“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact…”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V

mental illness shamanism

I finally read “What a Shaman Sees in a Mental Hospital” after a few days of seeing the article fly around between my Facebook friends, being posted with equal enthusiasm by herbal medicine colleagues, artists & activists, entrepreneurs, and at least a few American friends who self-identify as shamanic practitioners. This feverish sharing is exciting in some ways; it’s certainly clear to me that my culture is aching for new frameworks within which to understand mental illness. As much enthusiasm as I feel for the shamanic archetype of the wounded healer (what else could a healer be? I don’t know any perfect people…) I hope that we can temper this enthusiasm with compassion and clear-seeing about the very real nature of the danger and suffering that mental illness entails. Yes, let’s reclaim the bright shadow, but we must not attempt to do so in a way that romanticizes or trivializes mental illness. We’re in too much trouble already. It’s a mistake that we simply can’t afford to make.


How can we characterize mental illness as an experience in which a healer is trying to be born without describing the dangerous parts of that initiation?


I’ve suffered from mental illness myself. Though any sense of affliction is long gone, I still actively nurture my emotional health as a matter of course. My family, friends, and community life have been touched by mental illness, too. To date, I’ve lost two young men to suicide and a childhood friend to domestic violence, been part of a community who witnessed a murder in which mental illness was a prominent factor,  and accompanied numerous friends & loved ones recovering (or not) from PTSD, addiction, depression, and eating disorders. Your story is probably pretty similar to mine in that way. All of us have been touched. Mental health is also a prominent part of my professional life; a majority of my clients list a mental illness among their current conditions, and most of them haven’t found complete relief despite sincere and consistent effort using the tools offered by the conventional medical system.

All of this is to say that I share the longing for a shift in perspective in the way that we engage with both mental health and mental illness as a culture. In some way, I even share Dr. Somé’s understanding that mental health crises are related to “a very ancient ancestral energy that has been placed in stasis, that finally is coming out in the person.” But how can we talk about mental illness without also talking about suicide? How can we talk about it without including other forms of violence? And how can we characterize mental illness as an experience in which a healer is trying to be born without describing the dangerous parts of that initiation? Somehow, if this is to become part of the conversation, we must mitigate the risk of romanticizing mental illness to the point of eclipsing people’s lived experience.

The Glamour of Madness

This is a cautionary tale that I can tell because at least some amount of self-deception about my suffering & the danger I was in compounded my illness. When I first started to experience depression, disordered eating, strange flights-of-fancy, and self-destructive behavior in my late teens and early twenties, it was comforting (and self-aggrandizing) for me to imagine myself as part of a grand tradition of artistic temperaments, people who were so sensitive and so creatively awake that they couldn’t bear the mundane numbness of a ‘conventional’ (read: privileged, upper middle class, suburban) life such as mine. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen hadn’t managed to wake me up to the entirely real and precarious nature of my situation. Neither had Stella Adler, William Shakespeare, or even Kay Redfield Jamison.

The culture that I was growing up in harbored a deep taproot of a story about women and madness. The women in the stories that sprang up from that root resembled me enough in terms of race, class, and culture that I could imagine myself as part of their lineage. While their suffering always figured prominently in these stories, so did their beauty, their intelligence, their depth of feeling, and the value of work they had made, at least in part, from that suffering itself. Even when this archetypal young madwoman met an early and preventable death by suicide, there was something glamorous about it.

Glamour is a Celtic word that means something like “enchantment” and “deception” put together. It is a kind of magic that turns the reality of depression, psychosis, mania, or suicide into a cultural story about the price of true creativity, the origin of great artistic work, or anything other than what it is: human suffering in one of its many forms.

Where is the medicine?

Even as Dr. Somé rightfully advocates for a more useful way to make meaning out of the experience of mental illness both for the suffering individuals and for our whole suffering culture (cultures, really), I find the article describing his work incomplete. Where is the acknowledgement of the real danger? Or the biologic and environmental components of these conditions? This may not be a flaw in Dr. Somé’s work itself, but at the very least it’s a significant flaw in the article about his work which is meant to introduce these ideas to a Western audience. Without the acknowledgement of the precarious nature of many mental illnesses, don’t we risk merely changing the garments of that glamorous conflation of mental illness with artistic talent that’s long been a feature of Western culture?

In fact, I venture that the archetype of the artist/madman is my culture’s attempt to describe the same phenomenon that Dr. Somé and Dagara people understand as a healing crisis designed to give birth to a healer.

