Towards an Animistic View of Mental Illness

I am wary of the ready argument often made in new age circles that people diagnosed with schizophrenia would, in different communities, be shaman. It’s too simplistic. But it does point toward a truth worth exploring. But before I start, I want to clarify a few things. Whenever I try and explain my thinking on this subject, there are always a few people who fail to understand what I’m saying. This is clearly my fault for not explaining myself carefully enough, so I’m going to start by laying out my credentials and making a couple of general points.

First, I do not have a romantic or an uninformed view of those behaviours, experiences and expressions of personality that we lump together under the label mental “illness”. I have been a practicing mental health nurse (RMN) in the UK for nearly 20 years. I have worked at all levels of the service from staff nurse through to charge nurse and ward manager, in both NHS and private settings. My CV includes a long period spent working in forensic psychiatry (working with mentally “disordered” criminal offenders in regional secure units and category A prison hospital wards). I’ve worked in assertive outreach, adult acute psychiatric wards, A&E departments (psychiatric liaison), drug rehabilitation and dual diagnosis mental health/learning disability. When I first trained, the big asylums were still open (just) and I witnessed and was involved in the move to community based care.

From a personal point of view I have had several members of my immediate family diagnosed with and treated for core mental illnesses, including my father who was treated most of his adult life until he died for Bipolar Affective Disorder (Manic Depression as was) and several close living family members are currently treated for the same diagnosis.

So I hope that it is clear that I do not romanticise or trivialise the issues surrounding mental illness, nor do I intend to negate the suffering and difficulties of those whose experiences are so different as to cause them to fall under the umbrella of mental illness diagnoses.

With that said, I do not believe that the medical model is the appropriate framework for dealing with the broad range of behaviours, experiences and expressions of personality that we lump together under the label mental “illness” and that our treatment of people within the mental health (there’s a misnomer if ever there was one) system is largely driven by fear of the other, fear of that which is not understood, a fear that is exacerbated by a largely unconscious realisation that actually the dividing line between “us” and “them” is pretty much non-existent. It is, for better of for worse, really the only mainstream framework we have, but it is deeply inadequate and simplistic to understand the behaviours, perceptions and experiences of the so called mentally ill in terms of the wellness-illness continuum and in terms of brain chemistry.

So what has this to do with animism? I’m going to argue that a society, particular a twenty-first century developed society, that can incorporate an animistic worldview into it’s thinking, would allow those individuals currently diagnosed with core mental health problems (such as schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder and others) a very different experience of the world, and would allow such a society to recognise the value of their experiences in new and constructive ways.

“I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” Kurt Vonnegut

I’m NOT going to argue that all suffering would suddenly cease and that the world would be a rosy place. But it would be a very different one.

As a nurse, I understand people very much more in terms of functioning within the context of society and of their community rather than in terms of a diagnosis. This allows for a very much more flexible perspective on people, their wellness or otherwise. I don’t think you can divorce levels of functioning from societal context. There have been societies and cultures that if you dropped me in the middle of I would be ill-equipped to function, and possibly those where if you dropped someone regarded as psychotic, they could function in different ways. How might things change, for example, if as a society we valued the liminal experiences of the ‘schizophrenic’ as contributing to a meaningful understanding of the world (in some cases we do, such as art and music, but we hold short of going the whole hog) and supported them in their perceptions of the world instead of denying them and attempting to erase them, often forcefully?

As an animist, my relationship with my spirituality has frequently been positively provoked in discussions with people who function much of the time from within altered (as in altered from the norm) states of consciousness. For example, I spent an amazing night shift packing plastic bottles in a factory (before my nursing days) with a gentle young man, discussing the story of Lot in Genesis (Chapter 19) in which Lot is visited by angels (unknown to him) and insists on offering them hospitality. To this young man, these angels were messengers from God and in his realisation messengers from God came in many different forms, from the casual crossing of paths with a total stranger to the fall of a leaf as you passed a tree. And to him, all experiences were to be welcomed as being potentially such a messenger. In some respects, he was one of mine and I remember that one night, 25 years on,with much fondness. I didn’t see him again, but I did hear three months later that he had been forcibly detained for treatment in the local psychiatric ward.

On another occasion, I was privileged to share “hallucinations” with a patient while escorting him in an ambulance. The ambulance came across a road traffic accident and was obliged to stop and offer assistance, so the patient and I stood by the side of the motorway while he bent and moulded coloured “energy” with his hands and fingers. After about 5 minutes of this, I started to “see” the colours and shapes he was moulding as we both stood there and smiled at each other.

I recognise that the distress and suffering that someone with such experiences goes through as a consequence of their experience within the social context. I do not necessarily regard it as inherent in what we term the “illness”. As a nurse I chose to focus on that distress and human need rather than on some punitive label handed down by a medical priesthood on behalf of society that fears the “other than me”.

Animism recognises that consciousness is a fundamental given of existence and that everything is alive. By extension, we are capable of relating to the multiplicity of alive beings within existence on many levels. The states of consciousness, the altered perceptions, of those diagnosed with some forms of psychotic illness appear to predispose some people to relate to these alive beings in ways that normal waking (some might say sleeping) consciousness does not. And to return and talk of those experiences like my friend, the messenger from “God”.

I don’t think that so-called schizophrenia exists as a “condition”, nor any of the other core mental illnesses. I believe that individuals have experiences and beliefs, some of which are useful in enabling them to function in a given context and some of which are less so. Anything else is a value judgement imposed upon them by others. These value judgements come together ultimately in social institutions and legislation.

And it isn’t just about the negative label of illness applied to a set of experiences and behaviours, it runs far deeper than that. The notions of what are “right and proper” ways of being pervade all aspects of our society and our individual programming, to the point we can no longer see them as such, any more than we can see the air we breathe.

The ways in which we process and respond to our experiences, the ways in which we interpret them, are shaped by our experiences over time, and that cannot be separated out from the society and the culture that we live. So it’s not just about being labeled abnormal as a consequence of being dysfunctional, it’s about that dysfunctionality being trained into us over years of exposure to those norms, labels and expectations.

Imagine a society that regarded the “schizophrenic” experience as potentially containing value and meaning. A society with animistic perception as its core modality of understanding experience. I suggest that someone brought up in such a society would have a different experience of emerging psychosis than they do in this society (the western developed world). And that their expectations of the outcomes of that experience would be different. And, crucially, that as a consequence, the manifestation of their psychotic experience would be very different.

Let’s go further. Imagine a society that not only values the “schizophrenic” experience, but a society that actively sought out and trained/taught those who showed early manifestation of those other-than-normal (to mainstream western society) perceptions to manage them as something to be valued. What then I wonder?