Psychosis or Spiritual Emergency?

Throughout history indigenous cultures have carried the belief that individuals who hear and see things that others do not, are gifted. They believe that these individuals are experiencing a spiritual emergency and that when they complete the initiation ritual, with the assistance of the tribe’s Shaman or spiritual leader, then the individual will be able to understand and use their gifts for the good of the community.

In the Western world, we view these individuals as psychotic. We hospitalize them, we tell them that they have a brain disease that they will never be cured of, we put them on heavy doses of anti-psychotics that have multiple side effects and shorten their lifespan, and we disparage the value of the experiences they are having.

Many researches from Carl Jung to John Weir Perry to the Psychosis Research Unit in Manchester, UK, believe that these experiences are actually a spiritual emergency. So I believe the relevant question isn’t: “Is what they are experiencing real or imaginary?” or “What causes this brain disease?” It is: “What does the symbolism represented in the images and experiences have to do with the evolution of the Self?”

Research has shown a correlation between traumatic events and auditory and visual experiences. 85% of all individuals who experience altered states, state that they had early childhood trauma for which they never received treatment or never fully integrated. John Weir Perry’s research showed that in individuals who were experiencing a first acute episode who received psycho-dynamic therapy involving therapeutic attunement only 3% had a second episode versus the 73% who had a second episode after receiving traditional medical model approach of medication management and no psychotherapy. The outcomes seem to suggest that the way we currently treat psychosis is not the most effective way to prevent a relapse, and in fact suggests that by not listening to the individual’s experience and pathologizing their experience they begin to identify as “sick” and it increases the likelihood of a relapse.

Interestingly, the individuals in John Weir Perry’s study who received psycho-dynamic therapy were listened to in an authentic manner and through the therapeutic relationship were able to explore the symbolism in the images they saw, voices they heard, and beliefs they carried. Through this process, these individuals were able to restructure their sense of self. Often, they let go of aspects of the self that were no longer serving them and strengthened aspects of themselves they desired to be more like. The result was a greater sense of well-being and a spiritual awareness they had not had before the episode. So what does this mean?

I believe it means that our system for treating individuals who are experiencing altered states is outdated. I believe the experience of altered states is complex and there is still much to discover about these experiences. I believe in working with individuals having these experiences from a non-pathological approach. I believe there is meaning in the life experiences they have had, that might have led to these altered states. I believe the images, voices, and beliefs they are experiencing are symbols of aspects of themselves needing to be listened to, healed, and integrated. I believe that through this process the individual will gain a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world. I believe they can develop the coping skills to manage these experiencing by learning to understand them. I believe they will find a greater sense of peace and well-being after exploring and integrating these experiences.

If you have had altered experiences or have a child who is experiencing an altered state, and are looking to work from a non-medical model, then please schedule a free 20 minute consultation at battycappscounseling@gmail.com or by calling 503-880-7190.

I am a marriage and family therapist who is passionate about helping individuals become more their authentic self. I received my Master’s of Arts in Counseling Psychology in Marriage and Family Therapy from Pacifica Graduate Institute. In graduate school I researched the connection between early childhood trauma and psychosis. My research led to the creation of a treatment modality for trauma induced childhood psychosis utilizing Jungian Psychology, mindfulness and play therapy. If you are interested in learning more you may read it by clicking: Integrating The Unconscious Into Conscious Reality: A Jungian Approach for Treating Early Onset Psychosis.