The Shamanic View of Mental Illness

The Shamanic View of Mental Illness
Looking Through a Different Lens

I am reprinting this from an email I received from Malidoma Some, a West African Shaman whom I’ve had the privilege to meet, drive around Boulder with, and work for. Since I am going through what I believe to be a spiritual emergence, I am reading a lot on the topic. I want to continue to educate others. That what we sometimes call depression, bi-polar, psychosis, schizophrenia, might actually be a significant transformation in consciousness and a necessary stage on the path of human development. While this is a long article it’s well worth the read for those interested in the subject. Particularly if you have suffered from a mental illness or treat those with a mental illness. You might also like to read this short post Beyond Medication, Holistic Psychiatry. And, since I get so many private emails about this post, please ask to join our private community on Facebook here.

What a Shaman Sees in a Mental Hospital

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. Dr. Somé comments:

Mental disorder, behavioral disorder of all kinds, signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field.

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.

OstracizedDr. Somé was shocked at the Western approach to ‘mental illness.’

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 with, 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.

In 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 the 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 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.

Medications compound the problemMedication only compounds the problem and prevents the integration of the spirit.

“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.

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 as overly 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.

Schizophrenia and Foreign Energy

With schizophrenia, there is a special “receptivity to a flow of images and information, which cannot be controlled,” stated Dr. Somé.

When this kind of rush occurs at a time that is not personally chosen, and particularly when it comes with images that are scary and contradictory, the person goes into a frenzy.

What is required in this situation is first to separate the person’s energy from the extraneous foreign energies, by using shamanic practice (what is known as a ‘sweep’) to clear the latter out of the individual’s aura. With the clearing of their energy field, the person no longer picks up a flood of information and so no longer has a reason to be scared and disturbed, explains Dr. Somé.

Then it is possible to help the person align with the energy of the spirit being attempting to come through from the other world, and give birth to the healer. The blockage of that emergence is what creates problems. “The energy of the healer is a high-voltage energy,” he observes.

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.

Again, the shamanic approach is to work on aligning the energies so there is no blockage, ‘fuses’ aren’t blowing, and the person can become the healer they are meant to be.

It needs to be noted at this point, however, that not all of the spirit beings that enter a person’s energetic field are there for the purposes of promoting healing. There are negative energies as well, which are undesirable presences in the aura. In those cases, the shamanic approach is to remove them from the aura, rather than work to align the discordant energies.

Blocking the birth of a healerDr. Somé believes mental illness is the blockage of a healing spirit attempting to ‘birth.’ Artwork: Adam Scott Miller.

Alex: Crazy in the USA, Healer in Africa

To test his belief that the shamanic view of mental illness holds true in the Western world as well as in Indigenous cultures, Dr. Somé took a mental patient back to Africa with him, to his village. He says:

I was prompted by my own curiosity to find out whether there’s truth in the universality that mental illness could be connected with an alignment with a being from another world.

Alex was an 18-year-old American who had suffered a psychotic break when he was 14. He had hallucinations, was suicidal, and went through cycles of dangerously severe depression. He was in a mental hospital and had been given a lot of drugs, but nothing was helping. “The parents had done everything–unsuccessfully,” says Dr. Somé. “They didn’t know what else to do.”

With their permission, Dr. Somé took their son to Africa. “After eight months there, Alex had become quite normal,” Dr. Somé reports. “He was even able to participate with healers in the business of healing; sitting with them all day long and helping them, assisting them in what they were doing with their clients… He spent about four years in my village.” Alex stayed by choice, not because he needed more healing. He felt, “much safer in the village than in America.”

To bring his energy and that of the being from the spiritual realm into alignment, Alex went through a shamanic ritual designed for that purpose, although it was slightly different from the one used with the Dagara people. “He wasn’t born in the village, so something else applied. But the result was similar, even though the ritual was not literally the same,” explains Dr. Somé. The fact that aligning the energy worked to heal Alex demonstrated to Dr. Somé that the connection between other beings and mental illness is indeed universal.

After the ritual, Alex began to share the messages that the spirit being had for this world. Unfortunately, the people he was talking to didn’t speak English (Dr. Somé was away at that point). The whole experience led, however, to Alex’s going to college to study psychology. He returned to the United States after four years because “he discovered that all the things that he needed to do had been done, and he could then move on with his life.”

The last that Dr. Somé heard was that Alex was in graduate school in psychology at Harvard. No one had thought he would ever be able to complete undergraduate studies, much less get an advanced degree.

