Disclaimer: This article does not attempt in any way, shape or form to diagnose or recommend treatment for any emerging mental illnesses or symptoms of mental illness, nor is the goal of this article to discredit any form of treatment. If you are experiencing severe symptoms or struggling with a mental illness, talk to your friends and family about the issue and find a doctor, hospital or treatment plan that works best for you. Never ignore your symptoms.
The world of medicine is an ever-evolving practice. While today we have relatively secure access to hospitals and a plethora of refined drugs at hand, many of these found their origins in home remedies, sometimes referred to as “folk medicine." Tradition and cultural knowledge set important precedents, while the scientific evidence arrives much, much later. Here in Acadiana, you may have heard of the existence of ‘traiteurs’: healers who utilize a combination of prayer, knowledge of herbal medicine and a ‘gift’ passed down through their bloodlines allowing them to interact with illness on a physical and metaphysical (or spiritual) level.
There is evidence of this phenomenon of emerging ‘healers’ all across the world, finding roots in the most ancient and ancestral parts of various civilizations. Names differ across the globe, but many are described as ‘shamans’: individuals who are able to connect to the physical and spiritual worlds. Honing these spiritual abilities is often a traumatic experience, and without the proper guidance and training, it may result in insanity.
Common “symptoms” of individuals who may eventually claim to have these “gifts” are strange visions and dreams, hearing voices and unusual behaviors, often defined by Western medicine as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or psychosis.
These very “symptoms” are similar to those exhibited by various religious figures throughout time. For example, Jesus is said to have fasted for 40 days in the desert, and now extreme fasting may have links to episodes of psychosis.
One man committed to aiding the emergence of these “gifts” and changing the perception of them in Western medical practices, Malidoma Patrice Somé, Ph.D., a West African shaman.
Somé first came to the United States in 1980 for graduate study, and has since gone on to earn three master’s degrees and two doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University. When a fellow student was sent to a mental institute due to “nervous depression,” Somé went to visit him. He was shocked with how ‘mental illness’ was treated. In an email to Jayson Gaddis, who compiled some of Somé’s expertise in an article titled “The Shamanic View of Mental Illness," Somé writes:
“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.”
It didn’t make sense to Somé that treatment plans were based on pathology, the idea that the symptoms of the condition need to stop, the complete opposite of how his culture views such a situation. The patients in straitjackets zoned out on medications and screaming disturbed him. Somé thought to himself:
“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.”
According to Somé, a healer has “high-voltage” energy.
“When it is blocked, it just burns up the person. It’s like a short-circuit. Fuses are blowing. This is why it can be really scary, and I understand why this culture prefers to confine these people. Here they are yelling and screaming, and they’re put into a straitjacket. That’s a sad image.”
In the tradition of the Dagara people, Somé’s native roots, treatment involves integration of these “energies” so that the healer is able to accept their gift or charge. Somé has observed that a commonality amongst patients with ‘mental disorders’ in the West is “a very ancient ancestral energy that has been placed in stasis, that finally is coming out in the person.” Ritual plays an important role in this integration.
One ritual that Somé describes entails making a bonfire, and then putting into the bonfire “items that are symbolic of issues carried inside the individuals … It might be the issues of anger and frustration against an ancestor who has left a legacy of murder and enslavement or anything, things that the descendant has to live with.”
Ancestors play an important role in the emergence of a spiritual healer; the West suffers from what Somé details as “a mass turning-of-the-back on ancestors.” Some of the spirits trying to come through may be “ancestors who want to merge with a descendant in an attempt to heal what they weren’t able to do while in their physical body.”
Somé’s approach has gone on to help numerous people. In an article published in the Washington Post by Dick Russel entitled “How a West African shaman helped my schizophrenic son in a way Western medicine couldn’t," Russel describes the journey of his son Franklin, who began exhibiting an “increase in psychotic symptoms” that were “associated with the onset of schizophrenia.” After trying numerous medications and hospitals for his son, Russell found himself reading a book by Canadian evolutionary psychiatrist Joseph Polimeni, Ph.D., called “Shamans Among Us,” which theorized that schizophrenics are a “modern manifestation of prehistoric tribal shamans.” Russell details in his article: “This spoke to me because, amid what appeared to be delusional ramblings, Frank had an uncanny ability to tune in to what I was thinking.”
After a trip to Africa to undergo various rituals and later receiving advice and assistance from Somé, Franklin went from having difficulty emerging from his room to going back to technical school for mechanical engineering, taking classes in gymnastics, boxing, skating, and participating in music and art therapy.
Russel writes: “Frank’s mother and I have kept seeking connection with our ancestors through meditative rituals, which has made a difference in our own lives as well. These experiences, rather than taking Frank further ‘out there,’ have had a grounding effect.”
Franklin still lives in a group home and takes medication, but the improvement can’t be ignored. Russell also cites studies done by the World Health Organization comparing schizophrenia outcomes in the U.S. and Europe with poorer nations like Nigeria and India, where only 16% of patients regularly take antipsychotic medications.
He writes: “In one study, nearly two-thirds of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia in developing countries had good outcomes after two years, compared to only 37 percent in wealthier nations where drugs are the standard of care.”
Scholarship regarding this phenomenon isn’t limited to Somé or Polimeni. A journal published through the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of Adam Mickiewicz University by Danuta Penkala-Gawecka called “Mentally ill or chosen by spirits? ‘Shamanic illness’ and the revival of Kazakh traditional medicine in post-Soviet Kazakhstan” describes these very same symptoms amongst people who are revered as healers there.
Like Somé describes, the article details that these symptoms of ‘shamanic illness’ represented a person “chosen by the ancestor spirits” to “act as a bridge between earth and heaven”.
The things they were feeling and hearing were “entering the liminal phase of the rite of passage.” Like the traiteurs of Acadiana, older ‘folk’ beliefs were combined with newer ones; the shamans and spiritual healers of Kazakhstan utilize prayers from the Qur’an and “supplications to Allah and saints” in their practice.
Despite what you may believe about the supernatural and the otherworldly, the evidence that there are other, older ways to help people exhibiting these symptoms has been seen throughout history. There is a growing resurgence of “folk” remedies and treatments. People, especially black people, have been wanting to return to these ancient ways to reconnect with their ancestors, history, and in turn, themselves. With Latino Americans (24%) and African American (25%) persons diagnosed with psychotic disorder in significantly higher rates as compared to White Americans (18%), maybe it’s time to reframe how we think of these mental illnesses — and perhaps even allow these emerging healers to answer the call.