• Kerry Stevenson

Is mental "illness" a modern-day construct?

Updated: May 18, 2018

The Funzing talk I attended on Tuesday entitled, “Mental illness as shamanic initiation”, by Jez Hughes, a British-born shaman, was incredibly thought-provoking.

This is not Jez

As Jez wandered around barefoot at the very lovely venue of The Barrel Project, he was sharing with us his own story of a long battle with mental health problems, his journey into shamanism and, more generally, how these tribes don’t actually have a concept of ‘mental illness’ in the way the West does.

What really struck me about what he was sharing was the way these tribes approached disturbances of the mind, and what this meant for the individual and the community.

Instead of seeing these disturbances as an illness or something wrong, it is seen as carrying an important message and as a potential gateway to becoming initiated as a gifted shaman, or “wounded healer”.

The affected person goes through a pretty brutal shamanic initiation to mimic their symptoms - e.g. isolation, delusion through starvation and thirst - then is trained over many years to heal others. They do this by being able to transition between the spirit world (which you could just transpose with ‘the unconscious’ if you like) and the everyday (‘conscious’) world.

May sound bonkers... but clearly, when people were able to give meaning to their disturbances, the suffering seemed to diminish. In fact, in the case of Jez, gaining meaning spelt the absolute and sudden end of his episodes. And this is not uncommon when people visit these tribes for healing.

We tend to view mental illness as something abnormal and debilitating; something to be fixed then forgotten. It often does not fit into the neat boxes of our overly-productive and, frankly, suppressed, societies, so we may end up feeling weak and sick when we are unable to function.

In these tribes, however, someone who is afflicted with the so-called ‘shamanic sickness’ is actually respected and listened to - they are seen as having something important to share that could be vital for the wellbeing of the whole community. If they are not coping, then something is wrong at large - not necessarily with them.

What if we viewed people with mental disturbance as not being ill (and that does NOT mean they aren’t suffering, of course) but rather as a sign that we should look at our society as a whole?

If 1 in 4 of us suffers from mental illness (!) then doesn’t that say more about the world in which we live than the individual? I'm not ignoring biology here, and am well aware of the chemical imbalances and genetic vulnerabilities involved. It's just that knowing this on its own hasn't been able to heal us. Treat and mask symptoms, yes, but not heal.

Is depression our naturally-inbuilt response to signal that something needs to change in the way we are in relationship with each other and this planet?

Is anxiety a confusion between what the heart wants and what the mind is telling us we should do, based perhaps on social and cultural constructs?

Should we be seeking out and embracing ways to express and release our primal feelings of sadness, anxiety, confusion, jealousy, anger, obsession... rather than trying to ignore, distract from, or numb them? We all know what can happen when someone has no outlet for these intense emotions, much like an abandoned pressure cooker.

It’s all a controversial topic, I know, and as we all knew when one woman kept standing up to challenge everything Jez was saying around mental illness... but clearly we have lost something pretty big in our modern lives: connection to and respect for nature, sense of community, ritual as a way of expression and catharsis, to name just a few. And it’s these that seem to keep everything balanced at the individual and societal level.

Whilst I may be personally too indoctrinated by science and rationality to embrace the idea of spirits, as most of these shamanic and other tribes do, I’m fully willing to open up and listen to their way of viewing the world.

Because almost everything Jez said last night struck a chord with me. And I felt that in my body, not just up in my conceptual mind. As he spoke, something completely relaxed in me, like a whole body sigh saying 'Oh that makes a lot of sense'.

Perhaps we could involve these more holistic and ancient ways to heal the more intangible nature of psychological disturbance; something Western medicine has been largely unable to thus far. The integration of ancient wisdom and new approaches seems to be the way to move forward in order to heal our societies en masse! Which is what we are seeing more and more of.

From what I've gathered, the shamanic way of healing is a process of exploration, catharsis, acceptance and belonging, (and let’s not romanticise it - is often brutal before it's liberating).

Surely, intuitively, embracing at least some elements of these practices or ways of living could offer us an antidote to the shame, isolation and self-loathing that comes with most mental disturbances?

To finish... perhaps we should ask ourselves:

  • What if we didn't label mental illness as an individual and 'bad' problem?

  • What impact would this have on the individual's experience of it?

  • How would this impact the way the community reacts to it?

  • What happens when that 'illness' is flipped and interpreted as a gift rather than a curse?

  • What happens when community celebrates their connection to the planet and other living beings, rather than individualism/separatism?

If you'd like to watch a fascinating video about shamanism, I saw this one last year and it kind of blew my mind.

If you've had a shamanic experience or would like to share your ideas on any of the above, please leave a comment or send me an email: mindovermonkey@outlook.com