Different Views of Mental Health

When I wrote my column last month about the Robin William’s memorial in Keene, it never occurred to me that it would still be in place when I wrote my next column a lunar cycle later. And yet it is still there, a memorial to Robin Williams and perhaps, for some of us at least, also a way to remember and acknowledge ritually people we have known whose lives were marked indelibly by their so-called “mental illness” challenges.

What is “mental illness”? Around the world, there are very different ways of viewing behaviors that in our mainstream culture are currently termed “mental illness.” In fact, there are some cultures and peoples who consider those individuals who experience profound mental crises to have some important and unique gifts that can be used to help their community in very positive ways.

This point first came clear to me a few summers ago when I led a group of college students to Cuba to explore African diaspora spirituality. By the luck of the draw, about half the group were psychology majors. As the trip progressed, the students began to notice that many of the spiritual leaders we met with recounted how they had become spiritual priest(ess) due to having profound experience that would have been defined as psychotic crisis in our standard terminology.

One man who channeled spirits for healing purposes explained that when he was eleven he started to have fits, that his doctor called epilepsy. His mother however refused to accept this diagnosis, and took him to apprentice with an African spiritual healer who taught the young man how to use his gifts of shifting consciousness to bring in spirit and help others.
Several of the students at the end of the Cuba commented that what they most learned was a very different view of so called psychological illness and how to deal with it.

A more recent story from a different spot in the world. I have just returned from a trip to Australia. While there I was invited to an Australian aboriginal center by my friend Stephanie. She recounted to me how she first met the Aboriginal man who headed the center. When she was a teenager going through some challenging times and living homeless on the streets, she had gone to a weekend workshop during which time she felt a mental collapse and withdrew crying inconsolably to her tent. She felt herself suffocating in her own sadness.

And then this aboriginal man came up to her to ask what was wrong. She could barely reply, she was so down and out. “You need a walkabout” he told her. And he made her leave the tent and follow him into the bush. And he sat with her out there, making sure she put her feet in the water, for many hours, all the while sharing with her ancestral stories from his clan. By the end of the day, she was recovered.

Stephanie is now a very talented massage therapist who works with nature energies to help people in her community heal.

I love these stories of different views of mental wellness and healing because they offer us alternative ways to perceive of mental health crisis situations and those who experience them. Often they are people like Robin Williams and so many others who have very special and wonderful gifts to bring to our world.

Published in “Monadnock Shopper” 10/14

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