Dr. Somé sums up what Alex’s mental illness was all about: “He was reaching out. It was an emergency call. His job and his purpose was to be a healer. He said no one was paying attention to that.”

After seeing how well the shamanic approach worked for Alex, Dr. Somé concluded that spirit beings are just as much an issue in the west as in his community in Africa.

Yet the question still remains, the answer to this problem must be found here, instead of having to go all the way overseas to seek the answer. There has to be a way in which a little bit of attention beyond the pathology of this whole experience leads to the possibility of coming up with the proper ritual to help people.

Dr. Malidoma Patrice SoméDr. Malidoma Patrice Somé.

Longing for Spiritual Connection

A common thread that Dr. Somé has noticed in ‘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.” His job then is to trace it back, to go back in time to discover what that spirit is. In most cases, the spirit is connected to nature, especially with mountains or big rivers, he says.

In the case of mountains, as an example to explain the phenomenon, “it’s a spirit of the mountain that is walking side by side with the person and, as a result, creating a time-space distortion that is affecting the person caught in it.”  What is needed is a merger or alignment of the two energies, “so the person and the mountain spirit become one.” Again, the shaman conducts a specific ritual to bring about this alignment.

Dr. Somé believes that he encounters this situation so often in the United States because:

Most of the fabric of this country is made up of the energy of the machine, and the result of that is the disconnection and the severing of the past. You can run from the past, but you can’t hide from it.

The ancestral spirit of the natural world comes visiting. “It’s not so much what the spirit wants as it is what the person wants,” he says. “The spirit sees in us a call for something grand, something that will make life meaningful, and so the spirit is responding to that.”

That call, which we don’t even know we are making, reflects “a strong longing for a profound connection, a connection that transcends materialism and possession of things and moves into a tangible cosmic dimension. Most of this longing is unconscious, but for spirits, conscious or unconscious doesn’t make any difference.” They respond to either.

As part of the ritual to merge the mountain and human energy, those who are receiving the ‘mountain energy’ are sent to a mountain area of their choice, where they pick up a stone that calls to them. They bring that stone back for the rest of the ritual and then keep it as a companion; some even carry it around with them. “The presence of the stone does a lot in tuning the perceptive ability of the person,” notes Dr. Somé.

They receive all kinds of information that they can make use of, so it’s like they get some tangible guidance from the other world as to how to live their life.

When it is the ‘river energy,’ those being called go to the river and, after speaking to the river spirit, find a water stone to bring back for the same kind of ritual as with the mountain spirit.

“People think something extraordinary must be done in an extraordinary situation like this,” he says. That’s not usually the case. Sometimes it is as simple as carrying a stone.

Connect with the spiritsSimply connecting with a mountain or river spirit through an artefact helps us align.

A Sacred Ritual Approach to Mental Illness

One of the gifts a shaman can bring to the Western world is to help people rediscover ritual, which is so sadly lacking. “The abandonment of ritual can be devastating. From the spiritual view, ritual is inevitable and necessary if one is to live,” Dr. Somé writes in Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community.

To say that ritual is needed in the industrialized world is an understatement. We have seen in my own people that it is probably impossible to live a sane life without it.

Dr. Somé did not feel that the rituals from his traditional village could simply be transferred to the west, so over his years of shamanic work here, he has designed rituals that meet the very different needs of this culture. Although the rituals change according to the individual or the group involved, he finds that there is a need for certain rituals in general.

One of these involves helping people discover that their distress is coming from the fact that they are “called by beings from the other world to cooperate with them in doing healing work.” Ritual allows them to move out of the distress and accept that calling.

Another ritual need relates to initiation. In Indigenous cultures all over the world, young people are initiated into adulthood when they reach a certain age. The lack of such initiation in the west is part of the crisis that people are in here, says Dr. Somé. He urges communities to bring together “the creative juices of people who have had this kind of experience, in an attempt to come up with some kind of an alternative ritual that would at least begin to put a dent in this kind of crisis.”

Another ritual that repeatedly speaks to the needs of those coming to him for help 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,” he explains.

If these are approached as things that are blocking the human imagination, the person’s life purpose, and even the person’s view of life as something that can improve, then it makes sense to begin thinking in terms of how to turn that blockage into a roadway that can lead to something more creative and more fulfilling.

The example of issues with ancestors touches on rituals designed by Dr. Somé that address a serious dysfunction in Western society and in the process ‘trigger enlightenment’ in participants. These are ancestral rituals, and the dysfunction they are aimed at is the mass turning-of-the-back on ancestors. Some of the spirits trying to come through, as described earlier, 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.”

