What a Shaman Sees in A Mental Hospital

Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman

Update: I posted this first a few years ago now. A couple of years later the same excerpt went wildly viral on other blogs. I’m sharing it again since it’s well worth reading if you’ve missed it. Also, I actually enjoy reading the excerpt again and again because it’s so lovely and profound. I’m also now currently rereading the book Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman which I first read about 16 years ago. One of my favorite books of all times and now I am coming to understand more deeply why that is. It’s an incredible thing to read it again after all this time. I highly recommend it.

by Susan Seddon-Boulet
by Susan Seddon-Boulet

The below is an excerpt from a book. It tells a story about Malidoma Patrice Somé who is a shaman from west Africa, the Dano people from Burkina Faso. I read Malidoma’s book, Of Water and the Spirit many years ago and it remains one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve had it listed in the miscellaneous section of Beyond Meds Bookstore since I created the bookstore, so I’m so happy I get to plug it now, because it truly moved me more deeply than almost any book I’ve ever read. And now, it’s become, perhaps, not so miscellaneous as it’s clear that Malidoma Patrice Somé understands something about those who get labeled mentally ill that people from the west often cannot see.

The I found this excerpt on the blog Jayson Gaddis: Telling the truth about Masculine Journey. That blog, too, is likely a nice place to visit as it seems Jayson shared a lot about his own spiritual emergency a couple of years ago. Perhaps that is ongoing, I’ve not spent enough time there to find out, but intend to visit again.

Here is the excerpt from The Natural Medicine Guide to Schizophrenia by Stephanie Marohn

In the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer,” explains Malidoma Patrice Somé.  Thus, mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born.

What those in the West view as mental illness, the Dagara people regard as “good news from the other world.”  The person going through the crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message to the community that needs to be communicated from the spirit realm.  “Mental disorder, behavioral disorder of all kinds, signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field,” says Dr. Somé.  These disturbances result when the person does not get assistance in dealing with the presence of the energy from the spirit realm.

One of the things Dr. Somé encountered when he first came to the United States in 1980 for graduate study was how this country deals with mental illness.  When a fellow student was sent to a mental institute due to “nervous depression,” Dr. Somé went to visit him.

“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.”  What struck Dr. Somé was that the attention given to such symptoms was based on pathology, on the idea that the condition is something that needs to stop.

This was in complete opposition to the way his culture views such a situation.  As he looked around the stark ward at the patients, some in straitjackets, some zoned out on medications, others screaming, he observed 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.”

Another way to say this, which may make more sense to the Western mind, is that we in the West are not trained in how to deal or even taught to acknowledge the existence of psychic phenomena, the spiritual world.  In fact, psychic abilities are denigrated.  When energies from the spiritual world emerge in a Western psyche, that individual is completely unequipped to integrate them or even recognize what is happening.  The result can be terrifying.  Without the proper context for and assistance in dealing with the breakthrough from another level of reality, for all practical purposes, the person is insane.  Heavy dosing with anti-psychotic drugs compounds the problem and prevents the integration that could lead to soul development and growth in the individual who has received these energies.

On the mental ward, Dr Somé saw a lot of “beings” hanging around the patients, “entities” that are invisible to most people but that shamans and psychics are able to see.  “They were causing the crisis in these people,” he says.  It appeared to him that these beings were trying to get the medications and their effects out of the bodies of the people the beings were trying to merge with, and were increasing the patients’ pain in the process.

“The beings were acting almost like some kind of excavator in the energy field of people.  They were really fierce about that.  The people they were doing that to were just screaming and yelling,” he said.  He couldn’t stay in that environment and had to leave.

In the Dagara tradition, the community helps the person reconcile the energies of both worlds–”the world of the spirit that he or she is merged with, and the village and community.”  That person is able then to serve as a bridge between the worlds and help the living with information and healing they need.  Thus, the spiritual crisis ends with the birth of another healer.  “The other world’s relationship with our world is one of sponsorship,” Dr. Somé explains.  “More often than not, the knowledge and skills that arise from this kind of merger are a knowledge or a skill that is provided directly from the other world.”

“The Western culture has consistently ignored the birth of the healer,” states Dr. Somé.  “Consequently, there will be a tendency from the other world to keep trying as many people as possible in an attempt to get somebody’s attention.  They have to try harder.”  The spirits are drawn to people whose senses have not been anesthetized.  “The sensitivity is pretty much read as an invitation to come in,” he notes.The beings who were increasing the pain of the inmates on the mental hospital ward were actually attempting to merge with the inmates in order to get messages through to this world.  The people they had chosen to merge with were getting no assistance in learning how to be a bridge between the worlds and the beings’ attempts to merge were thwarted.  The result was the sustaining of the initial disorder of energy and the aborting of the birth of a healer.

Those who develop so-called mental disorders are those who are sensitive, which is viewed in Western culture as oversensitivity.  Indigenous cultures don’t see it that way and, as a result, sensitive people don’t experience themselves asoverly sensitive.  In the West, “it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them,” observes Dr. Somé.  The frenetic pace, the bombardment of the senses, and the violent energy that characterize Western culture can overwhelm sensitive people.  —  from The Natural Medicine Guide to Schizophrenia by Stephanie Marohn

When it comes to understanding the psyche it’s often helpful to use many different models. For many other posts on Beyond Meds that look at what gets labeled mental illness from a shamanistic perspective see here:


Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African ShamanMalidoma Patrice Somé’s book that I loved so much:

●  Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman

*it is potentially dangerous to come off medications without careful planning. Please be sure to be well educated before undertaking any sort of discontinuation of medications. If your MD agrees to help you do so, do not assume they know how to do it well even if they claim to have experience. They are generally not trained in discontinuation and may not know how to recognize withdrawal issues. A lot of withdrawal issues are misdiagnosed to be psychiatric problems. This is why it’s good to educate oneself and find a doctor who is willing to learn with you as your partner in care. See: Psychiatric drug withdrawal and protracted withdrawal syndrome round-up

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About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters