A PDF file of a paper by Dr. Susan Mitchell was shared in an email group I’m part of. Below I’ve excerpted a few small pieces. You can read the whole thing here.
She begins by posing the question about spirituality and psychosis that many of the readers of this blog have thought about. I can tell you I was blatantly mocked when I was hospitalized and expressed a connection with god and the universe. I figured out I should shut up about it real quick. I’m still sad to this day that someone who understood what I was experiencing was not available. I have now met so many delightful people that had I met them at that tender age of 19 I’d never ended up on the god awful cocktail that has now poisoned my physical being. I now can talk about the things that were coming up in that first drug induced psychosis with many people, but now I know how to do it in a grounded way with people who understand the validity of such states of mind. There was nothing I thought at that time that was meaningless only my own personal mythology that needed interpretation and grounding that I might find myself.
How do we make sense of spirituality and the psychotic experience? Psychiatrists often struggle to make sense of, and to make progress with, people suffering from psychosis and to support their personal journeys towards recovery. Yet while psychosis is at the heart of psychiatry, psychiatrists have often dismissed or regarded with distrust the spirituality that is valued by many of their patients. In this paper I will explore these issues from three perspectives; the psychiatrist’s understanding of psychosis and spirituality; the role of spirituality in individual’s recovery and the implications for clinical practice – practical spirituality.
Some people view their madness as a spiritual journey. But can religious or spiritual experiences be distinguished from psychotic ones? A number of studies have found it impossible to differentiate between mystical experiences and psychosis solely on the basis of phenomenological description (Greenberg et al. 1992, Jackson & Fulford 1997, Saver & Rabin 1997). Peters (2001) concludes that the overall findings of these and other studies support the idea of a continuum from normality to psychosis and the need to consider the multidimensionality of delusional beliefs. In general little difference is found between the beliefs and experiences of the psychotic and the spiritual in form or content but it is the way in which the experiences are evaluated that distinguishes them. What seems to be important is the way in which the psychotic phenomena are embedded in the values and beliefs of the person: ‘It is not what you believe but how you believe it’. Distress and unwanted preoccupations characterise psychosis, whereas spiritual experiences may be sought after and are more often associated with positive life changes (Greenberg 1992, Lukoff 1985). The kinship and difference between mystical and psychotic states is captured in essence here by Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th Century Persian Sufi (Barks, 1993).
The mystic dances in the sun,
hearing music others don’t.
‘Insanity,’ they say, those others.
If so, it’s a very gentle,
nourishing sort. (Rumi)
The paper ends with this paragraph:
When working with people suffering from psychosis, a practical, grounded, ‘recovery-oriented’ spirituality that incorporates humanity and compassion while accepting the integrity of personal experience is invaluable. In this short paper I hope I have touched on some of the complexities in the relationship between spirituality and psychosis and highlighted the importance of having an awareness of the spiritual both in our practice and in our understanding of psychosis. read the whole paper in PDF here