From the DSM to Shamanism; The Western Medical Model to Ancient Wisdoms
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) is used by clinicians and psychiatrists to diagnose mental health issues. The DSM states, “mental disorders are defined in relation to cultural, social, and familial norms and values (p.14).” Basically, a mental disorder is defined by whether or not a person can function in/ has similar values as the current society.
If you took that mentally ill person who doesn’t fit in and put them into a community of individuals who were more similar to them, then poof the mental disorder is gone.
How about someone who has hallucinations? According to the DSM, he must be Schizophrenic. Something is wrong.
From a shamanic perspective, hallucinations are understood as communications from the spiritual realm. Shamans use these spirit communications to bring wisdom and healing to the lost and sick people of their community (Mahron, 2003).
How ironic, those we label as “sick” in the west, are revered in certain shamanic traditions as people who can heal the sick. Same symptoms, different culture.
Similarly, the concept of “spiritual emergency” in the field of Transpersonal Psychology is defined as something that often looks like mental illness (psychotic breaks, bouts of extreme depression), but is actually a kind of awakening.
A spiritual emergency is an important process that ultimately leads to spiritual transcendence or mystical experiences. To treat a spiritual emergency as a mental disorder would be to stop a person from a critical and transformative experience (Battista, Chinen, and Scotton, 1996).
Cultural Impacts on Perceptions of Mental Health: Rethinking Cultural Paradigms
Let me be clear, I am not saying that I believe that hallucinations are communications from a spirit realm, or that depression is a gateway to spiritual transcendence. However, I am not saying that I don’t believe it either.
My intention is to shed light on the fact that what constitutes mental illness (or health) depends on the imagined realities of cultural context.
In 1968 homosexuality was considered a mental disorder in the DSM. That wasn’t so long ago. The DSM is constantly being reassessed and rewritten to create the criteria for “mental health” of the time.
I am less concerned with what the “truth” is, and more concerned with which perspectives improve the quality of our lives.
Which Perspectives on Mental Health Best Support Our Quality of Life?
Whatever we collectively believe to be true, is the truth.
If we, in accordance with the DSM/ western medical model collectively believe that hallucinations and deep depressions are mental disorders deserving of medication, treatment, and hospitalization then that is the truth.
If we collectively believe that they can be initiations into higher states of consciousness (and we learn how ancient wisdoms guide folks through their initiations) then that is the truth.
Which perspective leads to an improved quality of life?
With over a decade of experience working as a therapist/ coach/ healer I can confidently say that while each perspective has its benefits, it was only once I started incorporating ancient wisdoms into my practice that I saw treatment resistant clients evolve into empowered versions of themselves.
Over-valuing the western model means pathologizing people as having a “disorder.” From this perspective, there is something wrong- in contrast to what is right with everyone else.
This perspective is like throwing salt on the wound, while pretending that salt is a band aid.
When we work to fix and medicate our “disorders,” we may become more functional members of society. But functional is not the same thing as feeling fulfilled and ALIVE.
Ancient wisdoms remind us that our “sick”ness is really just a natural human process that is trying to tell us something, teach us something. If mental health professionals are trained to silence and fix the “problem”, we won’t be able to hear the lessons.
On the other hand, if we learn techniques to encounter our mental issue as our teacher, we begin the process of a self-evolution into a major up-level. Once we understand that there is nothing actually wrong with us, we can expedite the process of moving through our initiation, and embodiment of a more mature version of ourselves.
That doesn’t mean that medication and more traditional treatment should be taken out of the equation completely. Just that a balanced integration of both perspectives can do a lot more, a lot faster.
Welcome to the world of the “both and.” Mystical perspectives on mental breaks as initiation AND the western medical model can collaborate and coexist each a piece of the larger puzzle that is the answer to the question: what truly heals a person?
Liat Alon is an integrative coach best known for her eclectic approach that combines traditional therapy with more out-of-the-box methods. You can read more about Liat and her integrative approach (as well as book an online session with her) at www.wildandauthentic.com. Connect with Liat on Instagram @wildandauthentic.