale New Haven Hospital, most never to be seen again. Usually, it was prompted by a “bad” LSD trip, though it seems only the really sad people with difficult family relationships had very bad trips. The propaganda about LSD causing people to become psychotic was rampant at that time, while a decade earlier, the use of LSD had been one of the most highly acclaimed methods of psychotherapy. I was intensely curious about this.
I was working in my first mental health job in 1975, fresh out of college, running a home for previously institutionalized kids with disabilities, when I watched the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I felt outraged, and thoughts of going to school for psychiatry fell away. I wanted no part of a system that treated people like Nurse Ratched who has become a cultural meme for sadistic mental health treatment.
Today, having worked as a psychotherapist for 30 years, what I do know is that the notion of mental illness now has risen out of the rubble of a time when mental illness was only whispered about, and patients were put in restraints, and whisked away, given pre-frontal lobotomy, and often left to die in the dark back rooms of “lunatic asylums.”
It’s time to both take mental illness out of those dark shadows, and understand what it truly is—-a breakdown in the capacity to remain connected to others who care. It is a form of collective trance that we need to wake up about, both in how we see it and how we treat those who are affected.
Mass Entitlement and the Trance
I cannot say for sure that life today is more difficult than it was a generation ago, or whether the wireless world has helped humanity or not. One of the dark sides of our lightning-speed digital world is that people have become accustomed to a strange new belief that we should be able to have whatever we want, when we want it, which is a form of insanity of another kind, and has contributed to the belief that a pill can solve a deep problem. The virtue of patience becomes forgotten in most circles now, as we strive to get more and more done.
We now have a case of mass entitlement that comes from falling into the trance of unconsciousness, and believing that the things we are grasping for will actually fill the emptiness in our hearts. And the things we are grasping for are substitutes for real connection, being seen, heard, and understood for who we really are. And it’s not happening enough, because parents are stretched to the max and struggling to keep up. The nuclear family has become explosive in so many cases, and the use of electronic devises is interfering in the emotional development of children.
Statistics show that more and more people, both young and old, have become dreadfully disillusioned with the prospect of being a part of a society that has forgotten how to truly care. The number of adults, ages 18 to 65, on the federal disability rolls due to mental illness jumped from 1.25 million in 1987 to four million in 2007. Roughly one in every 45 working-age adults is now on government disability due to mental illness. 1987 was the year that Prozac was introduced.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2011 that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades. Anti-depressants are the most frequently-used class of drugs by Americans ages 18-44 years, and in 2008, 23% of women ages 40–59 years were taking antidepressants.
In previous generations, young people acted crazy to successfully avoid military service, but most young people today who are diagnosed and treated for mental illness are not trying to dodge the draft. They have been conditioned to adapt and adjust and comply with boring and unsafe schools, meaningless jobs, and a sterile and alienating society in which we are no longer told the truth by leaders, our food supply is contaminated, our environment is in crisis, our healthcare system obscenely inadequate, and many are losing friends to an opiate epidemic. Only if we were not human, would we not end up feeling anxious, depressed, and unable to function—-but we are—human. We have limbic systems that cause us to have soft underbellies and to feel deep psychic pain when faced with a hopeless situation.
Here is what Bruce Levine—a psychologist and outspoken activist who speaks out on the Big Pharma corruption of psychiatry, has to say in an article entitled Why the Rise of Mental Illness? Pathologizing Normal, Adverse Drug Effects and a Peculiar Rebellion– when earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, ass-kissing, shit-eating, and being inauthentic. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness.”
Let us see this peculiar rebellion for what it is these days—a collective spiritual emergency,oozing from the wound of neglect to the human Soul.
The Spiritual Emergency that never went away
When a societal problem grows to become all-encompassing and intrinsic to the narrative of culture, we often no longer even notice it. For instance, the escalating divorce leads many to lament what is happening to the family, when the real question needs to be what the modern family really looks like and how that new reality can be supported. There are more and more single-parent and same-sex parent families, and there’s not much help unless you are fortunate to live near family you get along with—and there is less and less of that.
There was a government shutdown about the US-Mexican border wall, putting so many families under stress, while the opioid epidemic escalates, creating the need for more medications by Big Pharma. The real truth is that there are Ibogaine clinics in Mexico that save lives by totally detoxing people safely, and removing the cravings that lead them back to use. They have a team of doctors, therapists and spiritual teachers to help clients at the deeper levels. This is only available to U.S. citizens who have the financial means to afford such treatment. The real question is not about a wall, but why we don’t have such treatment available to everyone in the US, including the deeper emotional and spiritual work that is needed for recovery.
I recall the words of two of my earliest mentors, Stanislav and Christina Grof, who declared what was happening in the 1970’s and ‘80’s as “spiritual emergencies,” referring to the increasing numbers of people involved in personal transformation who were experiencing crises as the process of growth and change became chaotic and overwhelming.
In Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes A Crisis, in 1989, Christina writes: “….some of the dramatic experiences and unusual states of mind that traditional psychiatry diagnoses and treats as mental diseases are actually crises of personal transformation, or ‘spiritual emergencies.’ When these states of mind are properly understood and treated supportively rather than suppressed by standard psychiatric routines, they can be healing and have very beneficial effects on the people who experience them.”
During the ‘80’s and ‘90’s I participated in one intense deep dive after the other, in large personal growth groups where we were encouraged, and at times shamed into exposing deep dark secrets that we had been carrying around for years. Men would begin the week having mustaches and beards and leave clean-shaven—a sign that the mask was off.
One particularly fervent group ended the week with a talent show in which participants were encouraged to throw caution to the wind. One person after the other who had never sung in public stepped onto the stage and belted out their favorite song with wild abandon, or danced a sexy strip tease that blew everyone away. My normally reserved German husband sang and danced out “Born In The USA” by Bruce Springsteen and had all the women climbing onto the stage!!!!
We roared and clapped for one another, oblivious to the shadow of such ecstasy. One woman peed on the stage, and a particularly large woman stepped onto the stage stark naked, and stood there triumphant. She ended up in a psychiatric ward the following week. There was a madness to this for sure, but the hunger to be seen for real was so great.
Now, 30 years later, we are in the midst of a collective spiritual emergency, which was never fully addressed when it was first identified, and is happening to people who have not necessarily chosen a conscious path of growth and transformation.
In fact, the explosion of new diagnoses and the drugs to treat them took off in the late 80’s and 90’s, as did the internet, and the quick fixes were made available to a willing public who had been convinced by advertisement that there was something wrong with their brains that a pill could fix.
The work of the Grofs revealed that within the crisis of individual spiritual emergency lies the promise of spiritual emergence and renewal, and that is still true today. The solution is still the same and goes back to the personal imperative for each of us to connect to who we truly are, and to be loved and accepted by a community.
It is also true that within the present collective spiritual emergency lies the promise of the emergence of new solutions to the increasing suffering of so many. We must look far deeper than the labels and diagnoses of mental illness to tap into the layers of pain that lead to the symptoms, if we are to truly attend to this crisis
The deeper layers
Is the state of mental health in America actually worse, or are we simply diagnosing disorders that were once unknown? Are millennials actually more depressed than the generations that lived through two world wars or the boomers? There are no simple answers, and the most common explanations for the mental illness epidemic include over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, diagnostic expansionism thanks to the DSM, and the pathologizing of normal behavior by psychiatry.
What is mental illness? One of the challenges with quantifying the rate of mental health problems over time comes from a lack of clarity as to what it actually is. When the magazine Wired interviewed Dr. Allen Frances, the lead editor of the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, otherwise known as the “psychiatric bible,” Frances’ said “There is no definition of a mental disorder. It’s bullshit. I mean, you just can’t define it.”
Frances along with countless other experts have rebelled against the DSM 5, the fifth and latest edition of the manual. He has even taken partial responsibility for two epidemics he calls false—that of attention deficit and autistic disorders. Upon their approval by the American Psychiatric Association, Frances declared it “the saddest moment” in his forty-five years of practicing psychiatry, and warned that it would lead to massive over-diagnosis and harmful over-medication, which it has.
Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic, has examined the scientific literature that now extends over 50 years. He discovered that while some psychiatric medications may be effective for some people over the short term, continued use of these drugs increase the likelihood that a person will become chronically ill over the long term.
In addition, often being treated for a milder problem can end up creating a far worse issue, such as when a person who receives an antidepressant for being sad has a manic episode that leaves them unstable and reliant upon stronger medication for years. Whitaker also found that the rise in “hyperactive” children being put on Ritalin has led to adolescents with manic symptoms. As psychiatrists began prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers, a significant percentage had manic or hypo-manic reactions as a result.
It’s possible that some illnesses seem to be on the rise because we’ve given names to conditions that once went under-diagnosed, and it’s also quite possible that as a society we have redefined what it means to be mentally healthy or mentally ill.
If a woman is going through a tough divorce, and in her grief, she cannot sleep and she feels sad all the time, she may turn to a therapist. If that therapist is more concerned with diagnosing her and doesn’t know how to support her expression of grief as “normal,” she may send the woman to a psychiatrist, who will diagnose her with depression, and put her on an antidepressant and sleep medication. This will at best, take the edge off, and at worst, lull the woman into believing that there was something wrong with feeling so sad, and shut down her grieving process.
The truth is that the statistics that cite the rise in the rates of use of psychiatric medication don’t necessarily prove an increase in actual rates of depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Non-illnesses are being over-diagnosed and more serious illnesses are being left untreated.
Rising prescription rates only tell us that more people are being treated for depression, but not what those people are actually experiencing or why. This is true for bipolar disorder and other diagnoses as well. In fact, many of the symptoms of bipolar disorder are similar to the symptoms of people who have experienced emotional, sexual or physical trauma.
