What are Extreme Experiences? Other terms for them are Spiritual Crisis or Spiritual Emergency. They can be visual or auditory, and people may feel as though they receive too much information, which becomes unmanageable or distressing. They may experience heightened awareness, or feel they are becoming clairvoyant, or can see the future. Some feel as if they are spiritually awakening, but their mind is being bombarded with inner experiences. Others simply cannot adjust to the flow of spiritual data. They may find it difficult to cope with daily life, and may feel out of touch with ordinary reality.
With the appropriate support many find the experiences profoundly transformative. However, observers or relatives may have different beliefs about extreme experiences: perhaps that a person is having a psychological breakdown or mental health problems, or is psychotic or experiencing schizophrenia. In contrast people from different cultures may suggest the experiences offer insight into reincarnation, spirit possession, or shamanic opening. Others consider such anomalous experiences may be a route to develop insight into altered states of consciousness. The same experiences are interpreted in many ways, by different professions, and this is a problem.
Complex terminology. Depending on context and a combination of criteria, some psychiatrists may identify one or more of the above mentioned human experiences as indicative of pathology, schizophrenia or psychosis. It would make a profound difference to social well being, if scholars in different disciplines collaborated to raise awareness on the similarities of the nature of human experience. The problem is however, an interesting dilemma exists in the field of mental health and ‘extreme experiences’. This is when academics of different disciplines do not collaborate or speak together about ‘anomalous’ human experience (I put anomalous in quotes, because what is anomalous to one person may be normal to another.) I list examples of this lack of communication between university departments below.
Departments of Religious Studies conduct research with people who have spontaneous religious and spiritual experiences. Transpersonal Psychology course topics may include studies of transcendence, altered states of consciousness, near death and out of body experiences. In Departments of Paranormal Psychology, students may cover research into clairvoyance, telepathy, mediumship, and precognition. In contrast, anomalous events such as Near Death, End of Life, and Out of Body experiences have attracted the attention of psychiatrists, cardiologists and psychologists. Departments of Medical Anthropology explore global cultural beliefs about mental health, worldwide shamanic practices, and spiritism (belief in spirits, spirit possession). Finally Transcultural Psychiatry covers social and cultural interpretation of conditions and symptoms, and usually reframes them within a medical context. The above disciplines all study anomalous human experiences. However, the beliefs of individual scholars in these academic disciplines influence the way extreme experiences and mental health is regarded.
Who are Specialists and Survivors? In addition to the academic disciplines mentioned above, there are those specialists who deliberately seek out anomalous experiences or are practitioners in shifting consciousness, and achieving altered states of awareness. This may include clairvoyants and psychics, mediums who claim to speak with the deceased, and shamans who claim to actively engage with spirits. There has been a long tradition of silence among practitioners about their visionary and auditory experiences (as there was an ancient fear their experiences were suggestive of mental ill health). Today urban neo-shamans tend to speak openly about this or that visionary experience.
The last decade has seen a rise in ‘survivors’ or mental health service users, who are angry and speaking out against the psychiatric system. Survivors or Service Users may undergo one or more anomalous experience mentioned in the first paragraph. They claim their extreme experiences are events of spiritual crisis, or spiritual emergency, which result in profound personal transformation. They reject psychiatric practice and medication, and are joined by some critical psychiatrists, and others who regard extreme experiences and breakdown as a way of spiritually breaking through to healing.
Why am I interested? My background lies within Medical Anthropology. I have done fieldwork in Sudan and in India, and also in London UK incorporating mental health promotion with Black and Asian minority ethnic groups. The most recent fieldwork in India explored religious, spiritual and biomedical approaches to mental well being, which was published as the book “Spiritual Psychiatries”. In India, psychiatrists and physicians I met assumed mental distress was an event, triggered by external phenomena. Their explanatory models for mental distress often included esoteric or anomalous phenomena. They assumed recovery, and this influenced their treatment strategies. The last part of the book explored whether Indian principles were transferable to western populations. It opened a fresh dialogue on global mental wellbeing.
Wider Discussions. In addition to that book, I have for many years attempted to broaden the discussion about different theories of illness causation in hospitals, medical schools, and universities. To this end, I developed a Spiritual and Cultural Competencies Training Pack to reframe understanding with staff. I offered seminars to medical and health care staff on existential beliefs about being human, and on the nature of reality. In the UK, in the hospitals and medical schools where I taught, front line staff participants were invariably from many different ethnic groups, and during discussions they corroborated my presentation material. They were familiar with different ways of considering existential reality and cultural frameworks of understanding. Peer participatory learning was an effective strategy for changing attitudes.
However, a problem seemed to lie, not with front line medical and health care staff themselves, but more profoundly with the education system as a whole. Although change is the only constant in life, some academic scholars and researchers tend to rigidly maintain the educational classification systems they are familiar with. They adhere to specialist categories. New students are repeatedly being trained in old ways of thinking about anomalous phenomena. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of those who suffer from extreme experiences, breakdown, or spiritual emergency. It means there is no consistency about the way such experiences are addressed.
Narrow Thinking. I have concerns. Over time, I opened conversations with colleagues in different academic disciplines about mental health or spiritual crisis. Of those I spoke to, I was disappointed to find several colleagues thought their discipline covered experiential human phenomena that had nothing to do with mental health. There was absolutely denial. Not by everyone, but it seemed by popular consent. It was difficult to progress the argument about spiritual emergence, when professionals in the allied disciplines mentioned above insisted the phenomena they researched, were categorically different from the phenomena experienced during mental distress or extreme crisis.
It is such a small step, to see the connection, and raise awareness of experiences that are being interpreted differently, in different disciplines, in different countries. It is such a small step to explore common ground, to normalise experiences. It can only benefit the global dialogue about mental health, the more people learn about other states of consciousness, and the chosen experiences of different specialist practitioners.
Creating Bridges. Is there anyone out there creating bridges between the academic disciplines of Religious Studies, Psychiatry, Transpersonal Psychology, Paranormal Psychology, and Medical Anthropology, using research to compare and contrast the lived phenomena of human experience? I feel it is difficult to progress social and individual healing until these academic boxes are opened simultaneously for discussion. I am aware some academics are sensitive and respond to modern day issues. Although one or two universities explore this, I would like to see more enhanced open dialogue inclusive of multiple disciplines: scholars sitting together around the table, to support profound educational change, for the benefit of those who have extreme experiences.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.