“Unless the relationship between the living and the dead is in balance, chaos ensues,” Dr. Somé says.

The Dagara believe that, if such an imbalance exists, it is the duty of the living to heal their ancestors. If these ancestors are not healed, their sick energy will haunt the souls and psyches of those who are responsible for helping them.

The rituals focus on healing the relationship with our ancestors, both specific issues of an individual ancestor and the larger cultural issues contained in our past. Dr. Somé has seen extraordinary healing occur at these rituals.

Taking a sacred ritual approach to mental illness, rather than regarding the person as a pathological case, gives the person affected–and indeed the community at large–the opportunity to begin looking at it from that vantage point too, which leads to “a whole plethora of opportunities and ritual initiative that can be very, very beneficial to everyone present,” states Dr. Somé.

This is an excerpt from Stephanie Marohn‘s book The Natural Medicine Guide to Schizophrenia, (also featuring Malidoma Patrice Somé).

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Patricia Brack
1 month ago

A friend sent me this article and I am so glad to see research into this topic. I began my studies in psychology, then to art and ended up working as a psychic for about the last 15 years. I often see clients diagnosed with many disorders but are also highly psychic. Some clients I would refer to a shaman friend. You may also want to look at a youtube video by Caroline Myss on the increase in narcissim and the soul. We are seeing an increase in both empaths and narcissism as peoples consciousness is expanding

Shamanic Healing for Mental Health: A Spiritual Approach to Overcome Psychological Challenges
7 months ago

[…] The Shamanic View of Mental Illness […]

The NowTraveller
1 year ago

I do believe that ritual and ceremony are a vital component to the psycho somatic process and can have powerful and transformative effects on a person,however,we cannot throw out the progress and mental evolution and our understanding of what mental illness is and how the brain functions in a physiological way. The mind can be manipulated Into believing just about anything but that is not necessarily a path to healing a mind and body and spirit. This is the time we live in now and superstition and dogma can be a dangerous tool that could harm an individual suffering from a chemical imbalance in the brain. To suggest that these people are “Healers trying to be born” is nonsensical and magical thinking. Remember that this is the world we live in today,it’s not the past or some “spirit of an age” that we desperately need to turn back to,we cannot go back,we can only go forward. Plus these tribal societies that still exist today do not exist directly in the urban world that we have created for ourselves,yet we do see a benefit of bringing a little bit of old world ritual and ceremony into a high paced superficial urban realm, but we must be balanced and not try to replace one for the other. So all you would be urban neo shamans out there,you really want to help? Then you get familiar with how the brain and body works and you use that to practically apply all that ancient knowledge and “magic” you wield today. Otherwise you are just being performative and putting on an act,and like heroin and other strong narcotics,they have a powerful effect,but are short lived and cause way more harm than good.

Last edited 1 year ago by The NowTraveller
Joseph Fylipek
1 year ago

I’ve always known that many people that are blurting out what most perceive as psychobabble are oracles of the greatest consciousness. It’s something like looking into the face of Pan. It is quite frightening for almost everyone to see reality in an unaccustomed or unconventional way. And it can cause a hysterical confusion for the to whom it was revealed. I love those folks the most. Them and children. Same thing applies.

Djibo Sow
1 year ago

How can I get this kind of healing for someone I love.
I’m respecte, any recommendations are welcome.
Thank you so much in advance.

