I got a call earlier this week from a couple trying to get help for a beloved friend who was unable to get off the couch due to experiencing visions, flashes of color and light, sensations of energy coming out of her body, and ecstatic trance states. She also believes that the Messiah has returned, and it is she.
The couple had found me through Google as a ‘transpersonal’ therapist, or one who has had training in assessing and treating what is called “spiritual emergency.” For although their friend has a history of severe mental illness, many of her symptoms are the same or similar as those of spiritual awakening.
She was also experiencing evidence of a broader spiritual understanding, of increased compassion, of expansiveness, of the knowledge that everything is made of swirling energy, and that she has an important role to play on earth. Unfortunately, since this was mixed up with her psychotic symptoms, her friends weren’t sure what to do.
They didn’t want her to be just medicated and thrown into the hospital again. Conventionally trained mental health professionals are not taught how to distinguish between mental illness and spiritual awakening, which can at times resemble a psychotic break. Since Freud, there has been a bias against spirituality in mainstream psychology, and so, many people are understandably reluctant to seek the treatment they need.
Their friend was long ago diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her mother had suffered from schizophrenia. The friend had been hospitalized for her illness in the past, got on medication, and improved significantly. Like many people, she went off the meds that were helping her so much due to the side effects, and because she believed she didn’t need them anymore. But something else of great import was happening also.
One of the things I learned in graduate school that has been a useful rule of thumb is that the mentally ill person is drowning in the sea while the mystic is treading water. They are both in the same sea, however. One of the ways we distinguish between the two states is to assess how stable the person has been able to be in their life – have they been able to care for their activities of daily living, provide shelter and food for themselves, for example.
As I said to the concerned couple on the phone, we need to first do a full assessment, then treat the mental illness and support the spiritual awakening.
It is important to find a therapist with special training in Spiritual Emergency. If you are not in the LA area, you can find one through the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) website at http://atpweb.org/Professional/ProfDir.asp
© 2014 Catherine Auman This article is an excerpt from Catherine’s book Shortcuts to Mindfulness: 100 Ways to Personal and Spiritual Growth