“If the spirit is not acknowledged as existing and real, psychiatrists will only pay attention to effect. They will be impeded from divining the root causes and will never cure effectively… New theories—with solid experimental foundation—point at illuminating and unveiling the spirit. But, we need courage, not only to acknowledge these theories, but also to examine them.”1
– J.L. Azevedo, MD.
There are 50 Spiritist psychiatric hospitals in Brazil, offering inpatient and outpatient services that utilize an integrative approach to recovery, stressing the spiritual alongside physical and emotional therapies. Few people outside Brazil know of them. This article describes their philosophy, successes, as well as the treatments they use—and how they are a valuable resource for sensitives, creatives, and visionaries. In the near future one of these hospitals is planning on opening an English-speaking ward. They take a very cautious approach to medications and never use ECT. I will post updates on the MIA website as I know more of the details.
* * *
From 2001 until 2012 I spent six months of each year in Brazil learning about Spiritist healing protocols by participating in the activities of a Spiritist Center in Abadiania, a village near Brasilia, as well as visiting other Spiritist Centers and Spiritist Psychiatric Hospitals as the guest of their professional staff in many major cities of Brazil. I was awed and fascinated by the phenomena I witnessed. I saw many people healing from serious physical and mental issues without the use of conventional medicine’s typical tools– physical surgery and drugs—and without the use of mind-altering substances (which can be risky). I saw a dramatic display of the positive potentials of healing through meditation, prayer, herbal remedies, peer support, study, and receiving personal healing from highly trained spiritual healers. I saw a way for gifted sensitives and creatives to find balance and harmony in his world. I wondered, “Is this a missing piece in our own healthcare system—one that could facilitate wellbeing to many while avoiding the side-effects of surgery and drugs?”
Philanthropic donations supported both my travel and documenting what I learned in four books and two films. I also worked in Brazil: I was a guide to 60+ groups of individuals who wanted to be healed of physical or mental issues by a famous Brazilian healer. The groups spent two weeks with me, and received individual healing and learning about the healing practices of Spiritism. I acted as translator, patient advocate, and teacher. I tried to build bridges between Western medicine to the unique Spiritist way of healing so participants would be more comfortable and receptive to the treatments they received.
In the last few years I have also taken five groups of health providers to visit Spiritist psychiatric hospitals and learn from the psychiatrists who collaborate with spiritual healers to diagnose and treat patients. I am a psychologist by training; and I relish introducing colleagues to the extraordinary resources I have experienced firsthand in hopes of creating teamwork. I think it’s time to export some Spiritist wisdom and practical knowledge to help our ailing mental healthcare system in the U.S.
Spiritism in a Nutshell
Spiritism is a branch of Spiritualism. The word was created by Allan Kardec, a French academic who lived in the mid-19 century. It refers to a philosophy that includes how the world of spirits is in meaningful communication with the world of human beings. Most importantly, it stands for a lively and well-organized path of supporting personal and spiritual evolution. Early Spiritualists were simply fascinated with the phenomena of séances and spirit communication and weren’t invested in personal evolution; Spiritism formalized a more serious path of life.
The numbers of people attending Spiritist activities in Brazil is growing rapidly right now. It’s estimated that 20-40 million people use the services of Spiritist Centers in Brazil. The activities include training to become healers, as well as classroom study, spiritual healing (similar to Reiki), peer counseling, diagnosis by medical intuitives, and an unusual treatment that is similar to exorcism. All of these benefits are given for free in the Spiritist Centers and all people of all ages, cultural and religious backgrounds are welcomed. The centers offer what we would call free complementary healthcare. Even the hospitals are in a position to offer free services to the poor for a period of almost a month.
Results of Spiritist Healing
Even though contemporary research studies are few, unusual successes in healing at the Spiritist centers and hospitals are reported through stories and some academic studies. In April, 2004, the President of the Federation for Spiritism in San Paulo (FEESP), Avildo Fioravanti, told me in an interview that FEESP has more than a 90% success rate in helping addicts and the suicidally-depressed to recover normal functioning, without dependence on drug therapy. Social psychologist Canhadas reported in 2001 that 70% experience great improvement and a definite cure of their problems, including all manner of physical and mental illnesses, at Grupo Noel, a Spiritist center in Sao Paulo, Brazil.2 Ivan Herve, MD, a psychiatrist, completed a 20-year study in another Spiritist Center in Porto Alegre. He reported extraordinary success helping those with profound mental health issues to recover.3 His study aligns with initial results of 30+% cure rate documented in the 1930s by Dr Ferreira4 in the first Spiritist psychiatric hospital in Uberaba, Brazil.5
My Personal Interest: Sensitives, Creatives, and Visionaries
What brought me to invest so much time in Spiritism? I was born with some natural abilities as a ‘clairsentient.’ AKA a “sensitive.’ This means I have unusual sensitivities which allow me to sense others’ emotions without hearing them described to me or seeing any physically obvious signs of them—even at a distance (remotely). I also have some clairvoyant abilities as well as creative/ intuitive gifts. No, I’m not a “channel” for spirits—letting myself be possessed by a spirit guide who then uses my vocal chords or arms and legs for its purposes; but I do feel quite succinct inspiration from ‘another source’ that is not obviously originating with my academic conditioning or ego.
“Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies, and orchestration. Measure by measure the finished product is revealed to me when I am in those rare inspired moods.”
Consider that many of our most creative talents spoke about being inspired by a source outside themselves. I’m not claiming to be a member of this crowd; but just want to provide perspective, as many who are diagnosed with serious mental disturbances also can be highly sensitive and demonstrate profound creative and visionary abilities that are not always respected. Physicist Niels Bohr; poet Robert Louis Stevenson; the inventor Nicholas Tesla; the poet Goethe; composers Brahms, Puccini and Tchaikovsky all spoke of a higher creativity in which they would let something flow through and inspire them that was not their own.6
Similar to other sensitives, the gifts I was born with got me into trouble sometimes. My family didn’t want me to see or feel the truth underlying their personal secrets; my perceptual abilities made them uncomfortable. I was silenced by cold shoulders, shaming or teasing. Given the lack of safety to share my insights, I retreated into nature or spent time with dogs, horses, frogs, birds and creepy crawlies. They accepted me as I was. But, the ability to empathize and feel others’ emotions also made me feel very confused as these were sometimes stronger than my own and I couldn’t immediately tell if I was feeling my feelings or someone else’s feelings. As a young person, I had big boundary issues and big issues regarding my own identity, too; I had lots of sorting out to do.
I needed to find places to learn more about being a gifted ‘empath,’ aka a ‘sensitive,’ but I didn’t even have the language to help me find resources for guidance. What helped me the most was body-oriented psychotherapy. It brought me into my body and forced me to identify with my own emotions. I also sought training with very reputable psychics, like Anne Armstrong who taught at Esalen Institute, as well as First American shamans from the Lakota and Yurok tribes—who I worked with closely for 15 years. Add to that a course I took and later taught, called The Avatar Course™—which is very helpful in nurturing intuition and empathy while simultaneously strengthening identity and boundaries. Fifty years of meditation have also been beneficial.
Without such fine support from others and my own self-directed efforts in meditation, I likely would have been looking for meds to diminish my sensitivities and numb the pain of my childhood, the pervasive sense of loneliness, and the two near-death experiences that left me out on a limb before age 10. I feel sad knowing that the support I received is not readily accessible to others who have some or all of the same issues I struggled with.
Spiritism can provide an important resource for ‘sensitives’ to learn how to harness their gifts to be healers to help themselves and others. Sensitives, like myself, who don’t get this kind of qualified supervision and training and general support often are inclined to think they are crazy and repress their abilities in order to “fit’ into the culture. The repression can lead to depression, anxiety, mania and even psychosis. Spiritists label this “repressed mediumicity” and provide ways to integrate one’s gifts safely. Spiritist centers also provide a venue for healing deep emotional wounds, staying balanced, and, as mentioned, continuing to evolve spiritually. My life has been blessed by my experiences with these centers. I wish I had had access to them at age 16 when I was a troubled teen.
Spiritism and Spiritist Treatments
There are more than 12,000 Spiritist Centers within Brazil and 160 Spiritist community centers in 34 countries outside of Brazil (including 70 in the USA). However, while fifty psychiatric hospitals are in Brazil, none exist outside the country.
Patients in Spiritist Psychiatric Hospitals in Brazil can elect to have Spiritist treatments in addition to conventional psychiatric care. Psychiatric medication may be used (but not relied on as much as it is in the USA and Europe). Psychotherapy and addiction counseling, various therapies (art, music, and occupational) and outdoor sports or gardening are also available. A few of the key practices used for all patients who elect to have Spiritist treatments are laying-on of hands, blessed water, prayer, and peer support.