1 year ago

Hello and Thank you to the author, Jason Gaddis, for this article and profound thanks to Malidoma Some for sharing her / his profound understanding of mental ”illness”. This article came into my awareness today. Last night I did a ”ritual” to connect to my maternal great grandmother, Emily, to offer help & healing to her. As well, I asked that she be in connection with me. And I also asked her to help me to know how to offer better healing ”rituals” for her. Pretty amazing that this article was ”found” today.
A question which  has come to mind is this…if one goes back in time to when an ancestor was confined to a mental institution and does a ritual to bring in Light and Healing Energy; will at least some of the other ‘inmates’ of that time also be helped / healed? And /or might the energy of the asylum be soothed / lightened ?  I wonder about this and ask this question of those who will read this comment …for several reasons.
I already know some about my great grandmother Emily’s terrible & sad story. I found her about 15 years ago while doing family genealogy / history. We thought Mom was an orphan. Searching for Mom’s ancestors; I found Emily listed on a Census of a State Mental Hospital for the Insane. I “knew” right away that she wasn’t insane and every time I’d re-visit her information I’d begin to weep uncontrollably. Eventually I was able to get her medical records, what little there are- only 8 pages. She was locked up and drugged for 25 years until she eventually died in 1912. Thinking about what she must have endured still makes me very sad. Emily’s family story is complicated but as I did the research I learned facts that are the reason I “knew” she was not insane, instead my sense of what happened is that she knew of some damaging behavior (s) / abuse that my great grandfather was perpetrating on their children (or some of the children). I do not know if this is true….yet. It’s just my sense. But when I read Emily’s medical records from the Asylum I found out that her husband, my great grandfather committed suicide just a few days after one of their young daughters died after “accidentally” falling into a well. These two deaths happened and soon after this my great grandmother became (as was written in her medical records) changed, more agitated. After her parents cared for her (and the 3 children ?) for about 6-7 months they asked for help because Emily had become “ugly, violent and at times threatened to assault her parents”. County doctors diagnosed her as insane & sent Emily to the State Lunatic Asylum for treatment. My sense of what “really” happened is that Emily tried to tell her parents / family / friends of the abuse that was going on in her own little family perpetrated by her husband (my great grandfather !) and no one would believe her. I sense that she became very very angry and frustrated that no one would listen to / believe her and then her baby girl, Nettie died. I wonder what really happened. And 6 days later her husband committed suicide. No mention in records of why he might have killed himself at age 51.
This affected our family (condensed here) – my grandmother was institutionalized in the same Asylum for 2 1/2 years after the accidental death of one of her children (not caused by abuse). When this happened, my mom was sent away to live in another state where her one older brother resided. She became an alcoholic and never told us about her parents. She neglected us (or at least me) emotionally. She just ‘’wasn’t there’’.  I have been fearful of being ”locked up” for as long as I can remember. I have anxiety & depression. I’m too sensitive – have MCS and am deeply interested in alternative healing. I’m in my late 70’s now.
This past year I consulted both an astrologer and a therapist who does readings of the Akashic Records. Both of them picked up on this maternal ancestral lineage ”problem”. Both immediately said that my two female ancestors were not crazy and should never have been institutionalized. Both said that these two ancestral women were healers, mystics and had much they could have added to their communities, but they were ”shut up” ….meaning not allowed to speak their truth, but also literally ”shut up” in the asylum.
    I want to help my ancestors, I want to help myself too, of course. My sister and I have no children. There is no lineage from my grandmother’s 3 children. There may be lineage from my great grandmother, Emily’s other two children. So healing this for our ‘’family’’ lineage is questionable. One question I have is — might healing this or applying balm to this egregious wound — help Emily’s other sibling’s family lineage (there are quite a few) and, also, my great grandfather (who committed suicide) had a brother married to Emily’s sister. Maybe it could help there too.  I wonder ? Any suggestions ?
This brings me back to my original question — that of my hopeful intention to bring healing by going into that State Asylum for the Insane (back in time) when Emily was incarcerated. I intend to bring with me many other ancestors of mine, Archangels, & others to help bring in the Light of Love, Peace and Understanding. This is for the power of group healing and the protection for all of us also.   My question is — might this help the other inmates too ???  And I feel quite inadequate to the task, but hopeful. 
Any suggestions will be welcomed. I am encouraged that I had this important ‘discovery’ today of finding this article so quickly after doing that ‘ritual / ceremony’ last night. 
Thank you ahead of time to anyone who has suggestions or positive comments.   candi

Yolene Labossiere
2 years ago

Hi, this the second time I am reading about Dr. Some Mental Illness article. I was thinking you can remove the entities, it might take a lot of sessions by using the alchemy method. I just started using this method with family suffering with depression, yelling and screaming so far it is working. I am just starting my healing journey as an Energy Healer, family and closed friends are seeing great results. I am looking forward to experience more in removing dark energies and help others have an happy life.
It was a pleasure to discover you Dr. Some, please continue with your great works. The world needs people like.

2 years ago


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3 years ago

Perhaps have him read some of the stuff by Dr. Some? It seems likely he would need an alternative, non-pathologizing explanation that he can embrace without invalidating his reality and experience. As to him thinking he has a mental issue, perhaps you can alter your view as well. Maybe if you approach him without actually believing he “has a mental issue,” he won’t believe that you do believe that he has a “mental issue?”

Chunhong Wang
3 years ago

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In fact, these special issues are a bridge to our soul. It is this special information that allows our human planet to continue to develop. Arts Therapy, The Traditional Chinese Medicine, DaoYin method, is also full of the Technology and Method to near the reality.

3 years ago

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