The refusal to let fear or aversive judgement eclipse our view of the gifts and inherent worth of a person with a mental illness is a powerful, vivifying stance against stigmatization and dehumanization. Yes, we must celebrate the intelligence, sensitivity, creativity, healing abilities, love, empathy, courage, and any and all other talents that cohabitate with any given psychiatric disorder in a particular individual. I believe we can do so without drawing sweeping generalizations about whole groups of patients, romanticizing illness, or glossing over anyone’s suffering.

Meaning is a kind of medicine. By medicine, I mean something which has healing power. That healing may or may not come in the form of a cure, or remission of all symptoms, but it does have the power to relieve suffering. Just as with plants, food, and pharmaceuticals, the medicine of meaning-making needs to be applied with some amount of judiciousness.

It may not be possible to overdose on meaning, but the meaning we make of our individual and collective suffering has real consequences.

It is meaning that underlies someone’s ability to continue taking their medication, despite wishing that they didn’t need it.

It’s meaning that brings hope and helps someone to cross the valley that stretches between a suicide attempt and a satisfying life.

Meaning can bring comfort, motivate difficult actions, and sustain hope during difficult times. It can guide decision making and bring about transformation. It is an ideal complementary medicine, one that integrates seamlessly with pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, acupuncture, support groups, herbal medicine, relaxation training, and any other method that’s deemed supportive of recovery.

Meaning-making both perpetuated my illness and helped me to recover.

As long as I identified, however unconsciously, with the cultural story about artistic temperaments and madness, I continued to suffer. I’m now sure that while under the influence of that story I was afraid that to walk out of the valley of my suffering would be to lose touch with some of the most precious parts of myself including my creativity, the depth of my empathy, my sensitivity to phenomena that might be described as ‘spiritual’ or ‘psychic’, and perhaps even my soul. To the extent that meaning was able to help keep me ill, it was also able to support me on my journey to wellness.

The first dose of meaning-as-medicine came when I read Joseph Campbell’s work,  Schitzophrenia: The Inward Journey. I devoured the essay with the same vital hunger, the same depth of need that would wash over me after days and days of restricting my food intake. Confronting Campbell’s work, I not only received validation for the potential that was alive in me, but I also became incapable of denying my suffering and that way that my elaborate architecture of coping mechanisms was keeping me from becoming the most free, powerful, creative, and connected version of myself that I could be. The glamour vanished like a mist—slowly, the horizon getting brighter a little bit at a time.

Towards an American Shamanic Practice of Mental Health

Campbell’s essay doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the danger of a schizophrenic crisis is very real, regardless of the cultural lens one uses to view the incident. Even contemporary psychiatric thought is getting cozy with the idea that many of the most distressing and dangerous features of schizophrenia in particular and mental illness in general, come from the social isolation that it engenders. When your experiences are dismissed as “crazy”, it’s impossible to continue to make shared meaning with other members of the community. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from there to feeling incredibly alone (triggering greater paranoia?), having a hard time valuing oneself, and dropping out of social contact. A culture that has a framework for how to navigate a mental health crisis as a community, rather than by pathologizing the individual, is a culture that’s going to offer connectedness, shared meaning, and social support in a way that’s vital for human health—diagnosable mental illness, or not.

If a shamanic perspective is one in which our interdependence is acknowledged rather than denied, it calls for us to start to take on the idea that ALL of us have mental illness. Perhaps we can think about this in the way that addiction recovery programs might say that a whole family “has” alcoholism, even if only one of its members drinks. All of us are affected by it. It is emerging from the soil of our culture in a particular way. The radical solution, by which I mean a solution that gets at the “root” of the issue, is to create spaces and practices that can heal all of us, change our attitudes about mental health, and give laypeople a framework that allows them to interact with their own craziness and that of others with the same skill, compassion, and connectedness that we’re able to draw upon when we make meals for a family down the street undergoing cancer treatment.

If we are to truly learn from Dr. Somé’s work, we have to follow his lead in adapting the understanding that comes from shamanic cultures to our culture. He didn’t perform the same rituals for the American man who experienced healing from schizophrenia that he would have performed for someone from his own culture. What does it mean, for instance, to be connected to the spirit of the mountains when you live in West Virginia and the mountains in question have been blasted open and stripped of their vegetation, wildlife, and majesty in order to feed the beastly energy needs up and down the Atlantic coast? What kind of ritual can heal this interconnected suffering that we’re experiencing?

Making meaning goes a long way. We also need to take action on behalf of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our shared ecosystem. Let’s include acts of protest and political agency in our definition of healing ritual. Let’s include taking care of one another by listening, offering service, sharing resources, and speaking up for the value of every sentient being as part of our shamanic practice to heal mental illness.

Let’s remember that storytelling is an act of medicine, too. The stories we tell about ourselves and each other can bless or curse. And every story matters, no matter how small.