Patients with severe problems who are not responding to these treatments can also have sessions with a medical intuitive (a person who can see into the subtle and physical body and can articulate problems through a 6th sense), AKA a highly developed clairsentient. These patients may also become the focus of a group of well-trained and gifted healers who practice “disobsession.” There is no English translation for this word. It involves seeing if a person has a spirit attached to them that is generating negative thought forms that the patient believes are his/or her own. Such thoughts might include “Kill yourself” or “kill so and so” or “you are a terrible person.” The intuitives can perceive the spirit and the psychological relationship that brought the spirit to be connected to the patient. They can also assist the patient to be freed of this negative attachment and the obsessive thoughts that accompanied it.
Each of the Spiritist practitioners donates his/her time at no charge. This can amount to a few hours to more than 40 hours per week—depending on how much each practitioner wants to donate time. They believe that donating their time and attention to help others also benefits their own spiritual evolution as it enhances their communion with our divine source.
Laying-on of Hands — (“Passe” in Portuguese)
The Spiritist trained healers enter into a ward of patients at the psychiatric hospital at an arranged time, generally twice a week. Those patients who choose to participate sit in rows on chairs, or in a circle. The healers know the healing protocol and have been taught to interact with patients who might be highly sensitized or in altered states of consciousness. The practitioners are asked to have next to no verbal communication or physical contact with patients within the treatment or outside of treatment. Their interaction is focused simply on the healing work and saying an uplifting prayer before the healing begins and after it is concluded within the whole group. Blessed water is made available to patients to drink as part of their healing between sessions.
The actual energy work typically involves circumscribed gestures where the healer passes his or her hands 3 to 6 inches above the body of the patient starting above the head and passing down the body to below the knees. Treatments last only a few minutes per person, during which time each patient remains seated, eyes closed, if possible. One at a time, the practitioners of the healing work stand in back or in front of each patient, giving each recipient about 3-5 minutes of concentrated attention.
Each healer will be focusing on transmitting Divine energy (e.g., the Holy Spirit, or Christ’s Love) to the patient. To begin, the healer becomes focused, which usually involves shifting to an inspired state of consciousness whereby the healer perceives himself as a channel through which God’s healing energy can flow to the patient. The healing then takes place through a continuum of transmission of energy: from the Divine source to the spirit of the incarnate healer, and from the healer to the subtle and physical body of the patient. On site nurses say that patients find peace with the treatments and the calming influence frequently lasts for days.
Are We Ready for This?
About five years ago I went to the largest psychiatric hospital in my state of Vermont, The Retreat, in Brattleboro, to offer my services for free and spoke to two administrators in leadership. I wanted to bring the Spiritist style of “laying on of hands” to the patients who were suffering on the locked “addictions ward.” I had collected a team of trained healthcare providers and ministers who would come with me to offer the kind of treatment we had seen given in the Spiritist Psychiatric Hospital in Porto Alegre, Brazil. We promised to do the healing work in a group for patients who wanted it, under the watchful gaze of the hospital nurses. We promised not to have physical contact with the patients or engage them in conversation or exchange contact information. The hospital turned my offer down. They didn’t want what we were offering. No explanation was given other than “it’s too unusual.”
Is this an indication of how far our conventional care systems are from bridging to a more integrative approach to mental health care? Despite positive research findings regarding the positive impact of prayer, meditation and laying on of hands, it appears as if there are still very few ways of bringing spiritual practices into psychiatric care in our institutions. Hopefully, we can build better bridges and construct a practical application of spirituality in mental health care in the future. I encourage this kind of change as I’ve seen how much it can help people who are suffering from mental imbalances in Brazil.
* * * * *
1. Azevedo, JL. MD. (1997) Spirit and Matter: New Horizons for Medicine. Tempe, AZ: New Falcon. p.66)
2. Canhadas, C, (1999) Cura Espiritual, Uma Visao Integradora Corpo-Mente-Espirito. Masters Dissertation for Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paulo.
3. Herve, I. et al. (2003) Apometria: A Conexao Entre a Ciencia e O Espiritismo. Porto Alegre, Brasil: Dacasa Editora.
4. Moreira-Almeida, A & Moreira, A. (2008) “Inacio Ferreira: the institutionalization of the integration between medicine and paranormal phenomena.” A presentation at the Convention of the Parapsychoogical Association and the Society for Psychical Research.
5. Bragdon, E. (editor) (2011) Spiritism and Mental Health, London, UK: Singing Dragon.
6. Harman, W. & Reingold, H. (1984) Higher Creativity. Los Angeles:Tarcher.
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.