In the layers beneath psychiatry’s nearly 400 diagnoses are experiences of helplessness, hopelessness, feeling trapped, boredom, fear, isolation, and lack of purpose, that lead to loss of autonomy and connection.
Moderating Collective Spiritual Emergency
In his article, Would We Have Drugged Up Einstein? How Anti-authoritarianism Is Deemed A Mental Health Problem, Bruce Levine refers to the fundamental bias in mental health professionals, and says, “I have found that most psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are not only extraordinarily compliant with authorities but also unaware of the magnitude of their obedience. And it also has become clear to me that the anti-authoritarianism of their patients creates enormous anxiety for these professionals, and their anxiety fuels diagnoses and treatments.”
The truth is that people eventually do rebel when they feel helpless and hopeless enough. Some rebel through inattention, others through aggression, depression, anxiety, psychosis, and others through addiction. These rebellions are most often disorganized and self-destructive, and alienate us from those who want to care, but don’t understand.
As mental health professionals, I believe we need to challenge the authority of the so-called experts and use our hearts and intuition and offer genuine respect and care for every person who walks through our door. We must remember that we are not alone in treating the symptoms of so-called mental illness. There are pastoral counselors, spiritual teachers, body-workers, energy healers, shamans, intuitives, nutritionists, physical therapists, acupuncturists, and so many more helpers who offer their services and can make a difference. I have always had a huge network of other practitioners to whom I refer and with whom I coordinate care. In addition to talk therapy, in my practice alone, I use Brainspotting, holotropic breathwork (developed by Stan Grof),dreamwork, imagery and hypnosis, somatic work, and more recently, Biofield tuning. I recommend that clients go to 5 Rhythms Dance both to become more grounded in their bodies, and to express their emotions more freely, as well as to connect to a loving community. I often see clients there, as I dance for my own mental health as well, even though that is considered a breach of a boundary by more rigid colleagues. So far, only good things have come of it.
I have 2 ongoing women’s circles that allow women to find their voices and power, and will soon be teaching many of them how to offer their own circles. I see endless ways that gathering in community for the sake of mutually transforming and evolving our lives and feeling the joy of connection is possible. I believe this is a huge part of the medicine that is the antidote to the alienation that is contributing to so-called “mental illness” at this time in our world.
Spiritual activism is finding that place that breaks your heart where you know you have something of deep value to offer that will help many.
May I find the very sweet way in which I can make a difference to alleviate suffering on this beautiful earth.
May I open my heart to the people around me and extend my love wide and far, raising the vibration on this beautiful earth.
Author: Kathleen Elizabeth Hanagan, MSW, has been a licensed clinical social worker since 1989. She is also an ordained shamanic priestess, a certified psychodramatist, Imago Therapist, certified coach, hypnotist, brain spotting and trauma expert, and she has extensive training in the field of sexuality and dreamwork. Email: [email protected]
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What a brilliant article – thank you Kathleen for writing it, and IMHU for featuring it. It has been very thought provoking and has opened up some new perspectives on my own personal growth, and how I can better support my coaching and art therapy clients.
I have had what I would call spiritual emergence, in that it didn’t erupt as an emergency. But the “mild” depression I experienced on and off for decades – which was diagnosed as post-natal depression, and for which I was prescribed anti-depressants for 6 years – was hell. I didn’t like myself, I felt I was damaging my children through being angry and detached, and my husband felt I had lost the spark I had had when I met him.
Earlier in life I had been lucky enough to be referred to a counsellor who “can help [you] with emotional expression”, and from there went on to discover breathwork (called rebirthing at the time, in the mid-80’s). This was the most transformative experience – a true lift-off of joy, release of guilt, and a whole new way of relating to people around me, and the world. This gave me hope that I could find my way through the post-natal depression (which I had been told would “come back” right through life). Breathwork, and then later art therapy, both gave me tools to access my spirituality which hadn’t even been considered by health professionals. There seemed to be a kind of shyness around discussing spirituality – so it was re-framed as emotional expression.
As a practising art therapist and life coach, I now discuss, right up front with my clients, whether they think their “breakdown” has been a spiritual emergence/emergency. We discuss the situation(s) that led to the breakdown/breakout.
However, I am hesitant to talk about this outside the consulting room, or to recommend that people come off their medications, and therefore feel I am supporting the broken system that promotes psychiatric medication as the first step in treating people, rather than being an advocate for their agency. The line I tread is to recommend that a client checks in with her GP to help her reduce and eventually come off the medication. (And if necessary, find a GP that will support her to do this!)
This was the process I went through myself when I came off Zoloft. But in spite of the doctor’s support, I experienced physical and psychological withdrawal. It was not easy and I was glad for his help. But most of all, I relied on my certainty that I could use the tools of art therapy and breathwork to help me get my life and vitality back. I can see now that my certainty was rooted in the confidence I have in my inner knowing – and this only came about from reconnecting with myself and God/Spirit/Higher Self through years of personal development work.